I write this article with the news of Margaret Thatcher’s death in the background. The timing is not lost on me, as Downton Abbey is arguably the latest example of a screen genre that flourished during the Thatcher years: heritage cinema and drama. Andrew Higson writes that ‘heritage’ was like a ‘cult’ in 1980s and 1990s Britain; a cult supported and endorsed by Thatcher’s New Right governments (1980s) and Tony Blair’s subsequent New Labour government (1990s), in which the representation of the past as popular costume films and period screen adaptations became ‘a part of corporate consumerism, presented in terms of institutionalized nostalgia’. The Thatcher government’s National Heritage Acts of 1980 and 1983, which brought about the official bodies of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and English Heritage, helped boost the production of heritage films and dramas. For film and cultural critics throughout the 1980s, the heritage screen genre became inescapably tied with the government’s aims of creating a wider heritage industry that ‘sells’ England and Britain to international audiences and potential tourists as a consumer product, as well as selling a very conservative idea of English national identity to everyone who lives in Britain. History, England and Britain as a whole were all being sanitised and idealised along conservative lines for audiences who consumed these heritage films and shows.
The bulk of these dominant heritage films and dramas are easily recognisable today. For example, throughout the 1980s and 1990s emerged a large selection of Jane Austen BBC television adaptations that focused on beautiful aristocratic and middle-class homes, examining the privileged lives of those who live within them. Then there were the equally beautiful Merchant Ivory films that showcased precisely the same things. Film critic Anne Billson once called the Merchant Ivory film Howards End (1992), which is often used as a prime example of the heritage genre, as an ‘Edwardian Theme Park’, highlighting how these films functioned within a heritage consumer industry that marketed the past to audiences as an experience or a product that can be bought and enjoyed.
The visual formula of many heritage productions is often repetitive, following an almost unspoken aesthetic code where British history and British culture are showcased through a selective focus on the privileged lives of the English aristocracy and the upper middle classes, with all their aesthetically lovely homes and ‘green and pleasant’ land. When I view heritage films, I feel like I’m looking at an aesthetic template that is continually repeated, adapted and reworked. It’s a template that relies heavily on beautiful shots of grand country homes of the aristocracy as part of its visual appeal. It also relies on the representation of English space and English place as what I’ve previously called ‘postcard images of a stereotypically ‘old’ English home’ that resemble those images tourists consume in gift shops.
When I examine how certain scenes are shot in Downton Abbey, I notice that characterisation and plot are often secondary to the aesthetic depiction of the house of Downton and its extensive grounds. The house is really the biggest star of the show. This is common among heritage films and shows, many of which use ‘slow-moving and long-distance shots’ which allow for ‘a contemplative and leisurely view of the scenery’ that ‘frames the images within a picturesque logic of background, middleground and foreground’. This picturesque logic, which developed in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century art, was one of the ways in which the aristocracy and the rising middle classes consolidated their power through the beautified representation of their land and property. So when I sit down to view Downton Abbey, I know that I’m not simply being sold entertainment, I’m also being sold a sense of place, an ideology of English national identity that presumably speaks for all of Britain, and a fascination with the past as a systematic promotion of nostalgia. Being fascinated with the past is of course not a new thing and it didn’t magically emerge in the 1980s. But from then, British cultural debate was heavily focused on the development of government and industry supported heritage that was part of the Thatcher government’s conservative politics.
It’s interesting to consider what this all means now in the current cultural climate, not simply in the UK, but also internationally, including Australia. When I watch Downton Abbey every week in my home, I do so knowing that I’m engaging with the legacies of the 1980s heritage industry. There is very little difference between the world of Downton Abbey and other British dramas made in that earlier period: an aristocratic family, a grand estate, beautiful costumes, privileged lives. Sure, the show tries to tackle some ‘hard-hitting’ themes: prostitution, homosexuality, socialism and Irish nationalism. But it’s always done in a way that ultimately focuses our sympathies with the English aristocratic family at the heart of the drama.
In last week’s episode in Australia, I watched in bemused scepticism when Branson, the working-class Irish socialist, former chauffeur and now son-in-law of the great house, made a speech to the lord of the house over breakfast about how everyone needs to contribute to the family and the grand old estate to keep them going. It’s hard to imagine actual socialists and actual Irish nationalists making such a speech in reality. But good old Branson, the former enemy of the English aristocracy, has come around: he’s now part of what he formerly fought against, through family loyalty and marriage. Family loyalty as an individual trait is admirable: as a national, historical and political one that idealises a rigidly structured class system that functions through divisive inequality, it’s not. When we the audience fall in love with these characters and with this family, we too are seduced into accepting these inequalities as sweet and charming, and herein lies the problem.
Our directed sympathies highlight how Downton Abbey fits so well within the heritage industry mould created in the 1980s under Thatcher’s government. We are compelled to admire Mary’s turn-around from annoying snob to kind lady who helps her maids. In the process, we sympathise with her classist attitudes and desire to maintain the estate of Downton Abbey against all odds. We are compelled to admire Branson, who shows such loyalty to his new family and the well-being of his daughter by willingly joining a class he previously loathed. In the process, all of Downton Abbey’s potential to actually critique the inequalities of the past is whitewashed with a nice game of cricket. And then there is Isobel Crawley, the seeming social conscience of the family, a social conscience that is constantly undermined and rendered useless by the idealisation of this aristocratic home, where an upper-class family is endlessly kind and paternalistic to its servants. Who needs equality when you have nice overlords?
As a whole, Downton Abbey exemplifies what many critics of the heritage industry and the heritage screen genre have called an ‘unthreatening’ representation of history, national identity and the past. Downton Abbey doesn’t show you what it really meant to be a servant, or a working-class prostitute, or an Irish socialist. This is also not a show that will make you question why we should actually root for a family whose very existence and home relies on a divisive class structure based on power, money and privilege.
But even more problematic is what a show like Downton Abbey says about the present. Richard Dyer once said that ‘history is a discipline of enquiry into the past; heritage is an attitude towards the legacy of the past’. What does this sanitised version of the legacy of the British past actually mean to both UK and international contemporary audiences? What does it mean, for example, for someone like me who watches each episode in my home in Australia; me, the daughter of immigrants and someone for whom British history is foreign? Here’s what Downton Abbey means to me: it’s a cultural phenomenon that shows me just how uncomfortable we still are in the Western world with multiculturalism. What is being promoted in a show like Downton Abbey is a very limited and specific representation of English and Western identity for modern audiences, who are increasingly living in multicultural communities and societies. Many of our politicians in Australia, the UK and other countries, exploit the economic uncertainties and cultural tensions of modern times by reverting back to some idealised vision of national identity that relies on exclusion, privilege and creating borders between cultures and communities. A series like Downton Abbey does essentially the same thing; but perhaps, in a more beautiful, seductive and pleasurable way.
In the last few days, I’ve heard many people claim that Thatcher’s lasting legacy is division, and we currently live in a world where division between cultures is heavily exploited and constructed on all fronts. But we have a choice what we do with this legacy of division. ‘Heritage’ is not a fixed concept; the legacies of the past are not simply conserved and repeated, they are also invented and reworked. Do we repeat the past as a consumer product within a conservative heritage industry, or do we actively seek another model? Do we subsume all critique of the past into comfortable family dramas of loyalty, or do we actually allow it to stand with all its unsettling implications? Do we idealise a divisive history, or do we actually try to come to terms with our current realities and an increasingly globalised and multicultural world? These are questions that Downton Abbey, an extremely popular and internationally loved series, brings to the forefront. So whenever another episode of Downton Abbey comes to an end, we should ask ourselves: do we confront these questions, or simply languish in the easy comfort of this latest star of the heritage industry?