misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Downton Abbey as Amos 'n Andy for lower-, to middle-middle class whites

Dear friends,

("Think of me as the dead or absent maid" in continuation):

I was tempted and fell.  I had told myself I would not watch the 2nd season until I had properly blogged about the first, but there I was, 11:30, too early for bed and unable to read, and I had it there, so watched.

I have time only to point out this season has delivered us a truly evil woman, not simply malicious, In this episode we had OBrien up to her old tricks, humiliating other people, as in the new maid, Ethel, who has a good opinion of herself -- well, how dare she? ho ho ho was the way the others treated this, getting their kicks too.

But this is but minor fun. The real horror was Mrs Bates -- she is repellent, ever so much too fat, with greasy skin, come to torture Mr Bates (that noble soul) and she succeeds. She threatens to reveal the terrible scandal of Lady Mary's having had a rich powerful man's son die in her bed perhaps in the midst of a fuck.  She just grins with pleasure as she watches this man squirm. She wants him back and on her terms. She regales herself with all she demands.  And he is to give up his job, tonight, today, now.

Oh this is America today -- the worst thing that can happen in each episode is to be sacked. I would want to see the poor woman sacked says Mrs Hughes more than once.

Mr Bates loves his job, his employers.  Mrs Bates revels over the somehow small Anna, all trussed up in her outfit. Mrs Bates's clothes are ever so loose.

There is the problem of Mr Bates's character. He knuckles under. Allows Lord Grantham (that good man) to berate him for quitting without notice and will not explain himself at all.  (Lest he sully the wife of his bosom.)  He just gives up the dream life he and Anna had planned.  It doesn't quite make sense. I think perhaps Fellowes has in mind a man who exposes how false the macho myth of maleness is, a vulnerable type who rarely makes the screen, certainly not in this guise. He would be the second drunk in a bar, not valet. But there are other improbabilities here.  But I've no time to think it out.

I've got to read a couple of essays and reread a book I have on American soap opera to understand where the character of Edith comes from too. And I suspect Lavinia will turn out to be no good either.

I don't know why someone does not stamp this species out. Women.  They used to burn them in the 17th century as witches. Downton Abbey shows us why.

I had a black friend quite a while back (40 years) who used to say he loved to watch Amos 'n Andy. He never missed an episode. (It was being re-run in the early 60s on channel 9 in NYC - mornings.) He'd regale me with Lighthouse: just think how he shuffles. And then he's laugh and laugh, this peculiar laugh. I'd cover my eyes. Well I'm begining to understand my old friend's predeliction, his fascination. Sometimes I feel I am like my black friend watching Amos 'n Andy as I sit through Downton Abbey.

From Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the Victorian Servant: Maid collecting water from pump. perhaps helped by groom. One of many laborious tasks carried out by servants of the era.

  One girl remembered her first job as a "tweeny" as "hell:"  "But I did not suffer at the hands of my emloyes, but at the hands of fellow servants. There was far more class distinction and bullying and misery below stairs than can be told in a letter."

Journalizing: The Nation weighs in: Escapist Kitsch Posing as Masterpiece Theater

From Trollope19thCStudies.  We had some talk about an anibundal guest blog on the understaffing at Downton Abbey:

Tim to me:

I don't think DA is designed to be accurate, more a confection to frame a soap opera. However, having said that, yes, some people are obsessed with it – probably the costumes, Maggie Smith in particular has some wowsers. The blogger you link to is probably right in suggesting DA is understaffed for the time period and size of the place. Somewhere in reading about the inter-war period, I came across a mention that the Astors economized at their country home by reducing the indoor staff to 30, and Whitley Court (now a spectacular ruin maintained by the National Trust) had an indoor staff of 60, including 12 in the laundry and 12 in the kitchen and bakery – and another 30 in the gardens and stables. It just boggles the mind to consider the resources required to maintain
and operate one of those structures – I can't really call it a home. As for the Crawleys, Lord Grantham might just as well get his mail addressed "Current Occupant", he simply exists to serve and preserve the House – and if he isn't available someone else will do as well to be 'in service' to the house.

I back again:

Patently the blogger did take the program seriously. We need to return to Orwell: "All art is propaganda." What is put into the public media shapes people's norms and knowledge, and jarring and obvious as Downton Abbey is (and it's not from the soap opera aesthetics but the content of the caricatures and story), it's an influence. I haven't kept up with the politics of funding of PBS; but the last time I read about it, it was mostly corporations who want to cater to faux nostalgia. I've defended these programs for presenting an alternative mood or feeling to that we suffer under in both the UK and US: a brutal determination to say there is no such thing as society (or community), we all go it alone and a number of the stories of this series actually mirror contemporary miseries:
including the fear of losing your job, the power of individuals in rich coteries.

The disappointment some of the blogs about it are feeling is that they can't take the typologies of 2012 Search for Tomorrow women; it doesn't answer to them. Characters are slut-shamed regularly on these daytime serials; the people watching DA are really looking for something better. Had I the time I'd like to watch the old Upstairs
and its presentation of WW1 (which was definitely anti-war).

One reason for the hollowness of this one is Fellowes is not up to it; and he hasn't source text to hide behind, use, nor apparently a director or producer to provide a counterweight.

The way costume drama is usually denigrated does paradoxically enable this political use. It can be dismissed. Were the surface content say a story of contemporary Syria then people would be alert to the outlook. Syriana by George Clooney was understood.

To the specific issue:

Sure they are woefully understaffed at Downton; in earlier lavish costume dramas, you will get at most a few servants (1995 P&P): it costs to hire extras. That this may be read politically can be seen by one of the few 1980s Austen films to present adequate staff and make them part of the story marginally (not as a parallel downstairs but a different universe): Alexander Barons' 1980s S&S: he was socialist labor, rather like Orwell probably in party allegiances. (Baron did a lot of the finest film adaptations of the 1980s, many Dickens ones Bob
might like to know.)

I suggest that unerringly, John Helpern is spot on:

Escapist Kitsch posing as good programming at Masterpiece theater

I am grateful to him for supplying the life story and outlook of Julian Fellowes:

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey’s creator and writer, is an odd duck obsessed with the nuances of class and social etiquette. He is the Nancy Mitford de nos jours, minus the noblesse oblige. The parvenu son of a Shell executive and former diplomat, he married Emma Kitchener, a distant relative of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum, and former lady-in-waiting, or official companion, to Princess Michael of Kent (known as “Princess Pushy”). Astonishingly, Fellowes has tried to claim that upon the death of the surviving Earl Kitchener, who was childless, the laws of succession should be changed so that his wife could inherit the title.

Fellowes once described himself as “bottom of the top.” (Not quite upper class, you see). In an effort to belong among the toffs, he even changed his surname to Kitchener-Fellowes. It’s as incredible as anything you’ll find in Downton Abbey. Yet, for many years, he was that classless thing—a jobbing actor. In desperation, he even went to Hollywood in search of work and was shortlisted to take over from Hervé Villechaize as a butler on Fantasy Island. He later played the role of the intriguingly named Lord Kilwillie on the British sitcom Monarch of the Glen and penned a novel, Snobs, about social climbers in search of a title. He also wrote bodice rippers under the pseudonym Rebecca Greville. (Hence the bodice ripping in Downton Abbey).

It wasn’t until Fellowes was in his fifties that his break came with Robert Altman’s 2001 Gosford Park (the goings on of the aristos upstairs and the plebs below stairs again). He won an Academy Award for the script, and his checkered life since then has been gilded. He recently completed a new version of the Titanic disaster (first class
and steerage again); he also wrote the successful stage version of Mary Poppins; and Downton Abbey will soon enter its third season with the unlikely entrance of m’lady MacLaine.

So Gosford Park was a sport, an anomaly shaped by the presence of Altman. On the other hand, I have to say the idea that this is posing as a masterpiece production is silly. Many masterpieces productions are poor and/or bad. Some are brilliant. A recent Didkens adaptation of Great Expectations was terrible, laughable; the 1999 Our Mutual Friend by Sandy Welch was a masterwork which conveyed Dickens filmically.

On servants, a good book: Pamela Horn, The Rise and Fall of the victorian Servant: the tone is through rose-colored glasses, but the story is told. My mother-in-law's experience is at the time of the "fall" - when those in servitude could find other and real paying jobs with independent time off where they could afford to purchase their own space

Tags: 20th century, adaptations, costume drama, downtonabbey, female archetypes, feminism, social life

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