DISTRIBUTOR: Seven Network
AIRS: Sundays, 8:30 PM
I initially resisted getting involved with Downton Abbey. It had a very good reputation overseas but, to be honest, it was the fact that it was airing on the Seven Network that made me suspicious. “Period drama on a commercial station?” I asked myself. “Sounds like a front for lots of shenanigans with buxom serving girls.” So I stayed away for a few weeks. However now is the time to offer a full and frank apology to the network, not to mention the show.
I can now see why Seven jumped on Downton Abbey. The show is set in the early years of the 20th century when the British class system is dissolving under the pressure of mounting debts and changing social attitudes. The heir of Lord Grantham, the master of Downtown Abbey, drowns on the Titanic and the Earl’s title and ancient possessions look set to fall into the hands of a third cousin who places little value on tradition. Arranged in front of this grand backdrop are a posy of turn-of-the-century plotlines that include women fighting for their right to inherit, servants squabbling over increasingly meaningless positions and capable cripples struggling to be treated fairly. The talents of British stars like Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter and a dozen others ensure that every story shines like a weekly production of Gosford Park.
However Downton Abbey’s most interesting theme by far is its presentation of servant hood. Mr Carson, the Abbey’s butler warns William the young footman,
“Remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects the pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again!”
Carson is an intimidating figure whom the majority of the servants and family revere, but our insights into his misunderstandings and the secrets of the family are supposed to undermine his conviction. In the end the audience are led to pity a man of integrity who has sold himself so short by devoting his energies to people who are often his moral inferiors. Downton Abbey presents us with an aging and unfair society that is passing away, along with its quaint notions of service. The new heir rings the death knell for his valet’s efforts with the words, “It seems like a very silly occupation for a grown man.”
However there is something for the Christian to admire in the selfless form of devotion that many ‘below stairs’ offer the Lord they have come to serve. They don’t consider themselves to be diminished by their service; rather they find satisfaction and meaning in it. In fact their submission reveals their best qualities. They, like Christians, know that even the lowliest servant can be a leader when he or she knows how to suppress their own desires for the sake of others.