The Downton Abbey movie isn’t ‘escapism’ – it’s Brexit propaganda

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Roisin O'Connor
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Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot, centre left, and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in a scene from the film: AP
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Talbot, centre left, and Matthew Goode as Henry Talbot in a scene from the film: AP

People didn’t watch Downton Abbey for the social commentary. While the ITV series created by Julian Fellowes had plenty of moving storylines, fans were more into the lavish costumes and stunning settings – hallmarks of classic Sunday night TV. The acting was good too – Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Hugh Bonneville as her father, Lord Grantham, and Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess were particular highlights. There was scandal, death, marriage, war, infidelity and endless cups of tea. Ultimately, though, Downton was cuddly and harmless. It didn’t try to make any grand allusions to what was taking place in the 21st century. So it was interesting to find that the Downton Abbey movie is essentially a feature-length work of Brexit propaganda, wrapped up in a pretty velvet bow.

Fellowes knows the Downton Abbey world well. He was born in Cairo, Egypt, before being raised between South Kensington and Sussex. He attended several private schools, and later read English Literature at Cambridge where he was also a member of the Footlights club. He’s a lifelong Tory, appointed by David Cameron to the House of Lords in 2011. He now lives with his wife, Emma, at a manor house in Dorset with 50 acres of land. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t know what hard work is. He struggled as an actor for years, and scored a few minor roles in LA – he was the chauffeur in Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess – but lost out on a part in Fantasy Island, which he believed would have been his big break. He has expressed concern about social mobility in the UK, criticising the education system, and his portrayals of class, racial and gender divide in the Downton Abbey series were sensitive and illuminating.

Maybe he was a fan already, but I can guess what may have inspired Fellowes to get so giddy about the royals to the point that he turned his film into a piece of monarchist idolatry. There was the on-set visit from the Duchess of Cambridge in 2015 and a tribute by Prince William, who said it was “one of Catherine’s and my favourite programmes”. Even the cast have royal links – Harry Hadden-Patten, who plays Lady Edith’s husband Bertie Pelham, is Sarah Ferguson’s godson. Jim Carter, who stars as the butler, Carson, received an OBE from the Queen this year for services to drama while his wife, Imelda Staunton, got a CBE in 2016 (she also stars in the film). Fellowes is surely angling for a knighthood by now.

While the series attracted its own accusations of fawning over the aristocracy, the movie is so saccharine that it’ll make your teeth rot. In fact, there’s so much curtsying and simpering that it’s a wonder the characters get anything done. Perhaps that explains the complete lack of a real story: subplots aside (there’s an entire story dedicated to a boiler being fixed), the main event is a royal visit by King George V (a bored-looking Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). News of the visit prompts Mary to ask Tom Branson (Allen Leech), an Irish Republican, if he’s planning on building a bomb. Meanwhile, Daisy the cook is scolded for questioning why everyone is so excited about a bunch of strangers coming to Downton.

http://players.brightcove.net/624246174001/default_default/index.html?videoId=6084720940001

Downton Abbey’ – Trailer 2

Back in the real world, for some a dodgy boiler means choosing between starving or freezing. Unless you’re the actual Queen, whose 60-year-old boiler was part of a £3.1 million utility bill in 2013. To distract from revelations such as this, the establishment has an infuriating habit of wheeling out the royal family every time morale is at an ebb. Hate crimes are at an all-time high? Let’s throw a royal wedding! The government’s going to s*** over Brexit? Who cares, Meghan’s pregnant!

And this is precisely what Downton Abbey, so beautifully timed, is also doing. When I interviewed Michelle Dockery for the film, I asked her if she felt fans would read into the (rather unsubtle) messages in the film. “There’s a message that Julian puts across, perhaps,” she said tactfully, echoing many other cast members by calling the film a form of “escapism” rather than my suggested word: “Distraction”.

Fellowes, meanwhile, couldn’t be clearer. The character Tom abandons his socialist views and bows his head to the king and queen, having saved the head of state from a would-be assassin. Later, the King thanks him for persuading his daughter, Princess Mary, to stay in a loveless marriage with an emotionally abusive man who seems to hate his own children, because that’s her royal duty. It’s sickening, but Boris Johnson must be delighted, given the battering the prime minister has taken over the past week in the now-suspended parliament.

Downton Abbey is subliminal messaging to the extreme: “Shut up and do what you’re told,” Fellowes seems to say of anyone who kicks off about the status quo. In a way, it mirrors his own comments in 2016, when he called Brexit a “great opportunity” but added that he didn’t like when public figures “tell us what to think”. But really, what else is he doing in Downton Abbey but that? For all Lady Mary’s talk of adapting for the future, she ultimately decides to stick with Downton Abbey, to value “tradition” and “heritage” and various other buzzwords that have, coincidentally, been thrown around by Brexiteers. At a press screening of Downton, I laughed at the final scene where the royals and the aristocrats are shown dancing round and round in circles. Because what else has our government been doing for the past three years?

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