Reel History – Downton Abbey

A look at the real world behind Downton Abbey

Reel History is a Bunkazilla podcast that discusses the relationship between media and History. We believe that the real historical background to films is an area of importance, as much of our media is being drawn from on the tales we tell of our past and using those events as brand names to draw in audiences. Accompanying it will is the Reel History blog, expanding and complementing the topics of each weekly show.


In a previous Reel History episode, (Episode 4, if you are wondering), I spent the hour trying to convince my fellow host, Hugh K. David that he should give Downton Abby a chance, more than the one season he watched. The reason for this is because Downton has its place was one of my favourite period dramas for many many years, so much so that me (and my mum) went to see the brand new film only a couple of days after it got releases, an honour I normally only put on the MCU films because I am disrupt to avoid those spoilers (I would go to the cinema a lot more… but unfortunately we need to pay bill and buy food first)

As my fellow Bunkazillan, Lizzie Barns said in her review about Downton Abby [Film], it is “warm and comforting like a nice cup of tea after being out in the rain.” and I very much agree. Watching the Downton Abby film in the cinema is sitting down for 120 minutes and getting to escape the current horror scape that is Britain during the Brexit years, and just relax in a better time, with stunning dresses, humble nobility, servents that respect and understand their place in the class structure, picture-perfect views of the countryside with some very witty dialogue.  But what was actually happening in this era of British History? And was it as cheery and simplest as the series and film make it seem?

“Tonight on Snog, Marry, Kill….”

The series (and the film) of Downton Abbey is based on the fictitious Yorkshire estate, Downton Abbey, and all that live in the house including the aristocratical Crawley family, who owns the estate and the servants who work for them. The series takes the household though many ups and downs, some close to home, but many to do with the period of British History they are living though, with the sinking of the Titanic opening the whole series, and the first season-ending with the announcement that the British Empire is at war with Germany, in a war so brutal it became known in the time as ‘the great war.’

History also interacts with the characters another way, as the gradual modernisation of the nation meant changes in the way the classes act towards each other. The era was also one of huge change, especially in genders relations with women, slowly getting to achieve more independence and as well as the vote, along with with many counties in the Empire, including Ireland their own independence from British rule. This modernisation affected both upstairs and downstairs. As the series continues, the viewer can see the staff numbers slowly depleting, with certain jobs becoming easier due to technology that was being invented and also causes some to disappear altogether.

“I just can’t wait for someone to invent the Cheeky Nandos”

The inter-war period was one of increased consumerism, with many town and city dwellers being able to enjoy mass car ownership as well as many brands that we know today like Sainburiry’s and Marks and Spencer started to really expand. The image that many of us have of the interview period is one of the rich reacting to horrors of the First World War and the deaths and injury of many of the nation’s young people was to “indulg[e] in unadulterated hedonism.” Many of the glamours of this were shown in Downton, including the music with American Jazz starting to sweep the nation, the dresses and fashion, with both Women’s skirts and hair getting shorter, and a lot of fancy alcohol being consumed, (although Downton does seem to mostly irgone the equality mass consumption of drugs in the same time). However, this glamour was only for the already wealthy, as many of those returning from serving their country in the war on both the fronts and in factories could not afford many of these luxuries.

This shows one of the biggest problems of Downton Abbey, as although the show does drive into many of the social issues of both it’s time period (including unwed mothers and  homosexuality) it does not deal with the biggest social issue of Britain, the income gap between the aristocracy that got to escape to the clean and stunning English countryside and it’s glamourous houses and the very poor who lived in dirty slums in cities.

“I can’t down scale to one mirror like some kind of French savage!”

Recovering from the War, was very hard on the country, losing markets to many of the upcoming countries in terms of competition of trade to the United States and Japan. One reason for this loss of trade was due to country returning to the gold standard, which made British products more expensive, which lead to many employers cutting both jobs and wages to keep themselves in business. This obviously hit the poor the worst, especially as in many sectors wages were already very low, including in the mines where pay was lowered and hours lengthened in order to compete with the cheaper coal coming in from Germany. (This did lead to strikes in 1926, but they were not very effective, especially as poverty forced the workers back to work)

The workers of Britain were promised a ‘Land fit for Heroes’ by the Prime Minister of the time, Lloyd George at the end of the war, instead, a huge portion of the population were going hungry, with no access to help, and then the great depression hit, making it even worst for many causing untold misery for thousands. It wasn’t until after the Second World War, and the introduction of the welfare state that some of these issues started to be addressed.

Downton Abbey was a huge success both in Britain and all around the world. Even with scenes of drama including very horrible deaths and a very graphic rape, it still pushes a very soft image of the early twentieth century, and the viewer can see the image of the ideal Britishness being pushed on them, a way that the nation should be acting, as well as      “marketing… Britain’s cultural heritage as a tourist attraction.”

Ready for a bit of the old ultraviolence

And even though knowing that this period was not as lovely for everyone in Britain as it was characters of Downton Abbey, with the poverty as well the violent side of change not depicted on the show, it is a still well-made drama that was perfect for sitting down, switching off the brain, a drinking mug of tea and watching a stunning Quip from the always wonderful Maggie Smith.

Thank you for reading

Jenna Pateman

Reel History is a brand new show now broadcasting on Bunkazilla. Check the schedule for upcoming broadcast times.

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