I wrote a piece about Upstairs Downton and Downstairs Abbey for the Financial Times last week. It’s too long to paste in here so here is the link:
I know some people have read Downton Abbey as the usual recession era toffs’ TV but I am not so sure. When the middle-class Matthew Crawley arrives at Downton he prefers to do his own menial tasks and thus offends his new valet, Moseley, who complains of being “stood there like a chump watching a man getting dressed”. Crawley must be taught how to perform the role of master, to let someone else fasten his cufflinks. “We all have different parts to play, Matthew,” says Lord Grantham reprovingly, “and we must all be allowed to play them.” Of course, one could read this as a reassuring paternalist myth which imagines that the underlings are happy to collude in their own subjugation. But perhaps it is also about mutual entrapment: a recognition that much of the master-servant relationship is a House of Cards, a world of illusion and suspended disbelief which requires the constant vigilance of all its actors to maintain it. Julian Fellowes, who created the series, is an actor himself and much of Gosford Park was also about social life as performance: one of the valets even turns out to be a Hollywood actor, and the servants, constantly watching over their employers as they act out their comedy of manners, are well aware that the emperor has no clothes.
I also did a piece about one of my favourite books for Norman Geras’s blog, Normblog:
Mundane quote for the day: ‘The obsessive fear of the Americans is that the lights might go out. Lights are left on all night in the houses … And this is not to mention the television, with its twenty-four-hour schedules, often to be seen functioning like an hallucination in the empty rooms of houses or vacant hotel rooms … There is nothing more mysterious than a TV set left on in an empty room. It is even stranger than a man talking to himself or a woman standing dreaming at her stove. It is as if another planet is communicating with you. Suddenly the TV reveals itself for what it really is: a video of another world, ultimately addressed to no one at all, delivering its images indifferently, indifferent to its own messages (you can easily imagine it still functioning after humanity has disappeared).’ – Jean Baudrillard, America