Stream On: Downton Abbey in the battle of the British costume dramas, part two

By on March 14, 2024

In 2010 English actor, novelist, film director, screenwriter, and Conservative peer Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, known professionally as Julian Fellowes (phew!), created Downton Abbey, detailing the drama of early twentieth-century upper- and lower-class Yorkshire life. Alas, Upstairs Downstairs, the continuation of the successful 1970’s series, was occupying a similar space on British and American TV and competing for the same audience.


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Independent Television (ITV) was launched in 1955 to provide competition and reduce the monopoly of BBC Television in Britain. It broadcast the original 1971 Upstairs, Downstairs series, but passed on the 2010 continuation, which was picked up by the BBC. ITV was about to broadcast Downton Abbey.

Co-creator of both Upstairs Downstairs series (and actress in both) Jean Marsh, told BBC1’s The One Show, “I think we were all surprised. The new Upstairs, Downstairs had been in the works for about three years. We were trying to sort out … 40 years of rights and then it also started—Downton Abbey—in the Edwardian era, which Upstairs, Downstairs did. So it might be a coincidence and I might be the queen of Belgium.”

Gareth Neame of Carnival Films conceived the idea of an Edwardian-era TV drama set in a country house and approached Julian Fellowes, who had won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Original Screenplay) for Gosford Park, a Windsor-era drama set in a country house. Downton Abbey was planned as a spin-off, but was developed as a stand-alone property inspired by the film, and set decades earlier.

Downton Abbey, which also starred A-list cinema star Dame Maggie Smith (Gosford Park), finished its first season with an audience of more than 10 million. It was one of ITV’s biggest hits of 2010 and was commissioned for a second season, which grew to six, plus films in 2019 and 2022.

Downton Abbey opens in 1912; the sinking of the RMS Titanic provides the setup: Lord Grantham’s (Robert Crawley, played by Hugh Bonneville) cousin, James Crawley, heir presumptive to the earldom, and his son Patrick have died in the disaster. (The Titanic figured in a similar arc on the original Upstairs, Downstairs, too.) Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a lawyer and a distant cousin, learns he is apparently the new Grantham heir, and new owner of Downton Abbey, as Robert and Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), who live there, never had a son. But Robert lives for the estate: “I claim no career beyond the nurture of this house and the estate. It is my third parent and my fourth child.”

Unlike Upstairs Downstairs’ 165 Eaton Place, a house in London, Downton Abbey is a veritable palace, situated on 5,000 acres, and every advantage is taken of the surroundings. (Downton Abbey was filmed at Highclare Castle in Hampshire, as was much of Jeeves and Wooster.) In general, things (and episodes) move along more slowly in the country, but everything is nice to look at. And the destination is melodrama, comparable to that of Upstairs Downstairs, always enjoyable!

Both Upstairs Downstairs and Downton Abbey illustrate what Tom Wolfe meant when he coined the word “plutography,” which he described as the pornography of plutocrats, or the rich.

I’m rewatching Upstairs, Downstairs (1971), and watching the 2010 version for the first time, and I’ve seen the entire Downton Abbey series—but not the two films. The two Upstairs Downstairs series are my favorites of the lot, but rewatching a few Downton Abbey episodes for this column has been quite entertaining. In this age of streaming all are on an equal footing, and excellent—but I only wish the 2010 Upstairs Downstairs had more than two seasons.

Sources include Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED).

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