"Downton Abbey” is the latest incarnation of PBS's “Masterpiece Theatre” anthology of so-called British “period dramas.” Like “Upstairs, Downstairs,” “The First Churchills” and many other popular and prestigious mini-series, “Downton” continues the tiresome tradition of British writers and producers feeding American audiences an endless supply of “English fairy-tale” propaganda and fantasy that the public can't seem to get enough of.
Masterpiece Theatre, one of the “crown jewels” of the PBS network, has brilliantly exploited the insatiable hunger of Anglophiles who wish to be transported into a glorious, magical world of lords, ladies, aristocrats, castles, nobles, servants, estates and gardens of the “green and pleasant land.”
Yes, “Downton Abbey” is somewhat entertaining -- but it depicts a Britain that no longer exists, or perhaps still exists in an extremely narrow (and hyperi i privileged) slice of British society.
I can understand that TV viewers – particularly Americans – have a bottomless reservoir of fascination for what they think “aristocratic” Britain was like decades ago, a lost world of genteel manners and upper-class accents that perhaps they long for.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with such yearning for a world that has long since vanished – but, PBS and other media outlets manufacture such an excessive amount of British “period” productions that I think it has created a grossly distorted perception of the nation many Americans still regard as the “Mother Country” and the very center of “Western civilization.”
And it is all a fantasy that has little relevance in the modern world – the average Briton, especially in the economically crippled 2010s, is not rich, not beautiful, not elegant, not charming, not witty, not reserved, not aristocratic – and they never have been.
Britain is a hard, rough, violent country that has always been dominated by the working-class – those hard-edged, hard-drinking men who toil at low-paid menial jobs and women who have endured a multitude of suffering and humiliation. The lives that are depicted on shows like “Downton Abbey” and others like it represent the thinnest possible uppermost layer of a highly complex society.
“Downton Abbey” no more represents an accurate vision of Britain (now or back then) then “Dallas” represented America. Escapism is understandable – but not when such extravagant fantasies become the expected “norm.”
I thought about “Downton Abbey” when I watched a movie on the Sundance Channel called “Fish Tank.” This low-budget film was released about three years ago, but barely made a ripple – on either side of the Atlantic. Nevertheless, from my perspective, “Fish Tank” is one of the most realistic, accurate and moving motion pictures about contemporary Britain (warts and all).
”Fish Tank” tells the sad tale of a teenage girl named Mia who lives in a dreary council estate (that is, housing project) in East London with her blowsy mother and precocious younger sister. Mia, who appears to be about 18 and doesn't attend school, has no father in the house, nor any friends, nor any concrete ideas about her future.
Always fighting with her family in their cramped, messy apartment, Mia seems only interested in becoming a dancer for hip-hop videos. She watches these mindless videos endlessly on TV or on YouTube, practicing her moves in accordance with what she sees on the screen. Beyond this, she seems to have no further ambition at all.
Her mother (who is apparently divorced) treats her daughter with contempt, while drinking herself to oblivion and takes up with a handsome Irish boyfriend. The boyfriend eventually seduces Mia before abandoning her family – he is later revealed to be a cheat who already has a wife and child of his own in another town.
Mia is essentially trapped in a drab existence with no real hope for escape. However, the filmmakers are careful to demonstrate that Mia and her unhappy family are not starving – they have a home, enough food (and alcohol) to sustain themselves and two televisions – all apparently provided by the state.
Mia's family cannot even be described as working class since none of the adults seem to have any jobs. Indeed, her mother, a sexy, busty, dyed blonde seems more interested in drinking and partying than raising her two daughters. She self-medicates in order to forget her bleak and hopeless life.
They are all trapped – and they know it. Mia is neither “good” nor “bad,” she is simply a young girl seeking to find her way (and, hopefully, some happiness) despite her severe limitations.
She steals money when convenient, she drinks alcohol, she even breaks into the Irishman’s house -- and she appears to have lethargically accepted the fact that she is doomed to be like her irresponsible mother. She is not even good-looking nor shapely, hence, it's doubtful she can find a rich man to marry (not that she necessarily even wants that).
In contemporary Britain, there are literally hundreds of thousands of “Mias” and this film (unlike “Downton Abbey”) portrays the lives of real people perfectly – people who are struggling in an uphill battle against the fates. The actress playing Mia is not even a real actress – she was just a young woman the casting agent happened to notice arguing with her boyfriend at the Tilbury railway station in County Essex, adding a priceless element of realism and authenticity to the film.
I have known many people like Mia and her family and I can relate to them far better than the well-dressed, museum relics found in “Downton Abbey.” British Prime Minister David Cameron and the Conservative Party have referred to a phrase called “Broken Britain” to describe what they perceive as social decay in the country, a decay that may be irreversible. Mia and her family are both victims and perpetrators of this decay.
But would the audience prefer to watch the drab life of Mia or the glorious wonders of the aristocratic past? We know the answer to that, and it’s an utter shame that a work of art like “Fish Tank” ends up in the cultural waste bin, while PBS continues to churn out endless reams of propaganda.
There have beebn many movies and TV shows about Britain's underclass -- some, like sitcoms "Till Death Us Do Part" and "Steptoe and Son" have been wildly popular in Britain, but have never been broadcast in the U.S. It is unlikely that Masterpiece Theater will ever produce an epic miniseries about people like Mia -- and that is a blatant disservice. As we have learned from American show like "The Wire" and others, the lives of poor people in the ghettoes and projects are just as rich and complex and full of dramatic possibilities (perhaps more so) than the well-heeled denizens of Downton Abbey.