Monday, February 24, 2014

Downton Abbey Unchained: What happens when a histori-drama no longer follows history?

Downton Abbey logo
Source: Wikipedia
True, it's not the dramatic historical rewriting of Quentin Tarantino, but Julian Fellowes's acclaimed television series Downton Abbey is telling a story that  blatantly ignores historical fact. Fans were shocked to discover that, at the end of Series 4, Edith's new love interest Michael Gregwas imprisoned for opposing Hitler. I was shocked myself. Poor Mr. Gregson is about 10 years too early! During the summer of 1923 (when most of the events of the end of season 4 take place), Adolf Hitler himself had recently been imprisoned for his role in a violent dispute with another political party! He was certainly in no position to imprison political rivals and indeed would not be until the early to mid 1930s.

     Fans need not worry. If Julian Fellowes is no longer bound  by historical fact, then surely Michael Gregson will be freed as soon as Napoleon crushes Germany. That means the Peasant's Revolt could cause Lady Mary a few headaches and perhaps Lady Edith will be stalked by Jack the Ripper... But I am being shamelessly flippant and this really is a serious matter because one of Downton Abbey's strong points has been its skillful blending of history and fiction. Now, Julian Fellowes is allowing his series to become what its critics labeled it, a fancy dress potboiler.

     Of course, all works of fiction take some liberties for the sake of story and no doubt this is what Downton Abbey's defenders will argue. I argue this is more serious. This is manipulation of historical facts and timelines in order to create more opportunities to exploit cliche plot lines. In discussing the plot of the series and trying to predict what would happen, my sister commented that if Michael Gregson was going to Germany the series writers would probably have him be captured by Nazis. I said they couldn't, the Nazis weren't in power. Surely the writers of Downton Abbey would know this. My sister was right. The writers could not resist it would appear.

     While the decision to create this historically inaccurate plot line was every bit as conscious as  the decisions film and television producers have made when creating films like 47 Ronin or Inglorious Basterds, these decisions were conscious efforts to either tell a story that was unique or to deliberately reverse our understanding of history and fact. In the case of Downton Abbey, historical inaccuracies are hidden beneath a veneer of care for historical detail. It is shameful, it is lazy. Certainly Julian Fellowes and the other writers and producers of Downton Abbey could have found a way to construct a similar plot line while weaving their plot into historical events that actually took place at this time. Hitler's regime in Germany was an abomination but to skim over the racism, economic depression, civil unrest, and militarization that took place in Germany during the 1920s and made Hitler's rise possible is a travesty. When Downton Abbey's writers had a chance to teach a valuable lesson in history, they decided to play "fast and loose" with the facts and give us cliches.