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Sunset Songs

The sun never sets over the setting of the British Empire.

The dawn hours of this endless day, before the full radiance of streaming brightened the Netflix-warmed world, came in the early 1980s with the television series Brideshead Revisited and movies such as Passage to India and Gandhi. Not since the Beatles had Americans been so Brit-besotted. Those who had swooned over the Fab Four in the Swinging Sixties, went almost as weak in the knees at the sight of Jeremy Irons in and out of post-Edwardian rig.

By the 80s these erstwhile teenyboppers were feeding their Anglophilia in tv room easy chairs or movie theatre bucket seats, rather than standing and screaming in Shea Stadium. It was there in the summer of 1965 that the Beatles had played a concert before their biggest crowd yet, the band introduced to 50,000 screaming youths by Ed Sullivan: “Honored by their country, decorated by their queen, and loved here in America!” Fittingly enough the stadium was in the Borough of Queens, and Sullivan’s words ring down the decades and across the subsequent waves of invasion to The Crown and Downton Abbey, the latter recently diversifying its strategy of attack and surging onto these shores in the form of a movie.

A clairvoyant Paul Revere might have signaled thus: One if by land, two if by sea, three if by idiot box. Aside from the marquee fictional series there are the many landing crafts of reality tv—from all those talent shows carried out by the agent provocateur Simon Cowell, to the benign trials of The Great British Bake-Off, right down to Prime Minister’s Question Time. In David Cameron’s last appearance at the Despatch Box in July of 2016, a month after the Brexit referendum had ended his political career, the lame duck told an anecdote about walking down the street in New York City with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was constantly being greeted with a hearty “Hey, Mike!” The visitor remained incognito until someone finally recognized him: “David Cameron. Prime Minister’s Questions. Love your show!”

The Shea Stadium swooners of yore are now in AARP and on Medicare, and have become devoted subjects and consumers of the British nostalgia industry that has conquered the world more quickly than the British Empire did the Hottentots (white courtesy phone, Mahatma Gandhi), as Churchill liked to say, though the term doesn’t pass the lips of John Lithgow or Gary Oldman, both of whom have played old Winston in recent years on screens big (Darkest Hour) and small (The Crown).

Speaking of Hottentots, when I recently wandered into Downton Abbey, the movie, to escape a rain shower, I noticed that the predominant skin color of the audience was as white as that of the cast. The rich colors of the eponymous manor’s spreading lawns, its ancient trees, its flowering borders, the glowing oil paintings of ancestors, the sumptuous banqueting table, and the ball gowns of its ladies—for all of this, the humans watching and those being watched were as monochrome as it gets these days in multicultural Britain or North America.

Pride of the present British fleet, Downton Abbey has over the years attracted only my passing, and not always voluntary, interest. One Christmas Eve in the Tory/Brexit heartland of Kent in the UK, within spitting distance of the English Channel and the accursed Frogs on the other side, I gathered with the rest of my sister-in-law’s eager family to watch the first Downton Abbey Yuletide Special, bemused rather than surprised that this entertainment—nostalgic mush, from scurrying-servant start right down to its dinner-jacketed-ball-gowned bended-knee-nighttime-marriage-proposal-in-a-snow-flurry-in-front-of-the-great-house capper—had struck such a resonant Christmas chord with three generations of Conservative voters and voters-to-be.

As I sat there in a Danish modern sofa, glass of port in hand, I remembered that I had once admired the show’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes. Born in Cairo, Fellowes is the son of a late-colonial British diplomat , who returned to the roost of the mother country from Egypt along with the other colonial chickens. Fellowes grew up in tony South Kensington and then in a country house near where my Downton-loving in-laws live in the South of England. These environs nourished Fellowes’ fondness for the joys of the class system, but like many of his cultural orientation and aspiration, from Bertie Wooster to Evelyn Waugh, Fellowes spent a few years trying to make a go of it in the New World. In Hollywood he nearly landed the role to replace the diminutive Hervé Villechaize as butler on the tv show Fantasy Island. It was a harbinger of butlers to come: Fellowes would go on to create several of them on his own fantasy island, also known as Albion.

Given America’s fascination with the British royalty and its attending cadres, it is no surprise that the impetus for what grew into Downton Abbey came from two Americans, the film director, Robert Altman and the actor, Bob Baliban. They proposed the idea of whodunit at an English aristocratic estate to Fellowes, who wrote a deft script for the 2001 film similarly named after its house—Gosford Park. For these efforts, the American movie industry gave him an Oscar. As much as that silly award has anything to do with artistic accomplishment, Fellowes was deserving of it.

There were many things to admire, even to love, in Gosford Park, but the chief one was the music heard in the film in the person of Jeremy Northram playing (and singing) the part of Ivor Novello, the British (Welsh to be a bit more exact) singer and actor, who himself spent a short stint in Hollywood in the 1920s. When Novello takes his place at the Gosford Park grand piano, his song for the most part disdainfully endured or merely envied by the doomed-to-extinction (or so one had hoped) aristocrats and their bridge-playing, whisky-sipping hangers-on, the strains drift out into the hall and down the stairs, where they are voraciously eavesdropped on by the servants.

The verse begins by expressing a nostalgia not for England, but for place that precisely isn’t England: “Somewhere there’s another land / Different from this world below / Far more mercifully planned / Than the cruel place we know.”

The scene is an unforgettable and irrefutable demonstration of how even the most seemingly carefree and effortlessly beautiful of music can pose as a universal language, bridging the divide between people, and at the same time seethe with class resentment. In contrast to those listening intently from the shadows, those trying their damnedest not to listen from close at hand are being suavely mocked—and they don’t even know it.

The chorus of Novello’s song runs:

We shall never find that lovely land of might-have-been
I can never be your king, nor you can be my queen
Days may pass and years may pass and seas may lie between
We shall never find that lovely land of might-have-been.

But Fellowes has found that land, reinvented it, believes in it, and, at the close of Downton Abbey, reaffirms its enduring existence and rosy future.

Truth be told, I went to Downton Abbey not just seeking refuge from the elements but for a reprise of the Gosford musical magic. Altman loved music (cf. Nashville, and the loveable flop Kansas City), but left to his own devices, Fellowes has no ear or time for it.

The Downton Abbey series’ proprietary theme composed by John Lunn is the most pervasive music on the movie’s soundtrack, the rocking of its minimalist orchestral accompaniment ushering in the main tune hammered out on the piano (that disused one in the drawing room?). Lunn’s rustic melody alludes to British folk songs and their revival during Downton days thanks to the Edwardian likes of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Then comes the sweep of violins presaging epic, but actually a prelude to a soap opera.

This cue is heard as we are incessantly treated to covetous aerial shots of the mighty pile of brick and stone. There is lust in these quasi-symphonic surges, and it’s a fitting enough soundtrack for this highlight reel of Jacobethan porn—a Country Life blue movie in high definition. However sonically and visually titillating these scenes may be, the darker part of me wished that instead of the drone’s-eye-view of the Downton spires a squadron of Stukas would skim over the surrounding beech forest to the snap, crackle and pop of vintage newsreel march and reduce the place to rubble.

In telling contrast to Gosford Park, the music emanating from within the Downton movie (call it diegetic, if you like) is off-the-shelf, brand-oriented product: military parade music before king and queen (their visit the pretext for relaunching the Downton battleship) and sumptuous waltzes at the requisite concluding ball. What this picture needed was a dose of Northam at the neglected Downton piano. White courtesy phone, Ivor Novello!

But this spectacle cannot brook even the faintest irony, especially not during these fraught times. Fellowes’s vision is simultaneously pre- and post-Brexit, his allegory as starched and blinding as the Downton men’s white ties and collars. A Conservative peer in the House of Lords, Fellowes came out for leaving the EU in advance of the 2016 referendum, telling London’s Daily Mail that Brussels was anti-democratic, even autocratic: “History has for hundreds of years been moving towards government that is answerable to the people,” he concluded, “and suddenly we have done an about-turn and we’ve gone back to the Austro-Hungarian empire. I don’t think that’s the right direction.” Except on the big screen and in the big house of Downton Abbey, over which, from glorious summer morn to auctumnal twilight, the sun never stops setting.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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