Ken Burns in a Cummerbund: The New Errors of Downton Abbey

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Downton Abbey: A New Era — theatrical release poster.

The crux dozen minutes of Robert Altman’s Gosford Park of 2001 unspool at the pace of parlor song. A real historical character—the matinee idol and songwriter, Ivor Novello, portrayed to elegant and resigned perfection by Jeremy Northam—sits down at a rosewood grand piano and runs through his hits while the fictional visitors to the eponymous English country house play bridge and exchange words of scalding politeness, insult, and self-interest. They’ve come for a hunting party hosted by the nouveau riche industrialist who’s bought the pile and his way into the aristocracy. The interwar nobility has fallen on what they perceive as hard times, and this fat cat’s money, not the music of most famous weekend guest, is the greatest lure.

The servants gather in the stairwell, captivated by a voice they’ve only heard in the cinema or on radio. A footman and maid dance on the landing on the other side of the doorway. Inside the drawing room Maggie Smith’s conniving, cash-strapped dowager countess comments over her cards: “A long repertoire.” The remark is not meant as a compliment.

Novello starts the evening’s entertainment with his “Land of Might-Have-Been,” both a hymn to, and an enactment of, the enchantment of music in the movies, its crucial role in the seductions of the cinema. The revue is put an abrupt end to when someone rushes in and announces that the baronet is dead in his study, a dagger through the heart.

It is song that provides the cover for the crime committed in Gosford Park, just as cinema, abetted by music, provides crucial distraction from the crimes of exploitation, destruction, and war committed beyond the silver screen. In Altman’s hands Novello’s refined after-dinner cycle brings into relief the lie of noblesse oblige, the depredations of industry and empire, and the levelling value of authentic aesthetic experience.

From where I was watching and listening in the Big Dark in 2001, and from where I’m sitting in fond recollection as I write this in the gray light of a humid Upstate New York spring morning, Novello’s postprandial set counts as the most memorable and magical diegetic music (music heard by the characters in the movie as well as the audience in the theatre) in my film-going experience.

Gosford Park was nominated for seven Academy Awards. It got only one: for best original screenplay written by Julian Fellowes. He was then a British actor of limited stature who had put in time in Hollywood, just missing out in the 1980s on succeeding Hervé Villechaise’s as butler on the Saturday night primetime television series, Fantasy Island. Fellowes’s plummy English accent would have imbued the weekly call-to-action— “Da Plane, Da Plane!”—with campy portentousness and hit the right tones for the Reagan-Thatcher years with which Fellowes’s own politics still align.

After the glory of Gosford, Fellowes spent much of the ensuing decade cannibalizing his celebrated script, retrofitting its characters and gags for assembly into the long-running series Downton Abbey. This upstairs-downstairs soap opera puts the thoroughbred that was the film out to graze, if never to gallop, in the broad and lucrative pastures of prestige television. The beast got fat and flabby, but it was only a matter of time before Fellowes’ led his pony back to the stable-cum-studio, where it sired two feature films, the latest now in theaters: Downton Abbey: A New Era.

Downton the series shifted back a couple of decades from the 1930s of Gosford to start with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Instead of shooting at Syon Park on the banks of the Thames across from Kew Gardens as in Gosford, the country house became Highclere Castle west of London, its high Victorian spires more obviously symbolizing the stodgy, status quo nature of the Fellowes retread. The snarl and bite of the characters, the desperation the floundering aristocratic hangers-on, the dissipation and deceit of late-imperial opportunists and elites on the brink fo disaster, became, with the move from big screen to small, a nostalgic story of resilience. We are supposed to like classy folk of Downton Abbey. It made the British proud, and Fellowes rich and powerful.

Fellowes’s buffet of British history is also gobbled up on this side of the Atlantic. More recently this Ken Burns in a cummerbund has been feeding Americans their own past with the Gilded Age on HBO.

Himself anointed a baronet by the Conservative government of David Cameron, Fellowes now sits in the House of Lords, its grandeur shaped by Sir Charles Barry, also the architect of Highclere’s nineteenth-century neo-Gothic makeover. Highclere’s stack of sandstone is the real star of the show in Downton Abbey and it shines brightly of an English summer morn beneath of the camera-wielding drones.

From inside and out of the Parliaments in the run up to the Brexit referendum of 2016, Fellowes likened the European Union to the failing autocracy of the Hapsburg Empire, whose demise, ironically enough dovetailed with the chronological starting point of his own Downton ascendancy. Brexit passed and Cameron fell.

Fellowes nods to these infinite regressions of newly minted baronets making movies about made-up earls in the latest film when Lady Mary, the heir and quickly becoming the true leader of both great house and dynastic line, allows a film crew into Downton to make a movie. The family needs the money to fix the leaking roof. Mary even dubs in her own voice to substitute for the harsh Cockney of the beautiful, but ill-tempered starlet facing the collapse of her career with the advent of the talkies.

The viciousness—ranging from the haughty snub to the sneering aside—of the Gosford gang is transformed to coy and cloying cleverness in Downton. The refashioning of the character played by Maggie Smith, who is the only actor to appear in both Gosford Park and Downton Abbey, from misanthrope to good- natured but sharp-tongued grand dame, sums up the relation of the 2001 original to its ongoing spin-offs. In Downton Maggie’s wit is sharp, but she has a heart of gold lamé.

Seeking out new luxury real estate to maintain viewer interest, the Downton franchise takes a detour to a gleaming French villa on the Côte d’Azur, a gift from a conveniently deceased youthful love of Maggie Smith back in the 1860s. Only the most gullible among Downton devotees would believe that the ardent Brexiteer Fellowes would make good on his latest movie’s early threats to turn Lord Grantham, the affable chieftain of the clan, into a French bastard, lovechild of long-ago cross-channel romance.

The music makes new Downton errors from old Gosford truths. The diegetic piano becomes an upright hauled onto the movie-within-the-movie set, plunked at by a piano tuner in preparation for the shoot. Its keys are plastic, not the worn ivory that screams with death throes of elephants even as Novello caresses them with his songs of aspiration and love. In Downton, the piano prop never comes to life, never comes to mean anything.

For the de rigeur fête on the terrace of the French villa, a band of Black Americans is brought in as decoration. The sound and look are all wrong there too: sheet music on stands, another modern piano, the resulting jazz anemic and hardly able to motivate the Franco-British rich to go through even the most tepid dancing motions.

John Lunn’s soundtrack is meant to project a sense of destiny with its piano fretting and its fateful cello emoting over the inexorable ticking of the orchestral clock, that relentlessness evoking the cyclic fortunes of a Great Family.

But when the crew leaves Highclere, all this musical fatefulness reveals itself as an elegiac rejig of the upbeat theme from that other world-beating Old Country franchise: the Great British Bake-Off.

The Vaughan Williams-esque tone poem that spreads across the endless Downton credits reminds those sticking it out to the bitter end that this England is an illusion, if but a stubborn one.

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