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History of TV: ‘Downton Abbey’

May 12, 2022
4 min read time

Before the Duke captivated our attention in Bridgerton, there was the Crawley family in Downton Abbey. The aristocratic family and their house full of servants with all of their intertwined stories sprawled six seasons, a 2019 feature film, and its sequel, Downton Abbey: A New Era, releasing this month.

The characters are undoubtedly what drove Downton Abbey to such popularity. Within the first hours of the series, it’s impossible not to get carried away by the melodic soundtrack that moves the characters in and out of each other’s lives.

Everything about the British Historical Drama feels meticulously put together, from the vigorously polished silverware within the show to the impeccable production quality. It’s no wonder the show racked up 15  Primetime Emmy®s.

Historically, speaking

True historical events set the stage and weave in and out of the narrative. The sinking of the Titanic kicks off the show’s events, with Lady Mary Crawley’s (Michelle Dockery) second cousin—and the heir presumptive, James Crawley—perishing on the doomed ship. While sad in its own right, the tragedy puts the Crawley family into rather precarious positions and opens up questions, such as the value of the Lady of the house’s dowry. 

This practice of only passing estates to male heirs was actually addressed in the Equality (Titles) Bill in the UK Parliament in 2013. Nicknamed the “Downton Law”, it aimed to allow the equal succession of female heirs to hereditary titles and peerages. Alas, it was rejected in the Lords, though it did see majority support in the Commons.

Everything about Downton feels very much ‘of the era’ it’s about from its pacing to muted colors, and the muted feelings just below the surface that dare to wreak havoc on the estate’s dignified inhabitants.

Building your story's world

Executive producer Gareth Neame hand-picked writer and co-executive producer Julian Fellowes (off his Gosford Park success) to bring his vision of the country house series to life. “The setting of a country house is a very good precinct to build a TV show around, like a hospital or a workplace,” Neame told Vanity Fair in 2012. Fellowes apparently mapped out the entire first series within a few weeks.

2011 saw Downton Abbey marked as the most critically acclaimed English-language TV series by Guinness World Records, as well as Amazon’s highest-selling DVD boxset of all time — beating out The Sopranos, Friends, and The Wire. Thus, it didn’t come as a surprise to Downton Abbey fans when a Downton movie was released in 2019. 

While it is perhaps slightly more common for TV shows to be made from big screen predecessors — Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Nikita, Snowpiercer immediately come to mind — in Downton Abbey’s case, the movies came after, and the box office will tell if there’ll be the third one down the line.

Those all-important characters

You can’t have a successful series, movie, or story without compelling character dynamics. Downton Abbey flourished here and is indeed why it still captures an audience today. Part of its genius lay in not only depicting the attractive wealth and status of the Crawleys (Dame Maggie Smith as Violet!), but also diving deep into “belowstairs” where the lives of the Crawleys’ servants were just as captivating…if not more so. Those that ensured the Crawleys could essentially function day-to-day hold equal weight in the story that, in their day, would barely see the light of day at all.

In Retrospect

The captivating world of Downton Abbey is a must-binge for fans of historical fiction for its historical accuracies, haunting themes (both of the musical and narrative variety), and intense characters. 

Fans of Fellowes’ work can catch his new The Gilded Age about New York society in the 1880s on HBO Max, while Downton is currently living out its days on Netflix next to Bridgerton. Downton Abbey: A New Era hits theatres on May 18th.

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