Show of the week: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey: Some will argue Fellowes has gone too far and that villains should be portrayed uniformly across all levels of society.Sunday, Seven, 9pm

Baron Fellowes of West Stafford – otherwise known as Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey – is a radical. Almost single-handedly he has overturned a century-old British hegemony: that one should write drama from a leftist, humanist perspective, giving preference to working battlers over the indolent rich.

In Downton, Fellowes plays according to Hoyle by equally dividing his time between upstairs and down, but ask yourself this simple question: on which level do the real villains thrive? They are, to name but a few: the Machiavellian Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier); the soap-under-the-bath Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran); the sexually treacherous Edna Braithwaite (MyAnna Buring); and, from this new season, a class-obsessed nanny and a predatory valet.

In contrast, those who live above-stairs have many human failings – snobbery, indulgence, indecision – but they baulk at actions deserving incarceration. The closest anyone comes is Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), who moved the dead body of her Turkish one-night-stand.

As for Mary’s former fiance, Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen), he threatened much but delivered little.

After decades of witnessing the denigration of the upper classes in British cinema and television, it is as if Fellowes said, ”Enough! The caricaturing must stop. Let’s challenge the notion that the only decent people in Britain belong to the working and middle classes.”

Some will argue Fellowes has gone too far and that villains should be portrayed uniformly across all levels of society. But even a view as tempered as this flies in the face of decades of eulogising the battlers over the privileged.

What Fellowes is subtly doing is proposing an English variant of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, the defining novel of a declining aristocracy.

Nervous about an uncertain future but aware that he must make an accord with an emergent generation, The Leopard’s Prince Fabrizio encourages the marriage of his beloved nephew, Tancredi, to the nouveau-riche Angelica.

The Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) acts similarly by delighting in the marriage of Lady Mary to a middle-class lawyer and presumptive heir, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), and finally acceding to Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) in her choice of a chauffeur, Tom Branson (Allen Leech). Both husbands prove the wisdom of engaging with disparate attitudes and status.

But while upstairs is embracing change, not so below. Charles Carson (Jim Carter) still insists his staff stand when he enters the room and that a valet be called by his master’s surname.

Fellowes well understands that the Elysian era of the country house is doomed, but he charts its demise with insight and tenderness. Marxists will argue that no one has the right to that much wealth, but who among Downton’s viewers wishes that such great houses never existed or that no dramatic stories ever occurred inside them?

No, let’s salute Fellowes for giving us his precious insider knowledge of a people and a culture that for too long have been misrepresented.

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