Hooked on Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey has changed my life. I don’t know how to get dressed without a butler. I can’t read the newspaper until it is pressed. I must dress formally for dinner – I mean a tux.
I want my physician to behave more like Doc Martin, and when it comes to crime scenes, where is Miss Marple?
“From Hockney to Downton Abbey: have our cultural tastes gone conservative?
Does the popularity of traditional landscape paintings at the Royal Academy and a posh country-house TV series mean Britons are rejecting the progressive for the conservative?
When is culture conservative? This is an urgent question, since in many peoples' eyes Britain is slipping into a regressive mood in the arts and entertainment that – according to your point of view – is either to be loathed or welcomed as a symptom of deep societal change.
The conservative political commentator Peter Oborne welcomes it. In a provocative and trenchant article in the Daily Telegraph, he recently hailed the popularity of David Hockney's exhibition at the Royal Academy as a sign that Britons are rejecting progressive pretensions for conservative honesty, preferring the handmade to the conceptual, the rooted to the cosmopolitan – whatever Hockney's politics may be, suggests Oborne, his landscape paintings are "conservative".
Meanwhile, from the opposite point of view, Simon Schama wrote an equally trenchant and powerful attack on the country-house television series Downton Abbey, pouring eloquent scorn on its nostalgia for a world where people knew their bloody place.
I have never seen Downton Abbey. Being a progressive liberal, I watchDanish cop shows instead. But I can't help remembering the 1980s. When I was a teenager, some of us in north Wales were obsessed with two things: Joy Division, and Brideshead Revisited. Now, from the point of view of the kinds of cultural analyses that divide everything into "conservative" or "progressive", these are polar opposites. A group from the northwest, played on Peel, conjuring images of darkness and despair, profoundly urban and industrial, versus a television dramatisation, as celebrated in its day as Downton Abbey, of an openly rightwing novel by Evelyn Waugh that celebrated country houses and the upper class.
But it all made sense. Brideshead could not have gone further in its glorification of the posh – yet at the time, it was exceptional for mainstream British television in its portrayal of a gay relationship. Waugh's snobbery was scarcely the stuff of Margaret Thatcher's government, either. Thatcherism rejected the traditional aristocratic tone of the Conservative Party and looked back to the self-made ethos of the Victorian bourgeoisie – "Victorian values" – rather than landed estates and their age-old corruptions. So the singular vision of Waugh seemed strangely subversive. It was the TV expression not of conservatism, but of new romanticism.
When radicals in the early Soviet Union wanted to get rid of the ruins of ruling class culture that were preserved in tsarist palaces and museums, Lenin dismissed the idea, believing great art to be the heritage of the proletariat. And if you want to revel in the "conservative" pleasures of a palatial art museum stuffed with old masters, the best place on Earth to do so may well be the Hermitage in St Petersburg – a sanctum of high art preserved by the Soviet era.
I wrestle with this every day. There is, in Britain, a knee-jerk assumption that "conceptual" art is inherently radical and paintings are inherently "conservative". Actually I don't wrestle with it at all, because to me the idea that say, a painting by Gainsborough is either irrelevant, or inherently reactionary, is just ludicrous.
For that reason I don't think a shift in Britain from newish to oldish cultural attitudes means much, politically. It may be like comfort food, a response to tough times. Or it may be that a full experience of culture and imagination embraces new and old, experimental and orderly, and that all worthwhile art contains both conservative and radical possibilities.”