“Nostalgia,” as George Ball the American diplomat once said “is a seductive liar.” This is certainly the case with dramas such as Downton Abbey, Victoria, and the Crown. They paint a different world that indicates a gentler more British way of life than today. However the reality is different to the world that it portrays which is why it needs to be challenged lest the voices of those who really helped shaped our world are forgotten.
Downton Abbey in many respects is guilty of this and portrays for some nostalgists how they like to think Britain once was and still should be. In that world the Lord of the manor smiles benevolently whilst those down under not only know their place but are happy with their lot. If there are any problems then the Lord of the manor will sort it out.
Looking at the period that Downton Abbey covers from the beginning of the twentieth century is a world away from what it was really like to work as a servant in those times. For starters the servants world would consist of virtually working from the crack of dawn right through to the late hours of the evening. There would hardly be any time to call your own and you certainly were not expected to be seen never mind tell their betters what problems you had.
Therefore it was not a surprise that the majority of servants were recruited from orphanages from the other side of the country so that they had nowhere to run back to. They were seen as chattel who were there to serve and certainly not to fraternize to the extent that the chauffeur marries the Earl’s daughter and is welcomed into the bosom of the family.
Robert Crawley would be more likely to say to his butler ‘As you know Carson, one likes to run a progressive household but damn it I wouldn’t be able to show my face at one’s club if the Chauffeur was my son-in-law. So show the bolshy sort the door forthwith Carson my good man.’
If you were to believe the historical depiction of the Edwardian period in Downton Abbey it was a relatively peaceful one. The British Empire was at its peak and although everything might not be perfect everybody seemed to be getting along. For sure the rich and the upper classes were enjoying the prosperity of the Edwardian golden age but life for the ordinary person was one of poverty, poor living and working conditions. Just look at any pictures from that period. The children are mainly bare-footed and dressed in tatty clothes. The adults fare no better with most looking small and even malnourished. The houses were slums and were unfit to live in that the life expectancy for working class people was low.
Consequently it was not surprising that workers demanded improvements as they wanted fair pay, better living conditions, housing, education, to name but a few issues that anyone today would feel is a basic right. The ordinary person era of that era had to fight for it that it was a turbulent period that frightened the political elite.
Now in the world of Downton Abbey there are no talks of soldiers being sent to Llanelli during the first national railway strike of 1911 who shot dead two strikers. Nor of Churchill sending gunboats up the Mersey during the Liverpool 1911 Transport strike. This was in response to riots that broke out after mounted Police had charged a 80,000 crowd at St. George’s hall who were there to listen to the Trade Unionist Tom Mann. Thousands were injured with the Liverpool Echo at the time likening the scenes to revolutionary Paris of 1789.
More strikes and unrest during that period between 1910-14 broke out across the country in places such as Hull and Belfast. The period was one of uncertainty with workers fighting for a better more equal world. For instance just look at the 80,000 crowd at St. George’s hall, Liverpool that it looks very similar to the Arab spring a few years back. Yet this is never widely mentioned in history never mind someone making a drama of it.
Recently there has been a spate of what can only be described as PR films for the Royal family such as Victoria, and the Crown. These are lavish biscuit tin productions that belong in a Disney fairy story.
The stories are sold as young Queen’s who at times reluctantly have to make the tough decisions that they may not like to bring stability to the country. Again it depicts that only the nobility have the grace, wisdom, and benevolence to rule the country. There is nothing about the poverty and the wrongs of the British Empire. Instead the ordinary people are there as a background as they sit back and listen to their betters.
Both ignore about whether having a Monarchy is actually democratic but instead portray the Monarchy as a positive good. The aristocracy are born to rule whilst its subjects are there to serve. It is an inconvenient truth that the upper classes did not want the working class to be educated nor did they feel that they were entitled to free health treatment.
All of this as well as better living conditions were fought for by workers and were given to appease the working classes lest they went one step further and overthrew them.
It is important that this is re-addressed otherwise history will be distorted from a view that the establishment want the world to be seen as. Furthermore the real life stories such as the 1911 Transport strike is more dramatic and real than the lavish period dramas of Victoria biting her lip as she has to make a tough decision.
A drama like this would be more realistic of a Britain whose inhabitants were in poverty and fought for their basic rights. The likes of Downton Abbey, Victoria, and the Crown are more about portraying the aristocracy in a better light and only shining a light on history that is more pertinent to them or simply cannot be ignored.
Maybe just maybe someone will make a drama of the ordinary, brave people who fought and helped to establish the NHS, education, and better living conditions that we are used to today. After all the ‘Great unrest,’ from 1910-14 appears to be now a forgotten period of history when it’s stories deserves to be as much celebrated as well as giving an understanding of the world that we are in now.