Sunday, December 19, 2010

What, exactly, IS a weekend?

I should be in Tunisia, but my flight and connecting flight were both cancelled yesterday, so I didn't even bother showing up at the airport - which, from news reports sounds like it has turned into a scary dystopic society with trapped angry drunk people now living in shanty towns in the ticketing queues. In the rare event that a flight does manage to take off, then passengers have to engage in a death-match to get on it. It's British Airways Thunderdrome!

Instead, I'm watching Downton Abbey on DVD, ITV's expensive period drama/soap about rich people and their servants 100 years ago. Rob James-Collier (Liam from Coronation Street) plays Thomas - a naughty gay footman who likes to seduce all of the young gentlemen he's supposed to be looking after. But the best role is Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, Violet. She carries an expression of disapproving hauteur which makes her seem as if she's permanently sat on a thistle covered in dog-shit, and if anyone speaks to her, her eyes swivel in pained disgust and then her mouth opens and out comes a sardonic put-down that would render the most fierce and spiteful drag queen inarticulate for ten minutes.

Period dramas must be back because the BBC have responded by resuccisitating Upstairs Downstairs - which covers pretty much the same ground. While I enjoy historical dramas about rich people, I wonder if this is subtle "nudge" propaganda - a way of getting us to accept the ConDem's shock treatment of cuts cuts cuts, which will disproportionately affect women, the poor, the young, northerners and people living in Labour consituencies. When people complain that the ConDem's don't care about social mobility they are WRONG. The ConDems want social mobility alright. But they want the poor to move further downward and the rich to move upward. In essence, they want to recreate the world of Downton Abbey, where a few fragrant and pampered rich families live in enormous mansions, while the rest of us slave away under the stairs to make sure that they never have to dress themselves or think an unhappy thought ever again. Maggie Smith's Violet is so out-of-touch with the lives of ordinary people that she hasn't even heard of the concept of a "weekend". Why would she? She's never had to work or do anything normal. "What IS a weekend?" she asks in distate, when someone uses the word. It's hilarious and shocking all at once.

While Downton Abbey could be written as a kind of critique of the British class system, it is actually quite jolly about it all. The Lord of the Manor is represented as a kindly fellow who cares for his servants and loves Donwton Abbey so much. The lowly male relative who is going to inherit the lot at first struggles when his assigned butler wants to do up his collar, but within one episode, he accepts that everyone has their role and function in this world, and who is he to deprive someone of that. And some of the servants are presented as thoroughly rotten. No, the key message here is not that this is an unfair system - it's that there are good and bad people everywhere. Scenes of hunting is accompanied by jolly gallopy music and shots of everyone looking happy. We don't see the bit where dogs rip a terrified fox to bits and everyone licks their lips in sadistic glee.

And like they used to say on Battlestar Galactica, this has happened before. I recall the 1980s (with Dowager-like disgust), where our council estate was like a ghost town on Saturday nights at 8pm, when we all settled round to watch the immensely wealthy people on Dallas and Dynasty, sipping champagne and eating breakfast next to their outdoor swimming pools. We were meant to identify with their problems, to care about these rich characters and want the nice ones to succeed, even though our own lives were immeasurably different from them.

My mother used to say "Look! Money doesn't bring happiness after all - we're better off than them!" when Blake and Krystal and Bobby and Pam were shown to suffer. But she didn't realise that these were FICTIONAL CHARACTERS and in reality the rich live much nicer lives than the poor, and in the odd cases where they do have problems, they can just throw lots of money at the problem and it tends to go away.

So I think Downton Abbey is going to prepare us for a new Britain. If you're young and you don't already own a massive house, you may as well start practising how to carry a silver tray full of wine glasses. Because that's the best you're going to manage. Even with your degree.

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