Behind the Appeal of Downton Abbey

Like millions of others on this side of the big pond, I sat glued to my chair last Sunday night for the first episode of the second season of the British series, Downton Abbey. Judging from the critical buzz and the comments of my cyber friends, this season will be even more popular than the first. Essentially it’s a soap opera centering on the lives of a family of minor nobles during the first world war. Why do we love it so?

First of all, it’s visually stunning. All those lovely sunlit, book-filled  rooms, china, silver, and beautiful clothes are a feast for the eyes. Secondly, we care about the characters. Will Mary and Matthew finally admit their love for each other? Will Anna and Mr. Bates find happiness together? Will the scheming servant who left the soap on the floor, causing the lady of the house to fall and lose her unborn child ever be found out? Personally I won’t be satisfied until she is brought to justice.

Watching the staff assist the nobles with every aspect of their lives, from boiling an egg to dressing for dinner reminded me of what we’ve  lost in this country in the span of my lifetime and why I find Downton Abbey so satisfying to watch:  The close personal interaction arriving from the concept of service.  I’m not talking about personal servants to help me into my Levis in the mornings; rather I miss the general level of helpfulness that was once available to anyone who needed to fill the Chevy’s gas tank, buy a book or a hat. Growing up in a small southern town, I often accompanied my dad to the local Texaco station to buy gasoline. We’d drive in, crossing over a long rubber hose that caused a bell to ring inside the station, alerting the uniformed attendant to our arrival. He’d come out, greet us, chat with Daddy, then pump the gas, peer beneath the hood to check the oil and the level of water in the radiator, check for loose or worn belts, clean the windshield with a red rag he kept in his back pocket, and air up the tires. No charge. Just part of the service. Nowadays, I have to pump my own gas, check the air in the tires and feed quarters into a machine that dispenses 10 minutes worth of pressurized air for a dollar. I pay at the pump with my credit card. No need for a human at all.

For many years, Ron and I worked with a fabulous travel agency owned and operated by two well-seasoned travelers who became our friends. When we needed to book a trip, we went over to visit with Tom and Joe. They researched all our options, advised us on hotels,booked our plane tickets,  printed out our documents and delivered them to our home. Upon arrival at our hotel we found flowers or chocolate or wine from Tom and Joe waiting in our room. Now we book online and are charged a fee for speaking to an actual  human being at some of the airlines. Banks, retail establishments,and grocery stores have all adopted a model of  self service.

I can buy shoes online, have them shipped to my door, send them back if they don’t fit, without any human interaction at all. Paradoxically, the devices we have invented to make communication more efficient have  rendered it  unnecessary.

Despite the class differences between the Downtown Abbey staff and the nobles, and despite what Lady Sybil referred to last week as “our silly rules”,  they care about each other. They know one anothers’ faults and strengths. Their hopes and dreams. Their secrets. Because they talk to each other. Nowadays, it’s possible to live virtually, without ever having to interact with another human being face to face.

Lord and Lady Grantham would be appalled.

4 thoughts on “Behind the Appeal of Downton Abbey

  1. ami

    Dorothy, as you know, I’m a fan of DA. But your insights about closeness and the intersections of our lives here struck me as profound–you’re right on! Your words inspire me to be alert to opportunities for real interaction with others. Thank you!

    1. dorothy Post author

      Hi Ami! Thanks for checking in here. I’m glad this post spoke to you. The other day I read that the average 8 year old now spends almost 8 hours a day on a computer, iPod, or smartphone. Starting them this young worries me. How will they learn the art of reading another person’s body language? The fine art of compromise? How will they learn to spell? Cursive writing is already being phased out of our schools. Soon we’ll be a nation of robots. Aack! Dorothy

  2. Tammi Dearing

    I have heard so much about Downton Abby, and am interested in seeing the program.

    I agree with about how human interaction has gone by the wayside. I detest calling a business about something and getting the automated answering machine, I miss getting a real person to help me with whatever issue is may be, whether setting a doctor’s appointment or figuring out why a bill seems incorrect.

    My Children are homeschooled and they ARE learning to write in cursive and to spell correctly. They also have real conversations with their father and I, as well as, with friends and other family members. How sad that these things are not valued anymore. ~Tammi

    1. dorothy Post author

      Tammi, I think you will really enjoy Downton Abbey. For me, the second season was a tad more soap-operaish, but by then I was invested in the characters and wanted to see what would happen to them.

      You are so right about how annoying it is not to be able to talk to a real person on the phone. I read the other day that some airlines now charge more for a ticket if you book by phone and talk to an agent than if you book online. Ridiculous!!

      From a person who appreciates those who can write and spell, thanks for teaching these skills to your children. 🙂 And thanks so much for visiting me here on the site. I hope you’ll come back often. Dorothy

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