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Daniel Wood Headshot

Things Will Be Great When You're Downton?

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Downton Abbey, after a whirlwind success last year, has returned to our screens on the back of similar public excitement. Indeed, the first two episodes of the current series opened with audiences of ten million viewers, dwarfing its competitors.

But the question which trumps all others is why? When the television and cinematic norm, nowadays, seems to be for money-guzzling special effects, car chases and murder why is a relatively tame programme exploring the vagaries of class 100 years ago so appealing?

The answer, I believe, is that certainty and transparency has ebbed away from society, over the last 30 years, and Downton Abbey looks back to an era perceived to be much simpler.

Do not get me wrong, though. Early 20th century Britain was a cut-throat land. Society was stratified, meaning influence was inherited, not earned. Bigotry was rife, highlighted by the fact women did not have the vote, homosexuality was a crime and the disabled were left to rot in horrific asylums. In addition, the life chances of the poor were minimal, as educational provision was meagre and healthcare, almost non-existent.

Downton Abbey largely overlooks these social evils but when it does address them, such as in the lord of the manor's social superiority, he is shown to use his influence for the good of his inferiors. This is demonstrated well when Lord Crawley enquires, among friends at the War Office (which he probably met at an exclusive Mayfair club) as to the fate of his cook's nephew who was missing, presumed dead.

But not only does Julian Fellows, or should I say Lord Fellows, transform much of what was wrong with society into a paternalist dream world, he capitalises on the era's simplicity and transparency. That is what, to my eyes, makes Downton Abbey the huge success it is.

For Lord Crawley's maids, cooks and footmen society is ruthlessly honest with them as to what they may aspire to. Never will they sup on the same soup as the Dowager Countess, but they know this. Nor will they become solicitors, politicians or doctors. They know this, too.

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This is not to justify the rank inequality that existed, but it demonstrates that society was very matter-of-fact with people. This is something I believe 21st century society lacks, while pretending otherwise. There is something quite different between the early 20th century's unapologetic inequality and today, where one is encouraged to aspire, only to find barriers all around.

Today, the elite tell us that equality of opportunity, fairness and respect for all are the values that our society is founded on, but this is not the experience of most people.

In contrast, our Government is populated by old college friends. Jobs, education and healthcare appear fixed in the favour of unofficial social elites. Housing, particularly, is something only those with a family of means can posses. We may no longer have lords of the manor to whom we are expected to overtly bow and scrape but elites exist, nonetheless. They are just called bankers, residents of Chipping Norton and non-doms.

At least, during the era in which Downton Abbey is set, society was forthright with inequality. There is a perverse kind of respectability about that.

Today, in contrast, while equality of opportunity is the catchphrase readily falling from the lips of the rich and powerful, social mobility is getting ever more stagnant. For example, in June, the IPPR released figures showing that the top 10% of earners had increased their share of the wage bill from 22% to 32%, between 1975-2008. Moreover, the top 1% of earners increased their share from 5% to 11% during the same time period.

Figures also show that people are dissatisfied with inequality in other parts of society, which led the IPPR to find that 82% believe government should act to achieve a more level playing field. A particular disgrace was highlighted by the Sutton Trust, which found that children from the poorest homes are often more than a year behind their peers from well-off backgrounds, in their acquisition of vocabulary, by the time they start school. Of course, the two factors are linked, because the better paid the wealthy become, in contrast to the poorest, the more activities they can do to enhance their child's cognitive skills and thus equip them for better jobs in the future.

So many people can see this despicable hypocrisy for themselves, every day, but the Coalition Government is doing nothing to remedy it. And it is sad to say, but Labour did too little, too. Despite this, it is the Coalition which has a once in a lifetime opportunity to radically reform society, but it is choosing to rearrange deckchairs on the Titanic instead of building more lifeboats.

As a consequence of this disconnect between rhetoric and action people want to watch a programme which provides a little escapism; a programme that depicts an era when society may have been horrendously unfair but which does not, at least, deceive them into thinking otherwise.

In addition, it's a bloody good show!