Voices: Costume dramas like Downton Abbey normalise our rotten class system – it’s time to give them up

·5-min read
These hit period dramas make it seem like the stories of a gilded elite are the only ones worth telling  (AP)
These hit period dramas make it seem like the stories of a gilded elite are the only ones worth telling (AP)

What would Netflix’s numbers look like without Bridgerton? Season two of the costume drama that mixes summer balls, bodice ripping and bonking (but with less bonking this time around) surpassed its record-breaking first outing to become the most-watched English-language debut on the streamer. At this rate, it might be all that’s preventing the company from falling into a black hole.

Meanwhile, Downton Abbey is back in cinemas. Next up… oh God, just give me sick bag, please. And a second one while you’re at it. I think I’m going to need it. Normally it doesn’t bother me what people watch. I’m not big on romcoms, soaps, westerns (mostly) but, hey, whatever floats your boat. When it comes to the English period drama, however, I make an exception.

If Zeus blinked into existence and said here’s one of my thunderbolts, fire it at any genre you chose and it’ll zap out of existence, I guess I’m just going to have to apologise to Dame Maggie Smith, Regé-Jean Page, and the rest.

Consider Bridgerton, the show that made the latter a star and the bookies’ favourite to become the next James Bond. Sure, it looks gorgeous. And the show gets points for doing something that probably upset a bunch of dyspeptic old golf club boors by letting people of colour join the party. Its creators tweaked the novels it is based on by setting their adaptation in a parallel universe without the foul racism that infested the British ruling classes. Actually, I should have said infests. Just look at some of Boris Johnson’s old columns, or consider the reaction to Meghan Markle marrying a royal.

On the other hand, Bridgerton, set a couple of hundred years ago, has Queen Charlotte. Think about that and then consider what might have happened today if Meghan Markle had hooked up with the heir rather than the spare. While Bridgerton is good in that respect, it also glosses over an uncomfortable truth about all too many British toffs. But then, so do the “realistic” period dramas. They’re all set in their own parallel universes because their leading characters never use certain words, which I don’t think I need to spell out at this point.

Some of them do at least recognise the appalling double standards imposed upon women during the eras they depict, who were supposed to be chaste until they were married while their brothers were free to roger, or just as likely rape, servants, opera singers, or whomever else they might have taken a fancy to. Bridgerton does this. So did Gosford Park, which is almost the genre’s version of Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning revisionist western. Robert Altman’s film was a biting social satire. It gave the servants more of their own life than most of its peers.

With Downton Abbey, the latter film’s writer Julian Fellowes swapped a spicy fusion curry for chicken and chips with a dash of ketchup. The movie version was another visit to the heritage-land theme park. I suppose you can’t blame him. They were both hits, but guess which was the more commercially successful? Seen the film, or the series? “Now come and see the real thing,” the tourism marketeers say to would-be visitors to England.

You can have a ride on the country house rollercoaster. We might even let you hire one out for dinner. Meanwhile, our latter-day butlers in the City of London will hide your dirty money for you if you’ve enough of it. You can get your legal valet to apply for non-dom status for you while you’re at it so you don’t have to pay tax on the stuff you keep visible to cover your expenses. And then you can chuckle about the “quaint” British class system on the flight home.

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That’s the biggest problem with these shows. They are infused with classism. They normalise it. They make it seem like the stories of a gilded elite are the only ones worth telling. The servants are, for the most part, little more than satellites. Tied to the great house like the gun dogs they look after. Other countries seem to manage to tell the stories of more humble people from their histories a lot better than we do – and no, that doesn’t mean they have to be exercises in grim social realism. I know, I know. Bridgerton is American. But it’s telling that when they want to tell stories about us, the period drama is their go-to. We’ve shown them the way.

The legitimisation of the class system has real world consequences. It’s how you end up with people like Boris Johnson, an old Etonian who was allowed to fail upwards throughout his career, in the highest office in the land. In fact, he’s still failing, and still getting forgiven for it. His career provides a lived example of the way the entitlement depicted in period dramas lives on. These shows are Jacob Rees-Mogg’s fever dreams. If only we could recreate that…

And yet, while it makes me feel dirty, I confess I’m probably going to end up carrying on with Bridgerton. I draw the line at Downton, but Bridgerton is written with sufficient skill, so much so that while I was watching it for the purposes of writing this column, I found myself getting hooked.

My head says I really shouldn’t care about its characters, or the fact that their struggles, such as they are, are the cherry on the top of the phrase “first world problems”. But even though it makes me hate myself, I kind of want to know what happens. Curse those writers, whose future employment is guaranteed because Netflix needs them to produce seasons three, four, five, six and however many films and spin-off series they can dream up.