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Downton Abbey accused by historian of 'cultural necrophilia'

Downton Abbey

Story by Jack Foley

A HISTORIAN has launched a scathing attack on Downton Abbey, accusing it of ‘cultural necrophilia’.

Simon Schama was moved to sound off to The New Statesman after becoming tired of what he perceived as improbable storylines, historical inaccuracies and pandering to cliches about British stately homes.

Downton serves up a steaming, silvered tureen of snobbery,” he wrote in The New Statesman.

Schama, a professor of history at Columbia University, who also wrote History of Britain, also blasted the show’s characters, including stiff upper lipped butler Carson and Dame Maggie Smith’s acid tongued Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham.

“The series is fabulously frocked and acted, and over-acted, and hyper-overacted by all the Usual Suspects in keeping with their allotted roles,” he wrote. “All the main plot lines were anticipated a long time ago by Upstairs, Downstairs.”

Fellowes’ portrayal of World War I in the most second series, which is currently airing in the US to better viewing figures than the likes of Game of Thrones and Mad Men, was also taken to task by Schama.

“The abbey’s conversion into convalescent quarters did indeed happen in some of the [stately homes],” he wrote. “But if Fellowes were really interested in the true drama… the story on our TV would be quite different.

“Instead of being an occasional suffragette, [Lady] Sibyl would have turned into a full-on militant. [And] Lord Robert, whose income from land and rents would have collapsed with the long agricultural depression, would be unable to service his mortgage.”

In the most scathing passages of his prose, Schama wrote: “It [Downton] is a servile soap opera that an American public desperate for something, anything, to take its mind off the perplexities of the present, seems only too happy to down in great, grateful gulps.

“Nothing beats British television drama for servicing the instincts of cultural necrophilia.”

Responding to the comments, however, series producer Producer Gareth Neame said it was not intended to be an historical documentary.

Downton is a fictional drama. It is not a history programme but a drama of social satire about a time when relationships, behaviour and hierarchy were very different from those we enjoy today.

“As with any popular TV drama series, [it] offers an alternative to our own life experience.”

Fellowes, meanwhile, has previously been moved to defend the show from previous, like-minded criticisms, by insisting that it is “pretty accurate”.

“The real problem is with people who are insecure socially, and they think to show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater than your knowledge,” he observed.

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