Art, the skill and technique involved in producing visual representations… or the creation of beautiful or thought provoking works, is very evident in two very stylish television dramas currently being created on each side of the Atlantic – Downton Abbey in England and Castle in America.
Created with authority and confidence by English actor, novelist, film director, screenwriter, and conservative peer Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, (born 17 August 1949), known as Julian Fellowes, the multiple Emmy (2011) award winning drama Downton Abbey is commencing its second season. Fellowes, who is an Emmy recipient for his writing, has set his period drama in a great country house in England during the first decades of the twentieth century. As a writer Fellowes doesn’t treat the past like something different, or ask his people to behave differently. Just like us they all have a fundamental desire to make the best out of life, something that really hasn’t changed over the generations. This makes their stories accessible to us as we discover characters dealing with the same problems we are today. Fellowes keeps it all moving along at a good pace, so viewers are completely engaged. It’s a classy star-studded soap opera on a grand scale with an amazing team of high profile British actors as members of the Poshocracy and their retainers.
On the other hand Castle is set in the contemporary age in an American big city police precinct. It has the successful mystery novelist Richard “Rick” Castle, who lives with his mother Martha and daughter Alexis in an interior designed apartment. He is tagging along with an NYPD homicide investigation team for research purposes, having been given permission by the Mayor of New York. Created by Andrew W. Marlowe and featuring Nathan Fillion as Richard Castle and Stana Katic as Detective Kate Beckett together with a strong cast of supporting actors, this drama has light-hearted humorous moments that are very endearing. Castle proves that the pen is mightier than the sword and film the right way of telling this good story, as it enters its fourth season. Rick is a man’s man, or a guy’s guy and pretty popular with the boys in the precinct. Beckett is harder for him to win over, but his innovative approach to crime solving provides him with a new career as a criminal profiler and a role model for Nicky Heat, the leading character in a new series of detective novels that he creates. What he doesn’t reckon on is falling in love with her.
Both series contain characters struggling on a daily basis with ethical and cultural values. They make imaginative use of their resources and continually develop new and original ideas in an artistic context, enlightening us with knowledge about people, places, periods of history and experiences. They have both achieved a very high standard of excellence in the crafts of acting, writing, directing and overall production. It would be fair to say that audiences worldwide have taken their characters into their hearts and homes.
Castle ended its last season with our heroine, the lovely spirited and fiery detective Kate Beckett having been shot while delivering the eulogy for the much-loved Captain of the police precinct out of which she, Richard Castle and the rest of the team operate. As she blacks out in his arms he finally tells her he loves her. But instead of cheering, because this is the event we have all been waiting for since ‘the kiss’ in season three, we are all left shocked and silent not knowing what her fate will be.
Downton Abbey ended its first season with the Lord Grantham’s wife Cora sadly losing a much-wanted heir, a once only ‘change of life baby boy’. Her miscarriage is brought about by a dastardly deed perpetrated by her ladies maid, all because of a misunderstanding. Those above stairs don’t always behave well, any more than those below. Each have their own codes of conduct and rules of engagement, which makes it all so interesting as they reveal that being a snob is not always about class or money.
Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham with great depth. In the final scene of the first season he announces the beginning of World War 1. This happens in the middle of what is an avant-garde garden party where his daughters, and some of his downstairs retainers, are having their hopes and hearts being fulfilled, dashed or broken while they sip tea daintily from China cups.
In the second series set during World War 1 the producers have taken an opportunity to take their characters into a whole new realm such as the youngest daughter of the family Sybil becoming a nurse. She like the rest of her family couldn’t plump a cushion, or dress themselves prior to the war. So looking after dreadfully wounded boys is a huge challenge. Those downstairs who used to thrive on ordered certainty also find themselves on unfamiliar territory.
This series is about rapid change and a huge paradigm shift, much like we are experiencing now. So it helps us relate to their experiences. Instead of viewers constantly being bombarded on a battlefield Fellowes has chosen to tell the next part of his story from the perspective of those who stayed at home. This refreshing approach is an aspect of the period less well covered, so it should intrigue old viewers and attract new.
Both these well-written shows provide us with an excellent example of what the ancient Greek’s called flux (you never step in the same river twice), the apparent unity and stability of the world that conceals a dynamic tension between opposites. They are also a moving celebration of some of humankind’s heroic qualities combined in harmonious proportion with the pursuit of pathos, that interior universe to which we are all drawn attracted by life’s many complexities and contradictions.
The players in both shows create identities and characters that buoy up our spirits and reflect the inner and mental strength of the people we want to be. Like art they elevate the commonplace, meeting some of our intellectual, philosophical, spiritual and cultural needs by painting images in our minds and sending us powerful emotional messages. Each is so different and so damn appealing. This is helped by the way they look visually, which is very important to our perceptions and enjoyment.
In Downton Abbey the costume during the first season was from the elegant, stylish period of the ‘halcyon days’ that existed in England and Europe in the decade prior to the war that would change the world. This is an era my eldest son tells me he would have happily lived in for the clothes, but importantly stresses he would have wanted to have been wearing those worn by members of the upper classes while living in a visually sumptuous house like Highclere, the real life on location country house the series is filmed in. The fashion from this era was indeed romantic and pretty for girls and solid, stylish and handsome for boys.
Downton Abbey in its make up reveals the huge disparity in wealth and social status between the rich and poor by the end of the industrial age, which is now becoming apparent again in the technological age we live in.
Holding both upstairs and downstairs together is the Butler Carson. In English culture Butlers have achieved an almost iconic status as they are now integral to its country house folklore. At one end of the scale is the Dowager Duchess, played brilliantly by veteran actress Maggie Smith. She does not even know what a weekend is. On the other is Daisy, the lowliest maid who works ever day, although does have time off for church on Sunday when her duties are ‘lighter’. Every other day however begins before dawn in the cold and the dark, setting fires to warm the house before everyone else rises.
In both these excellent shows the characters individually and collectively provide us with many insights into the nature of human behaviour, of how we relate to each other and what we can all relate to. They also confirm that at the end of the day, and when it all comes down to it, no matter what the social status or the age in which they live, what everyone really wants is the same – to love and be loved.
The method of seduction and storytelling in Castle is very different. Its pre-series marketing style for this new season is based on the look of the comic book hero Dick Tracy and Rick appears complete with a divine hat and trenchcoat. Detective Dick Tracy was very popular when I was growing up in the fabulous fifties, which seems to be the era of the moment for this generation. It is the last gasp period in which men wore suits with hats either going to the office or when they were out digging roads.
Whatever their circumstances ladies always dressed up when they went out during the day complete with hats and gloves. It was all about having a sense of occasion.
At night it was dinner suits for guys while girls wore silk, satin and sometimes the sensational swami, a very sensual fabric that showed off their sexy shapes supported and controlled by new fangled brassieres and corsets, complete with whalebones and lacing.
Downton Abbey some believe tells a tale about an age in society that was for many hateful in reality. The real-life aristocracy lived in grandeur expecting other people (who they did provide a free home, food and wage for by the way) to attend to their needs both personally and professionally while the greater majority of British people at the time were living without sanitation, education or comfort. That is true and an undeniable fact.
But we could also say the same about our world today? Only the names have been changed; from aristocracy to celebrity, or from courtier to corporate and the outcome, well it is still the same. People still wait on others both professionally and personally while thousands live on the streets of cities all around the world without sanitation, homeless and without hope. To deny that is to deny a 21st century reality no matter how civilized and compassionate we believe we are, or purport to be, the fact is the majority just walk on by.
At Downton Abbey the Lord takes up his responsibilities and helps those who provide him with services when they are in need. Such as providing employment for a man he met in the Crimean War, who has been left with a disability. He also pays to send Mrs Patmore who cooks for the whole household up to London for an eye operation. He wants to help them both retain their dignity and be able to work for as long as possible.
Many people today either don’t understand, or don’t want to understand that the majority of the aristocracy in England up to World War 1, between the wars and well after World War II, did continue to look after their retainers. Nannies, housekeepers and Butlers all over England and here in Australia long after the children had grown up were given a home and fed for the rest of their natural lives. I met such a Nanny on a property near Tamworth back in the early 1990’s, which is not that long ago. She was very grateful for their care because her own family had long since passed. Recently Prince Charles took on the responsibility of funding the last living years of Australia’s war hero Nancy Wake’s life, but that is another story. I digress.
Castle, with its setting of New York City in the present day, constantly informs us about what contemporary people endure and that is a very powerful emotional connection that contributes to the appeal of the show.
What we do know too is that without exception and in our heart of hearts is that the characters in both Downton Abbey and Castle will have to face their own mortality by exploring feelings common to us all.
These wonderful ensemble dramas allow us all to get up close and personal with their characters. They are a sensational success in their own countries and around the world. They have a style we admire, and enough intrigue to fill the 50-plus rooms of the very posh Highclere Castle in England, or the fabulous brownstone apartment Richard Castle lives in with his mother and daughter at New York. They both cover universal themes – love, family, romance, relationships about the people who have, and the people who have not. They feature great actors, gorgeous costumes and stories that provide us with an opportunity to enjoy a great escape with people we would like to spend time with and have as friends.
The stories of Downton Abbey are as much about what is not said and what is under the surface. A period series is by its very nature all about a much subtler world, one in which people’s many moral dilemmas seems far more nuanced than now. This makes us think that it’s often a kinder place to be.
Castle by way of contrast is set in our own contemporarily morally compromised world, where there are fewer absolutes and where everything is stated and not hidden. It is about the daily struggles of real people, their trials and tribulations and their real life changes of heart and mind. It is appealing too because we instantly relate to who they are, where they are at and where they want to be. Above all they’re both about entertainment.
There’s no business like show business, like show business I know…everything about it is appealing… so let’s go on with the show *
Carolyn McDowall ©The Culture Concept Circle 2011
Best Movie or Miniseries
Gareth Neame Executive Producer, Rebecca Eaton Executive Producer, Julian Fellowes Executive Producer, Nigel Marchant, Producer, Liz Trubridge, Series Producer
Best Supporting Actress
Best Direction for a Miniseries or Movie
Best Writing Miniseries or Movie