Downton Abbey is one of the most widely watched and highly acclaimed television series ever broadcast, anywhere in the world. It is set in north Yorkshire, and the story concerns the Crawley family, led by the Earl and Countess of Grantham and their servants, who are seen against a backdrop of the economic, political, and social changes from 1912 through the 1920s.
Since the series was written for independent TV by staunch Thatcherite (and Oscar winner) Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park), it is no coincidence that Lord Grantham bears the name of Lady T’s birthplace to the south in Lincolnshire. I recall Julian striding down the aisle, west to east, in St Paul’s Cathedral, on the day of Lady T’s funeral. He certainly looked the part!
In real life Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, southwest of London, where all the exterior and most of the interior scenes are filmed. It is the home of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, friends of Fellowes, and there are many parallels between the estate management issues faced by today’s Carnarvons and yesterday’s Granthams. There are also strong parallels on the marriage front, with a propensity for people in both families to marry loaded American women to keep the estate going. (Also of note is the role of the Carnarvon family in the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings, led by the fourth earl, the great-great-grandfather of the present, eighth earl.)
Fans of the series have been descending on Highclere Castle in large numbers. It is open to the public on certain days, at advertised times. These arrangements are not prompted mainly by a desire to make money, much as that is welcome to fix leaky roofs. Rather, as the seventh earl told me on a visit in 1993, it was advisable for people such as him to open their estates to the public for inheritance tax purposes. Under UK law all these vast places have a huge incentive to open for a minimum of days — 90 comes to mind — because on the death of the owner the act of opening to the public for at least this minimum removes the property from the inheritance tax calculation. Tax avoidance, not tax evasion.
The number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee.
Such is the popularity of Downton Abbey that as an Englishman resident in Florida I cannot open my mouth in front of strangers without being greeted with questions about the program or comments such as “you sound just like you stepped off the set of Downton Abbey!” With the ending of the latest (and reputedly penultimate) series, a new question has arisen: “Oh John, what can we watch now, to get over Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome?”
Here are six other series that should hold you over until Downton Abbey returns. After listing them, I will return with a discussion of private versus public funding of such UK programs as come to PBS.
- Upstairs, Downstairs
Made for independent TV (not the taxpayer funded BBC), its 68 episodes were broadcast from 1971 through 1975 and cover the years 1903 through 1930. The setting is a grand London townhouse — 165 Eaton Place in Belgravia, close to Lady T’s home in her final two decades. “Downstairs” work the servants, while the family lives, dines, and entertains “Upstairs,” much as in Downton Abbey. And again as in Downton Abbey, current events, from the grand to the less grand, permeate the plot.
Such is the closeness of the respective story lines that at Wikipedia the first entry for “See Also” under Downton Abbey is Upstairs, Downstairs, and vice versa.
Most of Upstairs, Downstairs was filmed in color, but be aware that the early episodes are in black and white, because of a strike by cameramen operating the then new technology — a reminder of labor relations pre-Thatcher.
- The Forsyte Saga
Based on novels by Nobel Prizewinner John Galsworthy, the Saga covers 1906 through 1921. It was first made in black and white by the BBC (26 episodes, 1967) and then remade by the independent sector in color (13 episodes, 2002–2003). The plot is strong, but there is less of political economy and more of social change, as the Forsytes, unlike the Crawleys, are new to wealth.
Made by the BBC, Cranford is based on the eponymous 1851 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell, and related works. The original five episodes were broadcast in 2007, with two more episodes in 2009 that were marketed as Return to Cranford. Judi Dench stars throughout as Miss Matty, one of a group, mostly composed of spinsters and widows, who observe life in a small Cheshire town some 12 miles from the big city of Manchester. Weak on plot, it is really a series of vignettes, albeit quite well done. In later episodes, however, the effects of the expansion of the railroad system and the struggles of the local landowning family resonate in an interesting way.
- Lark Rise to Candleford
Again made by the taxpayer-funded BBC, four series of this intelligent soap were broadcast between 2008 and 2011. Here the social contrasts lie between the poor hamlet of Lark Rise and the wealthier small town of Candleford. Set in the late 1890s, the 40 episodes are a bit light on the news and issues of the day but do examine the liberal tendencies of the hamlet versus the more Tory proclivities of the townies. One later episode includes extensive discussion of Self Help by Samuel Smiles, while another deals with the spread of the railroad. Those of you who so admired Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey have a treat in store as he appears as the stonemason Mr. Timmins, de facto leader of Lark Rise.
- Foyle’s War
This independent production leaps us forward to World War II and the southern coastal town of Hastings, where Detective Chief Superintendent Christopher Foyle is faced with crimes generated by wartime rules, restrictions, and regulations. The twenty-plus episodes approach 100 minutes each. While they can be viewed out of order, there are connecting story lines.
The research behind each episode is awesome, and the series does move noticeably from one focused on crimes against a backdrop of wartime order to a wartime order with crime. The setting in Hastings helps hugely, as the first few miles inland from the coast were subject to even more draconian state intervention than truly inland areas. You may recognize Michael Kitchen who plays Foyle as Bill Tanner from Bond movies.
- Doc Martin
Made by independent TV, some six series of over 40 episodes have been broadcast to date, with a seventh and final series promised.
In a series set in present-day West Country, UK, Doc Martin is a top London surgeon who opts for the life of a small coastal port’s only family doctor. Tensions emerge along with a strong love line. Little is made of the fact that all his patients come through socialized medicine, and the portrayal of the NHS is extremely gentle. The horrendous backlogs and delays of the NHS are simply ignored. However, the overall effect is addictive.
I have been careful to note who funded, made, or broadcast each of the seven series. You will have noticed the mix of private and the taxpayer funded BBC. So what? I hear you ask. (Also I am vague at times on exact episode numbers, as they vary from country to country. A Christmas special in the UK for example often becomes two episodes in the US.)
Well, the BBC is not funded out of general tax revenues; it is funded by a license fee. If you buy a TV you have to buy a license (say $200-$250 per annum), and you have to renew it every year or eventually face prison time. The state even employs a special police force equipped with license evasion radar detection vans to hunt down folk who have not paid. Parliament fixes the level of the fee every few years, and the total revenue raised goes in a block grant to fund the Beeb, as it is called, or the Big Bunch of Communists chez moi. I promise I am not joking here at all.
To keep the MPs and Lords in Parliament happy, the BBC maintains a huge lobbying effort within a 3-iron of the Palace of Westminster. Its office is on the very same block as the free-market Institute of Economic Affairs, where I served as CEO for 17 years, as in 1993–2009.
The private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.
Soon after moving to the IEA I discovered the following astonishing fact: the number one reason why women were imprisoned in the UK was non-payment of the TV license fee. Of course it was not billed as nonpayment of the BBC fee. Rather a household would not have the money to pay; they would evade and they’d be caught and ordered to pay; they’d fail and the lady of the household would do the time for something dressed up as failure to obey a court order. It just happened that by far the greatest number of such orders were BBC-related.
I was just appalled by this. The then-boss of the BBC was called Greg Dyke, and his Parliamentary henchman was my friend Michael Hastings.
For several years I would look for them on the street or at receptions and the like. I used to get right in their faces: “Hi Greg. Hi Michael. How many decent working-class ladies got imprisoned today because of you?” I was relentless. And the numbers dropped from the hundreds to something like ten — still disgusting but an improvement.
So how does this story of the funding of the BBC link back to my list of Post-Downton Abbey Depression Syndrome Antidotes?
A key argument for taxpayer funding of the BBC is that the private sector is bound to sink to the lowest common denominator, while a release from commercial considerations is vital to produce the great period dramas with their fantastic wardrobes and glorious settings for which the BBC is supposedly world famous.
Downton Abbey clearly blows this argument to Mars and back.
And when you look at my antidotes, my list of six picked (I promise) with no reference to funding source, the private sector clearly trumps the public.
The evidence is clear, the jury is in, and the foreman is addressing the judge: Your Honor, we the jury find the private sector innocent of dumbing down. Indeed we find that the private sector strives for ever higher standards while the subsidized public sector sinks, as we know, lower by the year.
Note: Immediately following my submission of this article, The Daily Telegraph of London published a report by Christopher Hope (March 21, 2014) under the headline “Not paying TV licence set to be decriminalised.” A group of 140 British MPs has won the support of the government for this change. It will, however, entail a year-long review and will form part of the negotiations that will take place ahead of the BBC Charter renewal due in 2017.