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Downton Abbey phenomenon, British TV in U.S.

An English rose in Georgia

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POSTED: March 14, 2012 7:30 p.m.

Whenever I get homesick for the land of my birth, I can always console myself with a dose of “Britishness” via the TV. 
When we first moved here, I thought that BBC America would be my main reminder of home.
Many Americans are not aware that the British Broadcasting Corporation was set up in the 1920s when listening to the radio became a popular pastime. TV really did not take off in the United Kingdom until the queen’s coronation in 1953, when loyal subjects rushed out to buy TV sets to see this historic broadcast (in black and white of course). 
Within the UK, the BBC is funded by a mandatory annual television license fee of approximately $220 which has to be paid by everybody that owns a TV set … basically a tax. This is a very different approach to the funding of public broadcasting in America, which relies on a combination of federal funding, donations and sponsorships rather than mandatory license fees.
Anyway, I soon realized that, with the exception of the BBC Worldwide News and occasional imported drama series, the choices made for the BBC America channel were not usually to my taste and seemed to be very male dominated.  If I wanted to spend my evenings watching “Top Gear” (men behaving like boys as they go on driving trips and admire cars and other vehicles), followed by Gordon Ramsay (a very masculine chef with a colorful vocabulary shouting at people in various kitchens), British sports (often rugby) and finishing with a saucy Irish man teasing celebrities, then BBC America would be perfect for me.
However, I have now discovered the Public Broadcasting Service of America.  Of course, PBS not only features high-quality scientific, musical and children’s TV, it also provides me with a welcome dose of English drama on a regular basis, primarily via “Masterpiece Classic.”
My current obsession is the fantastic “Downton Abbey” series, which has taken both the UK and the USA by storm.  A British and American co-production, this award-winning, lavish period drama has caught the imagination of millions of people, and last year entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most critically acclaimed English language television show.”
“Downton Abbey” features the lives of an aristocratic British family (complete with an American countess whose wealth saved the family’s fortunes) and their servants from 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic through the first World War and into the 1920s.
The current craze for this drama, which vividly depicts the differences in the lives of those living “upstairs” (the upper class family) and “downstairs” (servants whose wellbeing was dependent on the whims of their superiors), is fascinating.  Of course, Britain used to be a much more class-ridden society where people’s positions were dependent not only on their wealth and education but primarily on their family’s pedigree.  America was made great by the social mobility it offered to smart people willing to work hard to pursue their dreams to make — rather than inherit — their own wealth and position in society.
So why are so many people enthralled by this drama which reflects such a very different time with very different social values?  There is probably a certain amount of looking back with rose-tinted spectacles to the perceived security of a relatively uncomplicated time when everybody knew their place.  However, that is just my view — there is a great deal of debate in the media about this phenomenon.
In my opinion, the gorgeous costumes, sumptuous English countryside (with an unrealistically high percentage of sunny days) and interesting storylines based around momentous historical events add up to pure escapism.   
Not everyone would agree with this. As Groucho Marx famously said, “I find television very educating.  Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
God bless America!

Francis grew up in London, England and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl and English dogs – soon to be joined by an American West Highland Terrier!  She can be contacted at www.lesleyfrancispr.com

 

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