Sunday, March 20, 2016

If I had written the final season of Downton Abbey

Montclere Castle: location of the fictional Downton Abbey

More than 200 mansions of the type featured in Downton Abbey were destroyed between the two World Wars.  Wouldn’t you have loved to know how Downton might have survived it?

Our household never missed a minute of the recently concluded BBC drama; and, like many, we were disappointed in the final episode, indeed in the entire final season.


The appeal of this soap opera springs from its adherence to the mores of the day and the history of the British estates, a history that goes back to the Tudors. By the time of Downton Abbey, a saga that straddled World War I, the British aristocracy had survived economic decline, onerous taxes and war.  At the outset of the first season, Downton’s survival had depended upon a strategic marriage by the Earl to a Jewish American heiress.  That was the reality of the time. 

That theme -- preserving a way of life and the duty felt by the Earl to do so -- was lost in the final season.  Julian Fellowes is a great writer.  However, if he had bothered to ask me (not that I thought he might), I would have advised him to keep that ball in play. 

In a wonderful recounting of the history of the British estates in Vanity Fair, Charles Spencer (the younger brother of Diana, Princess of Wales) captures the culture of the British aristocracy which, for centuries, lived according to a certain tradition centered on the idea that it was their solemn duty to preserve their estate along with its property, its decor and art collections.

The early seasons portrayed the Crawley family against a backdrop of modernizing the farming operations, selling parcels of land to real estate developers and (as I wrote about in “How DowntonAbbey destroyed England”) the loss of significant capital in a stock swindle. 
Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary
In Spencer’s Vanity Fair piece, he summarizes the context thusly:  

“… [T]he British aristocracy [was] forced to morph and contract from its final peak, in the late 1870s. Then 80 percent of the country’s acreage was owned by 7,000 families, principally those of the 431 hereditary members of the House of Lords—the dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons of the United Kingdom. Beginning in the 1880s, the export of grain from the Americas, followed by the arrival in Europe of refrigerated meat, halved agricultural income in Britain. What had been the lifeblood of the great estates for hundreds of years was cut off suddenly, and unexpectedly, with devastating effect, in both the short and the long term: agricultural rents were the same in 1936 as they had been in 1800.

“In a grim pincer movement, taxation increased at the same time. Death duties were introduced in 1894 at 8 percent. By 1939 these had reached 60 percent. In 1948 they were levied at 75 percent on estates worth more than £1 million (an equivalent, at the time, of $4 million). The British aristocracy drew in its horns. The most prominent families sold around seven million acres, or a quarter of England itself, in the years on either side of the war’s conclusion...” 

How would Lady Mary have dealt with these macroeconomic conditions?  I would have loved to know. 
Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith

I’m all for happy endings.  After all, I grew up in a time when full length Disney animations of Snow White and Cinderella were Sunday evening prime-time entertainment.

However, were I writing it, the Earl, deep into his 70’s by the mid-1920’s, would have met his demise in the final season, shortly after his bleeding ulcer burst so unceremoniously during one of Downton’s famous formal dinners.  And, so long as I am fiddling with the fortunes of the Crawley’s, I would have left Lady Mary refusing to marry beneath her station and the sister she despised, Lady Edith, as a fellow spinster and estate-mate, having ruined her prospects of marriage by having a child out of wedlock.

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane
Imagine, if you will, a final scene with Mary standing astride this fading empire, her sourpuss sister skulking in the background.  That would have begged for a sequel, wouldn’t it? 

Would the Crawley sisters survive the socioeconomic ordeal?


Would the sequel be kind of like “WhateverHappened to Baby Jane?


  1. Oh! Boy! This is a challenge, because, if you'd been in MY shoes, you'd know so much more juicy stuff about the Upper Class.
    In all my dealing with them, I concluded many years ago, that they weren't too bright generally. I put this down to the fact that most of them found it extremely undignified to marry beneath their station, so, like Muslims, they interbred with devastating genetic flaws resulting in a lack of brainpower that ran Great Britain into the ground.

    Not far from Downton Abbey is the beautiful estate of Lord Lansdowne, Bowood. I spent my childhood as a ragged arsed kid climbing over the ten foot wall (with broken bottles embedded atop it) to enjoy the peace and tranquility of a landscape designed by none other than Capability Brown. I dreamed of living in the Great House instead of the prefabricated post war piece of **** the government designated as a reward to their return WWII warriors.

    At that time, the house over a half of it was being demolished and I remember seeing the great pile of bathstone and leveled ground right by the lake where I spent many an hour fishing. The old boathouse was my favorite, as it had leaded glass windows and then the dust was wiped away a treasure house of stuffed animals, birds and fish could be stared at in complete awe! The heads of pike were so big I imagined they would swallow an eight year old whole.

    On odd occasion our 'gang of ragamuffins' would sneak into the boathouse and take Lord Lansdowne's boat out. It had a velvet seat at the rear for Lady Lansdowne to pose with her parasol as a servant rowed her around the lake.

    My dad took me fishing on Bowood Lake on many an occasion and we would occasionally see Old Lord Lansdowne on his huge white horse, deerstalker hat, and dog at heel. My dad would doff his forelock as he passed us, a task I vowed never to do.

    You can see what Old Lord Lansdowne's son, The Earl of Shelburne, has done out of necessity to keep the estate intact, by Googling bowood house.

    Perhaps the story should have ended with Downton Abbey suffering the same fate, partial demolition?

    Another great estate I frequented, was Longleat House (A Leat is a lake). Yet another landscaping creation by Capability Brown.

    Lord Bath was broke, the estate in debt and he came up with this idea of turning it into a Safari Park. He enclosed huge parts of the estate with twenty foot high fences and brought in a dozen lions. Folks were charge a fiver to drive their cars through the lion park, and of course, they came in droves!

    I was contracted my Old Lord Bath to repair the front steps of Longleat House. My guys did the job and shortly after, I received a call from Lord Bath who was extremely irritated. "The Queen is coming and my steps look like a bloody zebra!" he bellowed.

    Unfortunately, the aggregate I used was sent in two batches, and we'd had been instructed by his eminence to split the job in two, in order visitors could gain access to the house. The second batch of aggregate wasn't quite the same color unbeknown to me.

    I suggested that we could tone down the effect quite quickly using cow manure slurry. (It worked well on new stone tiles roofs) but that only produced large veins in the mans head!

    A few weeks later, things had quietened and I received a call from Lord Christopher, younger son, asking to settle the bill. I was summoned to the house and warned to bring a sharp pencil. When I arrived at Lord Christopher ushered me into the library. It was a huge room. He asked if I'd like a drink and thinking coffee, I agreed. He produced two large tumblers and poured two very large drinks of the best Scotch I have ever tasted. We had two or three of these, and after a good friendly chat I left, staggering to my car. On the way through the kitchens the staff chuckled and asked knowingly, if I'd been to see Lord Christopher. It seems he was hammered every day at this time, and most visitors left in the condition I found myself.

    1. The house was now a showpiece, hardly lived in now. Lord Bath and his wife lived in a gamekeepers cottage on the estate. They had a trout stream and so used to import fireflies from the USA and let them loose over the trout at dusk - just for fun.
      When Lord Bath died, the eldest son Alexander took over the estate, a tradition designed to keep estates intact.

      Do a Google search for Alexander Thynne. As you can see from his dress, the man is a crackpot.

      He had many wifelets. He had them holed up in the many workers cottages across the estate. He sacked his brother as comptroller of the estate and evicted him from his home. Can you imagine the ruckus that would have caused?

      These are my stories that I would have also woven into Downton Abbey; the series died a pathetic death in many people's opinion.