Becoming Savvy With Downton Abbey
So, last night, I watched my very first episode of a genuine British drama. (The two episodes of Doctor Who I’ve seen don’t count, as I really didn’t watch them so much as listen to them with my hands over my eyes. I have a very low fright tolerance.) It was called Downton Abbey, and I did not understand one blessed thing that was occurring.
It’s made me feel more speculative than usual. Beware: cheesy observations may be ahead.
It was yet another case of You Speak English But I Speak American. I never realised how incredibly different the dialects are – prior to coming here, I really just thought that the Brits would use a variety of funny accents. But noooo, they use an entirely different language altogether. Much like back home in Texas, much of the colloquialisms are related to local culture, even if that cultural reference happens to be hundreds of years old. It shocks the hell out of me when my 26-year-old fiancée starts explaining references from World War 1 or the 1600s.
Apparently, this is something to which I need to become accustomed. It was never more clear than while watching Downton Abbey last night. Neither Tweet nor I had seen a single episode of this new drama series, but she immediately understood everything that was happening. It didn’t seem to matter that it is set during WW1 and takes place at a lordly manor house populated by scheming ladies and conniving servants, all of which is completely foreign to her day to day existence. I paid for a great deal of education back in the US, but the most intelligent response I can muster while watching that show was…blinking in confusion. I understood the words they were using, but not the order in which they used them. Or why the servants kept hanging around listening at strategically-placed grates.
I asked Eileen, my mother-in-law-to-be, about this just now. Why is this so fascinating to the British public, I inquired. This is the single most critically acclaimed drama on television here…why? Yes, the acting and directing is fantastic, she affirmed, but it also provides valuable insights into our history. Her grandparents vividly remember living in such a world and consequently, she grew up hearing similar stories.
In a weird way, it reminds me of the American fascination with shows like The Real Housewives of [insert upper-class community here] or even Dallas. I was fortunate enough that my family moved to the US when I was young enough to become fully indoctrinated with The American Dream, which taught me very clearly that if I work hard enough, get enough education and behave honorably enough, I too can partake in material, social and psychological rewards. Imbedded deep in my psyche is the notion that I could be happy and rich one day. Thus, I watched shows like Dallas as a youngster because it provided insights into what my life might become. It was absurd and wildly over-the-top, but the houses, the cars, the sheer wealth and grandeur of it all might reflect my future. (Plus, they talked funny, so it was a win-win for me.) It seems that the popular dramas here in Britain reflect a mirror image – wildly over-dramatised reflections of their very real past.
So what have I learned? While the same materialistic societal measuring sticks that we use in the US abound here as well, they also measure their progress by how far they’ve come.
“It really used to be that way,” Eileen said quietly. “It helps to look at it and see where we were, and know that we’ve moved so far beyond it.”
The quiet dignity with which she made these statements has given me pause. Yes, British culture is bombarded with crap like Jedward and gluttonous reality TV, but it also keeps a constant, speculative eye on the past. I feel humbled and intimidated by this, but also hopeful – I’m an Irish-American, so their past is my past too. I need to start casting a wider eye upon my own journey; I’ve already come a thousand miles just to get here and I can’t wait to see how this unfolding past informs my future!