The early decades of the 20th century were no doubt cataclysmic
times for the people of Britain – with two world wars, women’s suffrage, and,
according to the writers of the hit TV series Downton Abbey, a slew of modern
gizmos that revolutionized the kitchen.
The vicissitudes of the
aristocratic Crawley family and their servants against the backdrop of historic
upheavals have struck a chord with Britons, Commonwealthers and former colonies
alike. Had Michelle Obama not requested an advance copy of Downton’s third
season last year? But the series has also drawn viewers in countries whose very
boundaries were forged by Brit-ish mapmakers during the period in which the
series is set. The Middle East – home to unre-pentant lovers of soppy soaps and
melodrama – welcomed the yarn offering an insight into the lives of an
uppercrust family in “imperial” Britain.
But here is where the writers
failed to “maximize”, to borrow a term used by the Earl of Grantham
Downton Abbey, if it is to be seen as a microcosm of Britain
itself, could have been far greater viewing had it acknowledged the influence of
Britain and the role played by Britons abroad with a few clever subplots and
These additions might even have resonated with events playing out
in the Middle East region today. Instead, while Downton’s international appeal
was buoyed for some time by Season One’s promising start, the series gradually
sank under the weight of painfully parochial story- lines.
Season One set
sail upon global airwaves with its deft – if clichéd – use of the Titanic
sinking in 1912 – an event which impacted individuals of various nationalities,
including Turkish, Armeni-an, Syrian and Lebanese.
It sustained the
interest of the greater Middle Eastern audience by weaving in the persona of
Kemal Pamuk, a smoldering, horse-riding Turkish diplomat as love interest for
the supercilious Lady Mary Crawley.
Kemal’s wholly unexpected and kinky
manner of death seemed intended as a promise to viewers that Downton Abbey would
be more than just a la-di-da period drama for housewives. Here, they seemed to
suggest, was the thinking woman’s soap opera.
Pamuk’s death presented a
plethora of potential eventualities. Would it trigger a diplomatic row? Would
Pamuk’s influential family demand an inquiry into the death of their son? Would
Pamuk’s father, keeper of the family’s ancestral Palace on the Bosphorus, travel
to England to seek answers and instead fall for the charms of American-born Cora
Crawley, aka Countess of Grantham? An adulterous affair, a society scandalized!
Syrian actor Ghassan Massoud who played Saladdin in Kingdom of Heaven, might
have been offered the role.
Sadly, Pamuk’s demise was wasted, used merely
as a device to complicate the courtship of Lady Mary and Cousin
A WRITER seeking to cement a stake in the Middle Eastern market
might have had viewers dis-cover that Branson the chauffeur is a relative, from
his mother’s side, of Anglo- Irish born T.E. Lawrence. Consider this
possibility: The amateur archeologist stops by Downton to say he’s on his way to
a dig in the Levant, and to ask whether his favorite cousin Branson would like
to join in the adventure.
A discussion about Arab aspirations for
independence from the Ottoman Empire ensues, sparking the inev-itable parallels
with the Irish…. Imagine a jellaba-clad Branson fighting in the
In the same vein, a Downton dinner could have brought Gertrude
Bell, godmother of the modern Middle East, to the cast of supporting characters,
played perhaps by Kristen Scott Thomas. Lady Edith mentions she has read Bell’s
book on Syria. Bell decides to take the ugly Crawley sister under her wing, and
invites her to visit her in Cairo, where she is to be posted in a few
This tangent would feature beautiful Cairo scenes, filmed on
location in Morocco. There, Edith catches the eye of a womanizing Egyptian
Prince Kamal el Dine Hussein, who renounces his rights to succession so that he
may live a life of adventure with his English mistress. Egyptian actor Omar
Sharif was born to play this role. Far more exciting to channel Lady Jane Digby,
19th century English aristocrat-cum-adventuress, than Lady Edith’s affair with a
newspaper editor who’s got a mad wife in the attic.
And what about an
opium den, a place where any self-respecting English degenerate ought to
frequent? Why doesn’t this mythical cavern of pleasure make a single appearance
in the Downton series? What if resident degenerate Thomas were an opium addict?
Introduced to the habit by a former aristocratic lover, he uses his days off to
frequent London’s seedy Lime-house district to satiate his need. Not exactly
historically accurate or factual? It hasn’t stopped Downton writers so
An astounding omission in the series is the single major event that
impacted European society and fashion in the 1920s: the discovery by English
archaeologist Howard Carter of Tutankha-mun’s tomb. What makes this omission
even more peculiar is that Carter’s expedition had been financed by none other
than the 5th Lord Carnavron, whose descendants still live at Highclere Castle
where Downton Abbey is filmed! So why not a cameo by amateur Egyptolo-gist Lord
Carnavron himself, played perhaps by English actor Ralph Fiennes? A credible
link would have been to introduce him as an old Eton classmate of Robert
Crawley, Earl of Gran-tham. A fitting tribute that might have been.
no secret that the Downton series has shamelessly stolen ideas from left, right
and center, most notably from predecessor “Upstairs, Downstairs”. It’s got the
chauffeur’s romance with the feisty sister, the meddlesome imperious
mother-inlaw, and the tarty lady’s maid. So while we’re in the business of
stealing characters and plotlines, why did they not think of “borrow-ing” a
character inspired by Nancy Mitford’s “Bolter”? Who wouldn’t have enjoyed a
cameo by timeless beauty Jacqueline Bisset in the “Bolter” role based on Happy
Valley set doyenne Idina Sackville? Downton’s Bolter might have been the Dowager
Countess’ rebel daughter who had run off with her Spanish matador lover to Kenya
(nod to Hemingway).
Taking this thread fur-ther, viewers might have been
led to discover that she is, in fact, the biological mother of the rebellious
Lady Sybil Crawley.
And if the show’s producers had really wanted to sex
things up a bit in Season Four, Downton might have ditched the cameo by
what’sher- name the opera singer and instead brought in Mata Hari! During World
War I, as a Dutch subject, the dancer-cum-spy used to travel between France and
the Netherlands via Britain. In 1916, she was arrested and brought to London for
questioning… (Casting call for Audrey Tautou?) What if Cousin Matthew were
involved in the case, representing Mata Hari in court? Perhaps in flashback
Every soap viewer loves a flashback.
Wait, Matthew was
fighting in the Great War then… Well, it certainly would have been more
interesting to follow Mata Hari’s courtroom proceedings than those of the
murder- ing valet, Boring Bates.
As Downton’s Season Four draws to a
close, it’s anyone’s guess whether there will be subse-quent seasons.
most viewers in the Middle East, neither the sumptuous costumes, the lavish
interiors nor Maggie Smith’s zingers can help reignite the enthusiasm they may
have felt for the series at the outset.
Had writers explored avenues
other than cheap soap opera banali-ties like rape, out-of-wedlock pregnancy or
court room drama, there may have been opportu-nities for compelling spin-off
series. By now, I venture to say, the interest of the average Mid-dle East
viewer has gone the way of the Titanic.The writer is a Doha-based
Canadian journalist. She has covered the greater Middle East and Afghanistan for
over a decade.