‘Downton’ in Arabia

How the British TV series might have ‘maximized’ international appeal.

Downton Abbey (photo credit: MCT)
Downton Abbey
(photo credit: MCT)
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 himself.
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 cameos.
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 Matthew.
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 desert.
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 months.
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 far.
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.
It is 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 mode.
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.
For 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.