Before there was “Downton Abbey” there was “Brideshead Revisited,” an epic miniseries about the ups and downs of a fabulously rich aristocratic family living on a massive country estate. This is a genre that could rightly be called the Anglo-novella — or maybe aristo-porn. In any event, in 1981 “Brideshead” appeared in the U.S. to critical acclaim and large audiences. I was as bedazzled as anybody — and my subsequent disappointment with “Downton Abbey” can be traced back to high expectations set by that earlier series.
By now I’ve come to realize that despite their superficial similarities, particularly their romanticized surface views of life in great houses, it’s unfair to judge the two series by the same standard. “Brideshead,” based on the novel of the same name by Evelyn Waugh, is a serious work of art. And “Downton”? Well, it is what it is. It’s a romp, an entertainment with no ambitions other than to keep fannies planted in front of the television Sunday after Sunday.
I recently went back to rewatch “Brideshead” to see if I was remembering it correctly. Although I’d forgotten much of the plot, my memory was accurate on the crucial point: it absolutely was a tremendous show, on a par with any of the great dramas in this current golden age of television. It also got me thinking about the ways in which television has changed in 35 years.
The biggest difference between the two shows is that the producers of “Brideshead” had enormous respect for their viewers and didn’t think they needed to be spoon-fed every plot development or theme. “Brideshead” is slow-paced by today’s standards, with a lot of “showing,” not “telling.” It expects viewers to draw many of their own conclusions.
By contrast, “Downtown” creator Julian Fellowes neither trusts his viewers’ ability to keep the story straight, nor does he have any confidence in their concentration span. Every plot development is telegraphed episodes in advance, and there’s a general “rule of three,” in which every new fact has to be mentioned three times so no one misses the point.
Further, the narrative arcs of the two shows are completely opposite. Both shows begin with seductive and nostalgic views of the past, but “Bridehead” strips all that away to reveal family and religious dysfunction, while “Downton” strives for optimism, trying to show that all the characters are fundamentally like us, even if what unites us is our love for puppies.
Like most historical dramas, both “Downton” and “Brideshead” use history to reflect back the preoccupations of the present. This is especially true in “Downton,” whose characters constantly rehash 21st-century class and gender issues in a way that no actual person from the 1920s would have done.
“Brideshead,” written by Waugh in 1944 and dramatized in 1981 (and therefore closer to the period in question), is not about class or gender at all. It’s about religion. As a devoted Catholic convert, Waugh was intensely interested in how faith could distort lives even as it provided comfort and grace. It’s unthinkable that a large modern audience would sit through such a subtle theological dissection.
Like everyone else, I am struck by the gorgeousness of the “Downton Abbey” sets, some of which are filmed on location at Highclere Castle. But the settings in “Brideshead Revisited” are even more sumptuous, and you definitely get the impression that production budgets went a lot further in 1981. Not only does the “Brideshead” estate (set at Castle Howard) dwarf the “Downton” setting, but the earlier show was filmed at myriad other gorgeous locations, including Oxford University, Venice and London. (At least half the appeal of an Anglo-novella is the beautiful English houses and countryside.)
Ironically, because the locations are more authentic in “Brideshead,” they are less glamorized than on “Downton,” which has been cleaned-up to look like something out of Architectural Digest. In other words, while the “Brideshead” public rooms are grander, they are more threadbare, while the private rooms are more cramped, and everything seems cold and drafty.
Along with the authentic settings in “Brideshead” are authentic relationships between the masters, who are the subject of the story, and the servants, who are seen but not heard. There is no fraternizing between upstairs and downstairs, or gossiping among the aristocrats about the butler’s love life or the lady’s maid’s fertility. There’s a general aloofness and distance among all the “Brideshead” characters that’s absent on “Downton,” where the characters talk as familiarly with each other as modern Americans.
I could go on about why “Brideshead” is better than “Downton,” but that doesn’t prove that television was better in 1981 than it is now. In fact the reason “Brideshead” was such a hit is that it was a rare opportunity to watch high-quality television. The viewers who wanted a break from the cheesy prime-time soap operas of the early1980s had few options and flocked to “Brideshead” when it appeared.
Today, of course, television is downing in prestige television, and there’s no single show to rally around as there was when “Brideshead Revisited” came out. More important, we no longer automatically assume that British television shows are better than American ones. A couple of hours watching “Downton Abbey” will dispel that notion.