Why Has Downton Abbey Been An International Hit?
When Downton Abbey launched in 2010, nobody anticipated the international sensation the quintessentially British period drama would be. In 2015, Downton is watched in over 250 international territories and can claim to have boosted almost everything British – from tourism to butlers. How has a series about the owners and staff of a post-Edwardian estate become a global phenomenon?
The international interest in Britain’s history, culture and class system cannot be understated – more than 180 international broadcasters picked up to rights to the BBC live feed of the 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. In the US, where Downton has been nominated for a whopping fifty primetime Emmy awards, the British class system is almost alien. In the US, social class is synonymous with income. The idea that middle class lawyer Matthew Crawley could find himself the heir of a huge fortune, but still be looked down upon for his background, is hard to fathom and interesting to watch.
The presence of an American insight into the British household is also speculated to have contributed to the show’s popularity stateside. Cora, the Countess of Grantham, was brought up outside the peculiarities of the British aristocracy, and is sometime portrayed as much an outsider as the fans. Speaking at a recent press conference, writer Julian Fellowes said: “The advantage for me about the show having the American wife […] was that it gave me a central character who was not dyed in the wool of the English upper class upbringing. You could have one of the principal characters who didn’t take all that stuff for granted, but questioned it, which Cora did, and as the world changed, in fact it changed towards her.”
The social and economic climate could also have played a role in the popularity of Downton. Throughout five seasons of Downton, the household has struggled for staying afloat due to rising costs. The timeless tale of an old way of life fighting a tide of modernity rings true still today. The series appeared in the midst of global recession, during which the hot topic issue of income inequality has been called out again and again by politicians and the media. The struggles of the Crawleys are completely different – yet not so different – from our own struggles.
Downton Abbey is so popular in China that on a 2014 visit, David Cameron gifted Chinese Premier Li Keqiang a signed shooting script from the series. China is not experiencing an economic decline as seen on the show – quite the opposite – but interest in the very British Downton can be partly explained by the socioeconomic climate there too. In a booming economy, China has experienced a rise in its middle classes and these newly minted families are interested in symbols of wealth. In 2013, CBS News reported that demand for butlers had skyrocketed since the series began, with six new butler academies opening in China. In a way, Downton Abbey is a blueprint for how those with money live, and the suddenly-wealthy Chinese are fascinated by it.
The popularity of Downton Abbey is down to more than international intrigue at the British way of life or convenient timing, however. The show owes a large portion of its success to impeccable writing and performances. Every episode is written single-handedly by Academy Award-winning writer Julian Fellowes, with episodes exploring emotional themes and relatable issues. Fellowes said: “I think there has been a conscious effort on my part to deal with issues that were current at the time of when the characters were living, but also to have some relevance today and strike a chime with us; whether we’re dealing with hospitals or hunting, or whatever it is, these are issues that the public is aware of. […] We also tend to stick with issues that are not nationally bound. The problems that we have in this country are shared, certainly by Europe, but also more than that.” There’s also a lot of credit to be given to an incredibly talented cast for their ability to bring these characters to life.
Downton Abbey is nothing short of a phenomenon. It’s inherent Britishness has been crucial to its international success, along with good timing, socioeconomic circumstance and exceptional writing. The sixth season and Christmas special have high hopes riding on their shoulders, but we don’t doubt the beloved favourite will reach a triumphant conclusion.
Downton Abbey‘s final series begins this Sunday at 9pm on ITV.