Downton Abbey and a Spectator Diary

by ericknight

I finished the second season of Downton Abbey this evening and, whilst I don’t usually write about television on my site, this post will be an exception.

In my opinion, Downtown Abbey is British costume drama at its finest. The writing is tight and the ideas are provoking. For some, the pleasure of Downton is all in the landscape and interiors. I think this misses what Downton is really about: a journey into the heart and soul of British conservatism at a time of extraordinary change. It is written and created by Julian Fellowes with all the attention to detail and tone which only Fellowes can pull off with conviction.

In the first season, we are introduced to a family wrestling with questions of inheritance. At first blush, this might seem like a fairly superficial storyline. And it is. Inheritance is merely the tool which Fellowes uses to explore deeper themes: duty, custom, custodianship. The family at the centre of the drama is that of Lord Grantham. In one of his finer moments, Lord Grantham is found walking the grounds of Downtown Abbey talking to his eldest daughter, Lady Mary, about her future. When she speaks out against the responsibilities of carrying Downton in her older age, Lord Grantham reveals something about his own motivations. He is not the owner of a great estate, he tells his daughter. He is merely its custodian – seeking to improve on what he has been entrusted until his children and their children after him can do something better with it.

It is the sentiment of the British country Tory, something we too rarely hear about in the Australian headlines but which I think is alive in this country. Speaking to friends who have grown up in rural Australia, there is a deep sense of duty to the land and building a local family. It often explains the unusual connections in rural politics between the conservatives and those with green views. Indeed one of Britain’s finest conservative thinkers, Roger Scruton, has recently penned Green Philosophy: how to think seriously about the planet. It draws on the connection between conservatism and environmental conservation. There is a great willingness in political conservatism to nurture what is handed down to us, including the environment. This might surprise some with a less patient view of the conservative thinking and the political right.

The second series moves through the First World War and is equally fascinating (if not a little more fanciful at times) than the first season. We get relatively few shots of the Western front and far more shots from the home front. The challenges of duty at home is brought home by excellent performances from Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) and Maggie Smith (the Countess of Grantham), amongst others. However, the Bates character is challenging– a stoic with a poor sense of judgment.

I’ve been meaning to publish something on the politics of Downton Abbey for a while now, and there may yet be an opportunity. The Spectator is an obvious home for such a piece, but there is so much British content in the Australian edition that it might be a bit much. However, I had a Diary in the Spectator recently which may interest. It is here. It includes thoughts from my recent book tour and covers the reflections of a young person publishing their ideas in book form for the first time. The Spectator Diary is a special piece of writing and it was an honour to be invited to write one. The British diaries are the best. They are understated in a way writing rarely is these days.

Malcolm Turnbull gave a great speech for the book earlier this month. You can read his speech here. For other recent pieces, look out for ABC local radio. I was on ABC Evenings recently with Dominic Knight. An interview I did with James O’Loghlin also recently got broadcasted a second time.

I’ll be doing an event or two at the Sydney Writers’ Festival in May. The schedule is out this week, I think, so look out in the newspapers for more details. Reframe is selling well. It was the #3 bestseller for political/social science books across the country this time last month. Let’s hope it can keep it up!

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Cathy April 22, 2012 at 2:14 am

just heard Reframe on RN , thanx for helping my uni assignment 🙂


Cheuk Yu May 4, 2012 at 7:27 am

learnt that it is going to be published in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Interested to see how the translated version sell in Asia . As idea of Reframe is not country or topic specific, it can be used wherever and whenever. It is philosophic and applicable to all issues.


Turtle Pham May 28, 2012 at 9:07 am

Heads up that you might need to fix your subscirbe link….

Plus two thumbs up for your first book ‘Reframe’! You sure have a lot of good points and i’m looking forward to discussing them further with you once I finish reading the book but for now keep up the good work.


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