Written on: 10. 11. 2011 in the category: news

Memory murdered by know-nothing land of TV

I had been watching ‘Downton Abbey’ these recent weeks in the fond and fervent hope that the great Spanish Influenza Pandemic of 1918 would wipe out the entire household.

And then, to my disbelieving horror, I discovered that last Sunday’s programme was not the last. Far from the flu making short work of the entire cast, it had done for just one of their number: a seldom-seen waif.

Let me be frank. I have followed ‘Downton Abbey’ with the sick, bewildered shame of a happily married man that consorts with a one-legged prostitute who is older than his mother. “Why am I doing this,” I cry each Sunday, trying to repress the waves of nauseated disbelief assailing me, as I indulge in yet another episode of this sorry farrago.

For DA has all the dramatic skill and historical verisimilitude of a nativity play in a boys’ kindergarten, in which the camel is represented by a decrepit old armchair weeping horsehair and the Virgin is played by an unwashed urchin who has just found an exceedingly interesting object up his left nostril. And now we learn that ‘Downton Abbey’ has yet another series to run: which is rather as if the whore has introduced her poor, perversion-addicted client to her even more physically challenged mother.

‘Downton Abbey’ lacks the most fundamental dialectic of any drama: namely, tension/ conflict/resolution. Instead, events follow upon one another, not even consequentially, but sequentially: costumed characters appear and disappear, with all the human chemistry of cuckoos emerging from a special-needs clock. Idle whimsy masquerades as plot. A handsome officer is paralysed, but we know all along he is going to be mysteriously cured; the severed spine, after a year, turns out to be just bruised. As if. . .

Yes, and a character in 1916 actually says, “As if. . .”: nothing else, though that ironically wistful bi-verbal rejoinder made its very first appearance on this side of the Atlantic 80 years later, in the 1996 film ‘Clueless’. I’ve been expecting someone to declare, in Valley-speak, “I’m like, ‘excuse me?'”

‘Downton Abbey’ is a ‘Dallas’ for viewers with learning difficulties. Yet it is not actually a downmarket soap opera: it is THE flagship drama of independent television in Britain, and it suggests that death of public memory there is becoming almost irreversible. The series could not possibly have been made without many filters of editorial scrutiny, at the very highest level; yet nonetheless lumbering anachronisms and excruciating solecisms — which include a reference to the six-week rising in 1916 in Ireland — stagger around the screen like apes in an aviary.

This is know-nothing land, inhabited by know-nothing writers and know-nothing directors: a history of Tibet, as presented by the Pogues, aided by Podge and Rodge.

A large corporation is often a reflection of the society that produced it — and this is especially true of a media organisation. One way or another, the checks and balances it contains, and the input, the ambitions and the cultural sensitivities of its workforce, between them represent a fair facsimile of the broader culture in which it and they exist. And the only conclusion that one can reach is that the faculty of a common memory is simply perishing in England. In its place is the ersatz pseudo-memory of poppy-wearing, with a sentimentalised, heritage-centre commemoration of two world wars. In the fact-free broth of modern folklore, Remembrance Sunday occurs shortly after the grey squirrel of Halloween, which is rapidly displacing the native red squirrel of Guy Fawkes Night, just before the Christmas decorations go up. And what is Christmas? Oh, something of an obsolete embarrassment. Even the latest episode of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ refers to a Christmas tree as a “Holiday Tree”: otherwise known as Parity of Steam.

The website for Leicester, where I was born, boasts that the city’s celebrations for the Hindu feast of Diwali are the largest outside India. There is no mention of Christmas. (What about Jesus? Leicester has two, actually. Stilton and Red Leicester) As for places of worship, the website mentions the Church of England cathedral, also two mosques, and a temple each for Hindus and Sikhs, but no reference to other Church of England churches, or churches or chapels for Catholics, Methodists, Baptists or Presbyterians. Oh yes, and the city is in the middle of its Black History Month, complete with capitals, whatever Black History is: but just try having a white history month, never mind one with capitals.

Now, there might be some other explanation why the biggest-budget drama in British television cannot remotely get language or uniforms or historical events right: but I suspect it is the death of English group memory within the widespread dogmas of ideological multiculturalism.

How else, for example, could the film ‘Atonement’ star a black soldier in the retreat from Dunkirk, one of the most photographed events in the Second World War, and in the actual coverage of which one cannot find a single black face?

How else could ITN refer — as it did three years ago — to the 400,000 men “and women” killed and injured in the Battle of the Somme?

And perhaps most tragically, of all, how else the plague rat that is ‘Downton Abbey’?