Oh, stalwart Matthew!
Oh, long-suffering Mary!
Ohhhh, you bad girl, Dowager Countess!
If you’re a sucker, as I am, for the melodrama playing out in the PBS series, “Downton Abbey,” then, as an even greater fan of nonfiction, you might also be curious about what sort of documentary fare covers the real world of the upstairs-downstairs set.
There are many books on the subject from Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle to Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor and The World of Downton Abbey. But where are the real-life documentaries on the lives of British aristocracy and their servants in the early 20th century? There are surprisingly few.
Sure, there have been a few documentaries from across the pond, including Great Estates and A Year in the Life of Castle Howard. And there was the more scandalous The Queen’s Hidden Cousins from Channel 4, but that’s just tangentially related. Thank goodness, then, that PBS took it upon itself to release Secrets of the Manor House last month, and to make it available online for our viewing pleasure. (Watch the entire episode below!)
Manor House is great stuff. It had me from the get go, with beautiful, long helicopter shots of grand English castles and homes, and fascinating photos of aristocrats. But more than anything, it provides a lively examination into the world of all those earls and barons. There’s a breakdown of the hierarchy and plenty of historical context, such as how those vast estates were established, and the significance of King Edward VII, the party king who really raised the roof on etiquette and the leisure lifestyle.
So, check out Manor House for a good “Downton Abbey” reality check. And for those who can’t help watching “Downton Abbey” without cracking wise about the overarched eyebrows and the way everyone keeps walking in on everyone else at the exact moment a private confession is being uttered (Why don’t they just close their damn doors?), then I have the thing for you: A Sense of History.
Shot as if it’s an earnest BBC documentary, A Sense of History is a hilariously droll mockumentary, written by the actor Jim Broadbent, who also stars as the Earl. Mike Leigh (Secrets & Lies, Happy-Go-Lucky) is the director. This early 90s production that resonates with Monty Python humor is exactly the sort of thing I was hoping for.
With a dry wit that does, admittedly, become a bit too coarse toward the end, Broadbent wanders his vast estate, telling an off-screen film crew the ghastly tale of his monstrously inept parents and their loathsome lineage. It’s parody, but as with such things, it digs deep toward a greater truth about the tea-and-crumpet types we’ve come to love. I’ll never be able to view the “Downton Abbey” characters in the same way again.