British History

Downton Abbey Ushers in a New Era in Britain

A hearty round of applause goes to Julian Fellowes who knocked one out of the park, yet again.

The second movie spinoff of Downton Abbey hit the theaters a few weeks ago and is being met with mostly favorable reviews.

As of June 17, 2022, “Downton Abbey: A New Era” has grossed $41.6 million in the United States and Canada and $45.5 million in other countries, for a worldwide total of $87.1 million

Many passionate Downton followers, including myself, think “Downton Abbey: A New Era” was a better written, more entertaining, offering then the last motion picture.

And as an added bonus, in this second Downton Abbey movie, viewers feast their eyes on a French villa in the south of France. It was Villa Roccabella located about an hour from Saint-Tropez, which features extensive gardens, a heated outdoor pool, yoga deck and a private beach (used in the swimming scene with Tom and Lucy Branson). It was designed in the late 19th century by Hans-Georg Tersling, a Danish architect

I found it remarkable how Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey and the award-winning script writer, weaved its characters so meticulously into a tapestry of compelling subplots, twists and turns all in two hours and five minutes, culminating with Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) assuming the titular head of the Downton estate.

The movie takes place in 1928.

Two topics, in particular, are covered in the movie, which reflects accurately what was taking place in Britain on the brink of the Great Depression: the emergence of talkie films and British societies icy intolerance of homosexuality. In an age of massive fact-checking, viewers of this movie can rest assured “Downton Abbey: A New Era” did get its facts correct. The film, according to historians, was meticulously researched to the point that everything represented in it is grounded in factual events, including its people and technology.

Mary

Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) voice is used in order for the production company to transition from a silent film to a talkie.

Photo Credit: BEN BLACKALL/FOCUS FEATURES

***

In “Downton Abbey: A New Era,” a production company makes a hefty financial offer to use the Downton estate as a location for a new movie, titled The Gambler. After some trepidation, but knowing they have to repair a leaky roof to the Downton estate, Lady Mary Talbot agrees to the generous financial arrangement. The film, as was customary at the time, was intended as a silent film.

Almost halfway through the filming, the producer and director, Jack Barber (played by Hugh Dancy) gets word from studio execs that the film has to be scratched, because silent films are no longer profitable. After some deft maneuvering, clever strategy, and discussion, Lady Mary Talbot and the director decide to flow with the tide and make the film a talkie so they won’t have to cancel production after all.

The phasing out of silent films in favor of talkies was in fact taking place in Britain in 1928.

According to Laraine Porter, Reader in Cinema History at De Montfort University (Leicester), “1928 was significant for British cinema as it saw the implementation of the 1927 Cinematograph (Quota) Act which obliged cinemas to show a proportion of British-made films in the face of Hollywood's almost total domination.”

The British film industry hit an all-time low in 1926 when only 5 % of films screened in British cinemas were British. American films dominated the market. Films that started silent in Britain and ended as talkies was common around this time. They were referred to as “Goat Gland” films.

Since the British film industry was mired in such weak financial standing in 1928, and now were forced to invest vast amounts of money into talking technology, many of the smaller producers (who invested heavily on silent film technology) went bankrupt.

In 1927, the American produced “The Jazz Singer” represented the first motion picture which featured isolated talking scenes and synchronized dialogue, thanks to sound-on-disc technology.

The big breakthrough in Britain came in November, 1928, when the motion picture, "The Terror" reached British cinemas.

Britain’s transition to talking films came a year after the United States studios. Laraine Porter explained to me that “Britain had an established culture of popular theatre, particularly the Aldwych Farces, and a popular literary heritage which offered ready source material for the new talkies.” “These sources,” Porter explained, “had specific domestic appeal to audiences who also wanted to see and hear their favorite music-hall and Variety stars - like Gracie Fields - in film.” 

In addition, Britain had heaps of engineers and technicians from the BBC to draw from who were proficient in helping studios make the transition from silent to talking films.

Laraine Porter contends that there was “a massive urban working-class ready-made audience who supported early British talkies.”

The Terror, a murder mystery set in an English country house represented the first continuous “all-talkie” to premiere in Europe. It was released by Warner Bros, their second all talkie film. The first was “Lights of New York” also released in 1928.

Mary 2

Actor Guy Dexter (Dominic West) invites head butler, Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier),  to come live with him in America.

Photo Credit: BEN BLACKALL/FOCUS FEATURES

***

Another hot-button issue which “Downton Abbey: A New Era” nibbles around the edges at is the topic of same-sex relationships in Britain in 1928.

The dashing Thomas Barrow (played by Robert James-Collier), the head butler at the Downtown Estate, who is gay, develops an attraction to one of the actors filming a movie at the Downton estate, Guy Dexter (played wonderfully by Dominic West). Dexter offers Barrow a chance to live with him in America as his personal assistant and social secretary; a role that is described in the film as a “dresser.” The idea that this would mark the beginning of a romantic relationship between the two is gently intimated in the film. When Barrow agrees and turns in his notice to Lady Mary, she shares his happiness and says, “I wish you all the happiness this cruel world can afford.”

The “cruel world’’ which Lady Mary refers to, is, of course, gays being treated as social outcasts in Britain in the 1920s.

Back in the 16th century, Britain considered homosexuality a criminal act.

The Buggery Act of 1533, passed by Parliament during the reign of Henry VIII targeted homosexuality for persecution. Sex between men was punishable by death in the United Kingdom. The law, strangely, never affected females.

Not until 1861 was the Offences Against the Person Act passed, which eliminated the death penalty for homosexual acts and replaced it with 10-years of imprisonment.

Things didn’t improve for the gay community in 1885. The Criminal Law Amendment Act not only made male homosexual acts illegal, they could also be prosecuted whether or not a witness was present; meaning, private acts were subject to prosecution. Usually, a handwritten letter suggesting intimacy between two men was all the court needed to prosecute. It was this ambiguously written law that Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, fell victim to in 1895.

It took well into the 20th century, 1957, in fact, when the Wolfenden Report was issued, which recommended that “homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private should be no longer a criminal offence.”

Despite the recommendations from the Wolfenden Report, Parliament took until 1967 to pass the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 in the United Kingdom, which legalized homosexual acts in England and Wales on the condition they were at least 21 years old and the acts were consensual and in private. Penalties were, however, issued for street offenses.

Amazingly, the law was not changed for Scotland until 1980, or for Northern Ireland until 1982.

Despite the severe penalties gays were subject to at the time Downton Abbey, the movie, supposedly takes place, 1928,’’ Patrick Allitt, Professor of American History at Emory College tells me that ‘’we know from lots of literary evidence that [homosexuality] was widespread, particularly among the Bloomsbury Group intellectuals, such as Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, J. M. Keynes, and others.”

The Bloomsbury Group were a group of influential English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists, bold renegades, who opened the Victorian upper classes eyes to the LGBT point of view, a subject never discussed in Britain at the time, unless behind closed doors. Many point to the works of the Bloomsbury Group which sparked a seismic shift in Britain regarding LGBTQ rights.

According Lucy Delap, Professor of Modern British and Gender History at the University of Cambridge, “1928 was an interesting year as far as same sex relationships were concerned, because of the publication and then prosecution for obscenity of Radclyffe Hall’s “The Well of Loneliness” – a Sapphic novel that caused uproar and became iconic for many lesbian readers – but only covertly read of course, in versions smuggled in from France.”

It was in October, 1928, when Virginia Woolf published “Orlando: A Biography,” which today is considered a feminist classic. The book chronicles the escapades of a poet who changes sex from man to woman and lives for centuries, meeting the key figures of English literary history. The novel was inspired by Woolf’s lesbian lover, the poet Vita Sackville-West. Literary scholars point to this novel as one of the first novels about gender uncertainty.

Guard

Not until 1960 were the British reading public able to read an uncensored edition of D.H. Lawrence’s novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”

Photo Credit: Philip Jackson/Daily Mail/Rex

***

Also in 1928, D.H. Lawrence secretly printed (in Italy) his eleventh novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” about an upper-class married woman, Constance or Lady Chatterley, who is racked with internal torment when she neglects her paralyzed husband (from a war injury) and falls into the arms of a gatekeeper, a member of the working-class.

Because Lady Chatterley was filled with explicit sex scenes and four-letter words, it was banned in the United Kingdom after its publishers, Penguin, were brought to trial under the Obscene Publications Act. Not until March, 1960, did Penguin win the rights to publish the novel in its entirety. Book stores reportedly all over England sold all 200,000 copies on the first day of publication.

1928 (November 11) was also the year that Thomas Hardy, considered to be the greatest English writer, died at his home in Dorchester. He was 87.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED), a reference book requiring the efforts of 1,300 people for more than 70 years was completed in 1928. The word “Zyxt” was the last word in the final volume of the dictionary.

English poets Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning were consulted about the meaning of words that appeared in their poems. J.R.R. Tolkien, in fact, was an assistant lexicographer for one year, 1919. At least six editors guided the process.

Politically, 1928 ushered in a new era for women’s voting rights.

It too nearly 60 years of campaigning, but on July 6, 1928, all women over 21 years old finally got the right to vote with the passing of the Representation of the People (Equal Franchise) Act 1928. Prior to that, a voting act in 1918 gave the vote to all men over age 21 and all women over age 30, tripling the electorate.

On February 15, 1928, British Liberal Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916, H. H. [Herbert Henry] Asquith, passed away at the age of 75. He resigned as leader of the Liberal Party in October, 1926.

Asquith’s finest achievement was the Parliament Act of 1911,which stripped the Lords of any veto over money bills or public legislation and became a landmark piece of legislation in paving the way for representative democracy in Great Britain.

A major medical breakthrough occurred in Britain in 1928, when Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, working in his laboratory at St Mary's Hospital Paddington, London discovered, by accident, a mold growing on a dish had stopped bacteria from developing. Fleming’s antibacterial effects of penicillin were described as the "single greatest victory ever achieved over disease."

Fleming published his findings in 1929 in the British Journal of Experimental Pathology.

Tragically, 1928 was the year of a major flood in London. The Thames flooded a large swath of central London. The high waters were triggered by a depression in the North Sea which sent a storm surge up the tidal river.

The Houses of Parliament, the Tate Gallery and the Tower of London were all overwhelmed with high waters. The slums on the Westminster side of Lambeth Bridge, suffered the worst of it, where 10 of the 14 victims lost their lives. At one inquest, a man named Alfred Harding identified the bodies of his four daughters - Florence Emily, 18, Lillian Maude, 16, Rosina, six, and Doris Irene, two.

Taken together, the Thames flood left 14 people dead and an estimated 4,000 people homeless across London.

The flood of 1928, together with the disastrous North Sea Flood of 1953, inspired the construction of Thames Barrier in the 1970s.

1928 certainly wasn’t a good time for the working class in general, with high unemployment “especially in old industrial areas of northern England southern Scotland and South Wales. It got worse in the financial crisis of 1929-31,” Professor Patricia Thane, Visiting Professor in History at Birkbeck College, London said.

Politically, Conservatives were in power in the UK from 1924 through 1929, which contributed to the working-class plight of low wages and deteriorating economic conditions. Lucy Delap observed that “a Labour government had been in power as a minority in 1924 (briefly), and were to be voted in again in 1929 – so working-class voters were I think quite aware of the new political landscape and the possibility of change. When the second minority Labour government came in 1929, high hopes were dashed by the economic recession, and the government only lasted until 1931.”

So, the title of the movie: “Downton Abbey: A New Era” might not have been referring to a ‘’new era’’ only as it applies to the Crawley family at the Downton estate. A new era, to be sure, could be witnessed all over Britain in 1928 with social and economic conditions, the political landscape, and most certainly with movies and British literature.

 

--Bill Lucey

WPLucey@gmail.com

June 18, 2022


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