Posh British soap Downton Abbey is a worldwide television phenomenon, but could the introduction of the ‘vulgar’ American character Martha kill the US’s love affair with the show…?

As dawn broke over Washington D.C. on Monday January 7th area residents were divided into two camps.  No, not Democrats and Republicans this time, not conservatives and liberals, but those who couldn’t stop talking about the last Redskins game on Sunday afternoon and those who couldn’t stop talking about the first episode of Downton Abbey (Season 3) on Sunday evening.  Washington’s football team, the beleaguered Redskins, who had shown signs of a revival of fortune, lost in the first game of the play-offs and are out for the rest of the season.  The heartbreaking circumstance was the injury of the star quarterback, a god-like young man known mysteriously as RGIII, believed by fans to possess magical powers.  As he limped from the field with a ruined knee, the controversy began over whether the coach could have saved him, and the game, by pulling him out at the first sign of injury and giving his substitute a chance.  The fact that I am so well informed about this should not be taken to indicate that I have any interest whatever in the sport.  But you cannot live in the Washington area and escape hearing far more than you ever wished to know about the ongoing drama of the Redskins.  It is a saga with as many heroes and villains, tragedies and triumphs, scandals and sub-plots as any television series, though perhaps lacking in the costume department.

But on this morning I was firmly in the Downton Abbey camp.  The series is a bona fide television phenomenon in the United States, with this Sunday’s season premiere garnering 7.9 million viewers, one of the highest audiences ever for PBS (the Public Broadcasting Service).  Just why Americans are so fascinated by the lives of British aristocrats and their servants a century ago is open to interpretation, and there is no shortage of interpreters.  Nostalgia for monarchy, identification with a time of rapid social change, the irresistible draw of a soap opera in fancy dress?  Whatever the reason, Downton Abbey has become a national obsession.  Everywhere I went on Monday morning friends, family, and strangers were discussing Season 3’s first episode.  Yes Lady Mary’s wedding dress did dazzle and the Earl of Grantham facing his personal fiscal cliff resonated.  But what was most interesting about these conversations was that they all ended up focusing on the depiction of Martha Levinson, the Countess of Grantham’s American mother, played by Shirley MacLaine.  Her addition to the cast had been eagerly anticipated as a clash between two legendary acting divas.  Would MacLaine be able to match Maggie Smith quip for quip?  The expectation was no.  But few would have predicted that the American character would be played as such a stereotype that the “special relationship” heretofore enjoyed by British TV dramas and the American viewing public is endangered.

These are some of the comments about Martha Levinson I heard or received in emails:

“A complete stereotype of the ugly, rich American.”
“Her make-up was clownish. Americans as clowns.”
“Over the top, even more so than the British family.”
“She had some very telling comments but she wasn’t allowed to be funny.”
“The Dowager Countess was crisp and funny. Martha seemed annoying.”
“All her lines were trademark American lines for every situation.”
“She had bad manners.”
“A vulgar woman. Is that what they think of Americans?”

I must admit I felt much the same as these critics.  I thought her dress was flashy as compared to the restrained good taste of the Crawleys.  Like something Mrs. Patmore, the cook, would wear if she suddenly came into money and was trying too hard.  I was particularly appalled by her table manners.  She was shown hunched over her plate chowing down while the Crawleys feigned decorous disinterest and picked at their food.  Even the servants commented on her greedy eating.  But is there a grain of truth in this picture?  Americans really do eat more.  I remember being shocked when I was first served a steak dinner in an American home.  The piece of meat on my plate was bigger than the Sunday roast my mother cooked for our family of six!  Martha Levinson also exhibited the American habit of using her fork as a shovel, which does look crude to British eyes.  Americans, on the other hand, find British eating habits funny. I once saw an American friend reduced to fits of barely repressed laughter as he watched a woman in a London restaurant carefully slice her peas in half and balance the pieces precariously on the underside of her fork to convey them to her mouth.  An American using the shovel method would have eaten the lot before she had managed two or three.

But along with her flashy ways and bad manners Martha also embodied the positive side of the American character.  Impatient with tradition and formality, she swept through the stifled rooms of Downton Abbey like a burst of fresh air.  When the Crawley’s made a ridiculous fuss over whether everyone had the appropriate jackets to wear for dinner, Martha unstuffed their stuffed shirts with cheerful American pragmatism.  She turned a crisis over a broken stove into a jolly good time, which even seemed to bring a smile to the Dowager Countess’s usually disapproving features.  This side of Martha’s character was not mentioned as often by those I heard from on Monday.  Perhaps it is taken for granted by Americans.  But it resonated with me as an ex-pat.  On my first visit home after several years in America I remember being aware of a smothering atmosphere I can best sum up as: “We’ve always done it this way so we’ll keep on doing it this way forever.  You are what you were born to be until the end of time.”  I had tasted the heady American freedom to reinvent yourself over and over, to take or leave traditions or to create your own.  Once you breathe this air it is very hard to go back.

It remains to be seen whether Americans’ bruised egos will forgive the creators of Downton Abbey for the Martha stereotype.  Will they continue their love affair with the British aristocracy?  Will the Countess of Grantham’s saintliness in the face of financial ruin make up for her mother’s failure to save the day with her boatloads of American cash?  What did British viewers think of the American visitor I wonder?  Perhaps the Dabblers can weigh in on this matter of crucial importance for British-American relations.

I’ll let my daughter have the last word.  When she heard a complaint about the depiction of Martha she responded: “But that’s what the British do think of Americans.”  I have to wonder just where she got that impression.

Rita Byrne Tull is an ex-pat librarian who lives in Maryland.

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  1. malty on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Hollywood seemed to assume that all Englishmen are butlers and Scotsmen are born with a spanner in their hand, Irishmen are corrupt cops, the women, well, Englishwomen live in rosy cottages and talk posh, Scotswomen don’t exist and Irishwomen are all flame haired vixen who play petty-fingers in the holy water.

    So, British commercial television thinks Americans are loud, have poor taste in clothes and need lessons in table manners, they may possibly be correct about the audio output.

    Me? tired of hearing about the country’s manky politicians, to be perfectly honest and they do suffer quite badly from the not made in America syndrome, that I do have some considerable experience of. Mitigated by the sublime Tommy Lee Jones, Half Dome, Joshua Tree and Dylan.

    and Robert Rauschenberg.

    • George on Wednesday 16, 2013

      The term “manky” used to be current in Baltimorean slang about 1980–I’ve never heard it elsewhere. Could you define it as used in England?

      • Mr Slang on Wednesday 16, 2013

        Not sure of your Baltimore use, but OED offers two versions:

        1. Naughty, undisciplined. Of a horse: skittish, frisky. Probably from northern UK dial. mank, a trick, a practical joke.

        2. Bad, inferior, defective; dirty, disgusting, unpleasant (which is the one we hear today). Possibly from obsolete mank, maimed, mutilated, defective; but also possible link to French manqué, defective, spoilt, unsatisfactory. Other OED suggestions are a link to mangy, or to mankie, orig. a form of material and used adjectivally to mean mediocre, second-rate

    • Joey Joe Joe Jr. on Wednesday 16, 2013

      What about the welsh? I doubt Hollywood knows they exist. Apart from the fellow in Notting Hill, I’m struggling to think of any welsh characters.

      • Gaw on Wednesday 16, 2013

        If the American is over about 60 they’d probably assume the Welsh are all singing miners – How Green is My Valley by way of Richard Burton. Younger and you’re probably right. In my experience the Welsh are the only Celtic nation that’s glad to be insulted as it means that someone has noticed them.

        • Gaw on Wednesday 16, 2013

          I’ve scrolled down the thread – America’s favourite Welshman is actually Piers Morgan. Thankfully, he’s deeply undercover (there is a limit to one’s desire to be noticed).

      • Frank Key on Wednesday 16, 2013

        The American view of Wales might be summed up by this recent correction in The Huffington Post : “An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that West Wales is located in England. In fact, it is located in Wales.”

        • Gaw on Wednesday 16, 2013

          I wonder what the American version of the ‘about the size of Wales’ geographic measurement might be?

          • Rita Byrne Tull on Wednesday 16, 2013

            “About the size of Maryland.”

  2. George on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Thirty-five years ago, back when Masterpiece Theatre was new, Tom Wolfe referred to PBS as Petroleum’s British Subsidiary. I’ve never much felt the appeal, but clearly a lot of my compatriots do. I wonder what the ratio of the sexes is among the Downton Abbey watchers here.

    • Mr Slang on Wednesday 16, 2013

      45 years ago, or thereabouts (1969) I interviewed Mr Wolfe. (Yes, in the white suit). Among his pronouncements was ‘Britain’s only fate is to become a theme park for America’. Mr W. lost his lit. and indeed crit. skills a while back, but that line seems, if Downton-mania, Kate-philia and so many other examples (stand up, Princess Diana) are acknowledged, to be pretty much spot-on.

      • George on Wednesday 16, 2013

        Never reluctant to make a sweeping statement, is he?

        Wolfe published a short story in the mid-1980s with an England of the future as theme park, probably in Esquire, probably in 1984.

    • malty on Wednesday 16, 2013

      Male….36

      Female…2900000

      Transgender….7690

      Female impersonators…60

      Others…125

      Manky, for me, means any person with a Manchester accent. I would have said Salford only many of ‘em now speak in pure BBC home countyesque, chuck.

      • Mr Slang on Wednesday 16, 2013

        Also Manc. Good point. Forgot that one. I know: soft bloody southerner.

  3. Brit on Wednesday 16, 2013

    The Redskins/Downton split is presumably more or less exactly on gender lines. God knows I’d rather watch any sport, even Wrong Rugby, than Downton Abbey.

    I suspect they’ll forgive us for this crude stereotype quicker than they will for giving them Piers Morgan…

    • malty on Wednesday 16, 2013

      Ah, yes, another thing about our cousins, currently suffering from massive PMT problems, Piers Morgan talking.

  4. Banished To A Pompous Land on Wednesday 16, 2013

    All I know is that I’ve been trying desperately to steer Mrs. B away from this whole Downton thing. It has now appeared on netflix so it has become more difficult. But so far comparisons to Upstairs Downstair which she remembers on PBS in her youth ( ‘Like that but dumbed down if you can imagine hon’ ) have done the trick. Plus distraction with Ken’s Wallender. I can’t get her by the subtitles to watch the Swedish version yet.

  5. John Halliwell on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Downton died for me the day Matthew Crawley, tired of jibes that he was faking it to claim invalidity benefit and carer’s allowance, leapt out of his wheelchair spouting the words “I did buy it on the Somme; I did, I tell you, but in recent days, particularly when in the presence of Lady Mary, I’ve felt a stirring in my trousers that has bordered on the mystical. I knew an eruption was imminent and that I would once again be firing on all cylinders, like a Skoda with VW innards.” After that I’d had it.

    I’m unable to comment on the Redskins; suffice it to say I greatly enjoyed Errol Flynn in ‘Custer’s Last Stand.’

    • Brit on Wednesday 16, 2013

      I made it through series 1 thanks to Maggie Smith, but couldn’t get to the end of the first episode of series 2. It was the way Crawley kept ‘popping back for the weekend’ from the Somme….

  6. malty on Wednesday 16, 2013

    In years gone by the comrades in the east imported the British soaps the Forsyte Saga and Upstairs Downstairs, as a propaganda exercise, telling the kulaks, misc peasantry and St Petersburg metal workers that in fact that’s how the reactionary capitalist pigs live today, they may have a point. Irene went down a treat among the Moscow plebs, photies of Nyree Dawn Porter all over the shop, especially in the Lubyanka.

    Oddly, they also liked Marks and Spencer shirts and jeans.

    Hope the mention of NDP hasn’t got John Halliwell in too much of a lather.

    • John Halliwell on Wednesday 16, 2013

      Goodness me, Malty, you know how to stir the loins of a slobbering geriatric. Ah, NDP, New Zealand’s greatest ever export, far better than Lord Rutherford, the All Blacks and a billion sheep put together (With my newly acquired visualisation technique, I’m able to remember those particular New Zealanders by picturing a grey-haired old physicist, dressed in an undertaker’s working clobber, munching on a mutton butty, while splitting the atom. It’s easy when you get the hang of it). Nyree was so beautiful, intelligent, sensitive and…….well, you know. Soames was such a bastard; I always wanted to grab him by the testicles and scream “Change your ways man or Julian Fellowes will write your next script.”

  7. Worm on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Haven’t seen a millisecond of Downton as it sounds like Dallas with dinner sets

  8. Hey Skipper on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Male….36

    Female…2900000

    Transgender….7690

    In my never ending, if not always successful, quest to be the perfect husband, I watched an episode or two.

    Since then, nothing, not even Piers Morgan or a live grenade, will clear me from a room faster.

  9. sarah on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Not a particular fan of Shirley MacLaine, I nonetheless hoped she would pull out all the stops and play the role as a sort of Auntie Mame character – flamboyant and funny and quite happily very very rich. Instead, she was just boring – no match for your magnificent Maggie. But it is a mere glitch in an otherwise divine, addictive series. One only wishes it would go on forever.

  10. Seonaidh Vander on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Downton Abbey is filled with stereotypes and cliches, however those stereotypes are based on a degree of truth about human behaviour. Some people may be offended by the depiction of crass Americans and pompous British. It may be a consolation to know if you spend time both sides of the Atlantic you will find there are plenty of crass British & pompous Americans to even things out. DA has a good story line, great costumes and superior acting, making it more watchable than American daytime soap operas. But it is just a TV show.

    BTW you guys are way off on your gender distribution estimates. Real men watch DA too!

  11. David Cohen on Wednesday 16, 2013

    Well, finally watched it and wasn’t a bit bothered by Ms. MacKaine. It is broad caricature to be sure, but she is both shrewd (in a broadly caricatured American way), aware of Maggie’s manipulation from the start and, is is true surprisingly often of tv villains, right about every particular.