A new miniseries has one writer asking: what exactly is so comforting about these British period pieces, anyway?
All the requisite, much-loved chestnuts and stereotypes are present and correct, from below stairs belligerence to a Wallis Simpson-style American heiress who can never, never be properly posh. There is also the kind of property porn to make one weep; the exteriors and grand interiors were shot on location at Highclere Castle, the ancestral home of the Earl of Carnarvon, a house of unbridled confidence and soaring ceilings that are too high to fit into most camera angles.
When you can't take modernity, let alone reality, things like this — as far from our lives as it's possible to find — can be the ultimate escapism. While adaptations have their own pleasures, as Moir observes, these pseudo-soaps can be even more engrossing— certainly more lurid — in the right mood. For Americans, of course, these just serve to reinforce our stereotypes and ignorant, sepia-hued misconceptions. But we do like having those things reinforced; it's something of a national pastime, really.
I consider myself a connoisseur of this particular kind of escapism, which has gotten me through more than one tussle with the Black Dog. Many swear by Upstairs, Downstairs, but a marathon every-episode stretch while living at my parents' house left me unmoved. Some like Lilies; others All Creatures Great and Small. It is highly personal. And while there are many terrific serials out there, two stand out for sheer addictive properties. (That said, please do send suggestions for more.) They are not, necessarily, the best in any sense, but for comfort value, I find them to be viewable chicken and dumplings — or the British version thereof. They are: Berkeley Square, the dramatic story of three turn-of-the-20th-century nannies, tragically cut off after a single, riveting season; and The House of Elliott, the frankly preposterous saga of two London sisters operating a fashion house in the 1920s. I cannot recommend either highly enough, although addiction will ensue. What's more, some good Samaritan has blessedly uploaded both to YouTube, so those with the patience for 9-minute intervals will be richly rewarded.
What is it that's so appealing? Is it the juxtaposition of real social problems with tidy endings? Of the visual pleasure of costumes without having to wear the corsets? Of rules and rigor as an unlikely modern fantasy? Probably some of all the above, and, as Moir points out, a goodly dollop of anachronism. (And no doubt you could make a compelling argument here for the allure of Steampunk.) We still want modern values to win, of course — but maybe with some tea and cake thrown in, and how about a pretty hat? Please, bring this Downton Abbey to America so we too can escape from the world for seven hours into a time we'd never really want to live in for more than that.