Speaking of Class: The King's Speech and Downton Abbey

Film

Who would have thought that a film about a king’s speech impediment could be so good? Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech (2010) captivates us, not only with a handful of quirky speech therapy scenes, but also with the drama of Edward VIII’s scandalous marriage to American divorcée Wallis Simpson (Eve Best)—an event which soon led to his abdication from the throne. In the bleak years of the Great Depression, leading up to World War II, the film explores class relations, focusing on the evolving role of the monarchy and the royal family’s relationship to the common citizen. We see this in yet another popular English drama, Downton Abbey (2010), a television series set in the early teens of the 20th century. In contrast, Jane Austen novels—written a century earlier—often included class as a major theme, yet rarely if ever mentioned the lives of the servants. As the stratification of monarchy and nobility gradually became more symbolic at the turn of the 20th century, The King’s Speech and Downton Abbey reflect a modern perspective on English society’s social transformations. In the former, we see what Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Queen Mother, dubs a bromance between King George VI (Colin Firth) and his speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), a commoner with no official qualifications. In the latter, creator Julian Fellowes invites us into the intimate details of the downstairs servants’ lives, as well as into their relationships to the lords and ladies living upstairs. Both the film and television series provide an interesting perspective in to English class relations during the first half of the 20th century. They also both happen to tell captivating stories, ones that I’m sure you’ll be hearing about for the rest of the year.

 

It’s no surprise that a film boasting a cast of Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter would be so good. On Tuesday, January 25, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced this year’s Oscar nominations. Of course, The King’s Speech won twelve of them. The story focuses on King George VI’s struggle as a public figure and a stutterer in an age of live radio. Hooper first introduces us to our protagonist while he is still Prince Albert, a prince who must occasionally make royal appearances, but who cannot yet imagine the prospect of becoming king. Prince Edward (Guy Pearce), known within the family as David, has just begun his relationship with Wallis Simpson—apparently not a very fitting pastime for the next king of England. Yet, the heart of the film is the relationship between Prince Albert and his speech therapist Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Logue must suffer through Albert’s temper tantrums and refusals to study. For what seems like the first time in his adult life, Logue directly challenges Albert’s rank by insisting that he abide by a commoner’s rules. The relationship evolves on Logue’s terms, rejecting titles and boldly calling Albert by his family nickname, Bertie, after Albert has specifically asked Logue to call him “Your Royal Highness.” What’s more, Logue forbids him from smoking, to which Albert replies, “My physicians said that it relaxes the throat.” To this, Logue asserts, “They’re all idiots.” Albert tries to explain away their ignorance by saying that they’ve all been knighted. In a clever retort, Logue declares, “Makes it official, then.” Of course, mutual friendship and respect eventually blooms between these two men from completely different worlds. Although a struggle, King George VI finally learns to accept his teacher on the basis of proven merits, as opposed to the criteria of fancy titles and degrees.

 

For many years I wondered about class relations in old English dramas—the relationship between nobility and servants, monarchy and commoners. In Jane Austen novels, servants are briefly mentioned but never become main characters. Yet, a central point in the novels is the middle class family’s upward class mobility through marriage. Being “poor” means having to work, and the natural state of being refers to a life in a country mansion full of unmentionable servants. Yet, I recently discovered a film called Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown (1997). It represents the controversial relationship between Queen Victoria and her servant, John Brown. Queen Victoria had been in mourning over the death of Prince Albert in 1861. Devastated by the loss of her husband, she withdrew from public life. In an effort to console the queen, Mr. Brown is summoned to court in 1863. Although a household servant, he soon forms an ambiguously loving friendship with Victoria, one which historians still view as controversial. In the 1970s, another television series, Upstairs, Downstairs, introduced servants as main characters. Covering the early 20th century, from 1903 to 1936, it allowed English dramas to tell new stories. Mrs. Brown and Upstairs, Downstairs are significant predecessors to The King’s Speech and Downton Abbey.

 

You can find Downton Abbey on American public television’s Masterpiece Theatre. Originally aired in the UK in September 2010, millions of British audiences tuned in to make the series a great success. Now, it’s the United States’ turn. Yet, I doubt that the American audiences will greet the series with as much enthusiasm. Not to be a pessimist, but I just don’t think an English period drama really “does it” for mainstream American audiences living and breathing reality television. I’m betting the only “reality television” shown on PBS involves real wildlife footage (who am I kidding; don’t we all love a little reality television in our lives?). Nevertheless, the series deserves all the accolades that it has received thus far. The plot pivots upon a familiar Jane Austen trope—the entail—in which an estate is passed down through the male line. Lord Grantham’s (Hugh Bonneville) problem is that he has acquired an estate in which he cannot afford the maintenance. Hence, he has gone to America in search of a beautiful bride from new money. The series opens with the news that the two heirs to the estate have died in the Titanic and that the estate will now pass down to a distant middle class cousin who—god forbid—works! In a clever dinner table scene Lady Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith) wonders the definition of a “weekend,” a word that does not appear in the vocabulary of a family of leisure.

 

Unlike Jane Austen novels, a period piece written from a modern perspective allows for a more critical take on otherwise unmentionable issues. In Downton Abbey, servants openly discuss their unhappiness with their position. The youngest daughter, Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay), rebelliously attends women’s suffrage rallies and discusses politics with her driver, Branson (Allen Leech). In one episode, Lady Sybil tries on trousers! There is even a homosexual relationship between servant and master. What makes The King’s Speech and Downton Abbey so refreshing—apart from their captivating storylines—is what seems to be an honest and critical look at class. Jane Austen could only write from her own experience, which was that of a middle class Englishwoman in the early 19th century. By the 20th century, the world was changing, along with old caste systems. Nobility and monarchy gradually became more symbolic than powerful, as queens and kings have become consorts to the government and the House of Lords has lost its veto. Modern critique of times past does more than just show how far we have come. Period pieces void of critique exist in a vacuum and don’t allow us to be self-reflective in the present. Films like the The King’s Speech and Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown, as well as television series such as Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs portray the grievances and rebellion of characters of the past through voices of the present, effectively allowing us to better understand and analyze our current world. The King’s Speech is now playing in theatres, and I wouldn’t recommend missing it! Downton Abbey plays on Sunday nights at 9pm on PBS. Series two will start in Fall 2011.

 

 

Class, United Kingdom