How Downton Abbey Set the Bar for Historical Dramas and How the BBC Missed Out On a Classic How Downton Abbey Set the Bar for Historical Dramas and How the BBC Missed Out On a Classic
In years, maybe decades from now, many will look back on Downton Abbey as a true classic of the small screen. Clearly, the hit... How Downton Abbey Set the Bar for Historical Dramas and How the BBC Missed Out On a Classic

In years, maybe decades from now, many will look back on Downton Abbey as a true classic of the small screen. Clearly, the hit show, which is set for a second film outing, is already considered a massive success, but one imagines that in the fullness of time, its impact on TV, especially in the UK, will be truly monumental.

In 2010 Julian Fellowes, the writer and creator of the show, was said to have had many offers. Still, surprisingly the BBC, despite the rumours, did not make a move to air the show even though it’s clearly precisely the type of endeavour they would usually lap up. The BBC’s loss was rival channel ITV’s gain, in a big way.

The show proved an instant success and launched many careers and continues to rake in the viewers and now the box office. The first feature film, which picked up where the last series left off, was released in 2019 and was a big success, bringing in almost $200m on a budget of less than $20m, so no wonder they have embarked on another release.

Downton Abbey: A New Era is set for cinemas in March 2022 and continues the exploits of the characters that we’ve very much taken to our hearts, and we’d imagine it will once again prove very effective when it comes to the revenue it makes.

So Why Is Downton Abbey Such a Success?

Frankly, the biggest reason that the Downton Abbey franchise has been so successful starts with the quality writing, which is both historically on the money but also manages to conjure up fully-formed rounded characters that have an interesting and heart-warming narrative to impart.

The acting is also of the highest calibre, and another factor that cannot be overlooked is the production design which manages to take you away and make you feel as if you are walking around the village and the stately mansions along with the characters.

While some productions will look to create the appearance of another place and time using stock video footage, which can be very effective, Downton Abbey simply builds the sets and takes existing locations and takes them back in time.

At its heart, Downton Abbey is pretty much a soap opera, and we don’t mean that in a negative manner and places it in a hugely interesting era. It makes us wonder what life must have been like to be a servant or the lord of the manor.

It expertly uses real events as a reference point for the smaller stories and uses them as a catalyst to the dramas that play out. It could do this in a very forced and contrived way, but, as we said, the writing is much better than that; in fact, it’s almost flawless.

Springboard to Stardom

A number of lesser-known actors have used Downton Abbey as a springboard to success, while other more proven players have seen their own stars rise due to their association with a show that is a hit all around the world.

Lily James, who plays feisty Lady Rose Aldridge, has gone on to be the lead in a number of Hollywood hits, such as Baby Driver and Cinderella. Rose Leslie and Iain Glen, who were both stars of the Game of Thrones franchise, also pushed their careers further with their parts in the show.

Hugh Bonneville will now forever be seen as The Earl of Grantham and used his star status to score the lead role in the Paddington series. The show has fostered great acting talents who will either be fondly remembered for their roles in the show or for what they secure off the back of its massive success.

The Sheer Size of Appeal is Frightening

Downton Abbey was always going to be a big hit in the UK, but its success overseas and its sheer scale could not have been predicted. There will be some who feel that the success of the show is in some sense down to the way that country is looked upon by those who live abroad, in other words, not a realistic depiction of real life, but as this is a period drama, those issues seem less relevant than, say, a Richard Curtis rom-com.

In the US, the show’s viewing figures are pretty astounding. Aired on PBS, Downton Abbey is the most-watched show in the channel’s history. It’s shown in 220 territories worldwide, which illustrates its common appeal.

As well as being a ratings success, the show is a regular winner on the awards circuit and garners almost universal acclaim when it comes to even the harshest of critics. It has received over 60 Emmy nominations over the course of its TV run and has won 15 of those as well as collecting four Golden Globe wins.

The show, in whatever format it takes from now on, is pretty much a money-making machine, and one wonders to what year they take the leading characters to. Will they call it a day when World War II gets underway? Will they look to a new breed of characters to follow all the way through the swinging 60s and to the present day?

One hopes they’ll know when to call it a day; one thing is for sure, that day hasn’t come yet, and no doubt every single day it continues its remarkable run, it will be giving someone at the BBC more than just a slight pause for thought.

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Jon Dingle Editor

A film journalist, writer and a filmmaker in business for over 20 years. I am passionate about movies, television series, music and online games.