Soap-Opera Confessions

I have a confession to make. For three seasons now I have been hooked on what is essentially a soap opera: Masterpiece Classic’s “Downton Abbey,” produced for British television, but shown here on PBS.

Sure it’s very classy and all, telling the fictional story of a noble English family during the last days of the great manor houses in the early 20th century, but still—I admit—it is a soap opera. And I’m hooked at the gill—addicted to this show that is more the kind of thing my wife would watch than my smoking buddies. Even while I was performing the manly rite of watching the Super Bowl on Sunday I was secretly recording “Downton Abbey” on DVR for later viewing. (No! I didn’t forsake my beloved Ravens during the brownout.)

Despite its scrupulous attention to cultural details and the historical underpinnings of the show—it begins on the day of the sinking of the Titanic, continues through the First World War and its aftermath, with steady references to then-current events—something of the unrealistic pervades the plot. For instance, all seems lost for a hoped-for union between Matthew Crawley, a third cousin, and the lord of the manor’s eldest daughter that would save the family from giving up Downton Abbey, when Matthew is paralyzed in the war. After a miraculous recovery revives hope, it is only dashed again because of his previous commitment to another. But relief in the guise of the Spanish influenza pandemic swoops in to put the romance on track once again. You get the picture.

And it is this reliance on the hand of fate (deus ex machina), not the R-words (romance and relationship) that makes “Downton Abbey” such a soap opera—and hence so objectionable to the man in me. Nevertheless, I plow through because I am captivated by the plot and fascinated by the attention to historical detail in what is otherwise a costume-drama period piece.

But recently something started to gnaw at me. And it had to do with cigars. Whenever Matthew and Lord Grantham want to have a heart-to-heart, they do so after dinner over a nice smoke. So far, so good. I, of course, understand how conducive a fine Habano is to deep conversation. It is the setting, however, that bothered me. Every time they light up, it is at the supper table. Even while the ladies have left to enjoy petits fours and palaver (or whatever they do), it still seemed a little vulgar in a manor of this style to smoke up right there. The research I’d done on gentlemen’s retreats of the rich and famous when I wrote “Smoking Rooms of the Gilded Age” (May-June 1998) suggested that any place as elegant and set on protocol as Downton Abbey would have had a more appropriate place for men to take their cigars.

So then I began to doubt the integrity of the entire show. If they messed up this detail, what was I to believe of the rest of the way the lifestyle of the manor house was being portrayed? Were they really so stilted and wedded to the other bits of etiquette the project takes pains to display?

I think I have found an answer of sorts from another source. I recently watched “The Secrets of Highclere Castle,” about the real-life setting of the drama. It is a documentary about a manor owned by friends of the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, that serves as the setting for “Downtown Abbey.” However, it includes a room that scenes from the drama are never shot in. It is a private place that is enjoyed only by the family. This was the male preserve reserved for smoking and gaming, the favorite of the current earl’s grandfather, a man with a party reputation, who once married Tilly Losch, the Austrian dancer, film star and painter.

Surely that was a room filled with fantastic memories that deserve to be kept from the purview of soap opera. And that is one lack of historical detail I can respect.

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