Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, says he does ‘not fully understand’ why his television drama of the aristocratic household has been so fabulously successful. Really? Well let me tell him. Or, rather, let the new. post-DNA-sequencing science of evolutionary biology tell him:
1. It is about a fairly well-defined group of people. It’s not too small (it’s larger than one family) but not too large either (smaller than 100-150 people). It is a resonating replica of the typical scavenger-hunter-gatherer group in which our predecessors spent millions of years. It expresses the same repertoire of social behaviours that were shaped by our environment in that era and then locked into our genes which, in their myriad of possible orchestrations, produce surprises (and their subsequent stresses) as well as regularities.
2. But the most powerful of all the social behaviours is that of status, and Downton Abbey is stuffed full with it, both in those people above stairs and below stairs. Higher status is closely correlated with more, or better, sex by the male, or more, and better, economic security for the sake of her children in the case of the female. The choice of male partners by females and differential numbers of ensuing offspring is by far the most defining and shaping evolutionary determinator of human-ness, way above a fairly low threshold of ‘survival of the fittest’ which even the inept can meet.
There we are then. Downton Abbey will never be a great work but it recapitulates the brilliance of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about a small group or Leon Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks about many small groups. Most of the audience of Downton Abbey will have never read those books but can still respond in the same way as the most discriminating literary buffs. Mirror neurons of the brain, which resonate inwardly to what is seen outwardly, act similarly in all who watch television plays or read novels about status dramas in groups.
Oh, and by the way, Lord Fellowes, if you do not fully understand the reason for the huge success of Downton Abbey, experienced television producers certainly do. Those of ITV are falling over themselves, as you know, for you to write another series of Downton Abbey and, in the case of BBC, to revive Upstairs, Downstairs, a similar production of some years ago. (Before too long we will probably be sick of these dramas in aristocratic settings but Austen, Tolstoy and Mann show us otherwise.)