The miniseries fad du jour on both sides of the pond is the castle-centered lushly costumed BBC period melodrama Downton Abbey, which began broadcast of its second season in the US just last night—these episodes are whittled versions of those which aired in Britain in the fall, concluding on Christmas Day. Several of my friends and two of my employers had told me how good the series was, and so I watched the two-hour premier yesterday evening, thoroughly enjoying it. However much the filmfan side of my brain was entertained, the historian in me couldn’t help noting a curious underlying similarity to another cult favorite television series, Hogan’s Heroes.
Maggie Smith and the late Werner Klemperer might appear at first to be the most dissimilar pairing one could imagine, but they have onscreen the same great comic timing, though of course the characters of an English Dowager Duchess and the least competent Luftstalag Kommandant ever must necessarily differ in subtlety. But what is unequivocally identical in both Downton Abbey and Hogan’s Heroes is their shared rosy rewriting of dreadful epochs—not to say that these rescriptings are unwelcome, or unenjoyable. After all, one wants to imagine that African American radio operators were treated as equals by their fellow Allied prisoners in World War II German internment camps, and that together they were able to make fools of their captors, for instance, or that English and Irish servants were treated with identical courtesy and care by their superiors downstairs and upstairs in 1930s Britain. Creation of these humorous or beautiful imaginary pasts perhaps allows us to cope with events that we personally endured but couldn’t necessarily articulate in their gruesome reality (Klemperer’s family had to flee from the anti-Jewish persecution in Germany—playing an idiot Nazi was no doubt a bit of catharsis) or operates to stain collective memory backwards with ideals that we now share, but which would have been truly anachronistic in the original circumstances, so allowing our pleasant little fantasies of how life should be nowadays to weave a popular tale of how life had begun inevitably to develop then.
It makes for watchable, relaxing television and delightful characters; but from a factual point of view, to echo Sergeant Schultz, “I know nothink, I see nothink!”