TV & Film

Abbey Rules

Lady Violet (Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece)

Who steals the show?
A UW prof nominates …

Downton Abbey, a television show that takes place in 1910s and ’20s Great Britain, has a devoted American following. As the period-costume drama returns to Masterpiece on PBS for its fourth season in January, Michele Hilmes, a UW communication arts professor, is in the United Kingdom studying television programs made for both British and American audiences. She received a Fulbright Award to research a follow-up to her 2011 book, Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting. Need to catch up on the Downton Abbey phenomenon? The show’s third season repeats on PBS in December.

On Wisconsin asked Hilmes to name her favorite Downton character.

“I most enjoy the characters who express some of the conflicts that go into this kind of transnational period drama. As a British/American co-production — a joint project of ITV in Britain and PBS in the U.S. — its characters have to appeal to both national publics and to reflect their many different cultures and sensibilities.


Kitchen maid Daisy (Gary Moyes/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece)

“In the first season, I thought the most interesting character in this regard was Tom Branson, the Irish revolutionary who had taken a job as the Grantham family’s chauffeur and who fell in love with Lady Sybil. His strongly anti-aristocratic political stance seems clearly intended to appeal especially to American audiences, given the Irish Catholic heritage of this country and our resistance to the idea of class privilege — while, of course, catering to our obsession with the entire tradition of stately homes, titles, and pomp and circumstance. Later seasons toned down Tom’s revolutionary qualities quite a bit, however, and since Lady Sybil’s death, his ‘caught between classes and nationalities’ role has had most of its edges rubbed off.

Tom, a chauffeur who marries the earl’s daughter (Giles Keyte/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for Masterpiece)

“So I’ve switched my loyalties to Daisy, the petite and much-abused scullery maid who has managed not only to get promoted in the kitchen, but to put herself in the way of inheriting her father-in-law’s farm. Will Daisy become such a successful landowner that she’ll eventually buy out the Grantham family and take over Downton Abbey? Probably not, but stay tuned. Meantime, I’ll content myself with the next-best thing: Lady Violet’s caustic zingers, which neatly allow us to laugh at a bygone way of viewing the world, even as we immerse ourselves in it.”

Published in the Winter 2013 issue


  • Judy Scroggin January 6, 2014

    Still rooting for Edith. Glad she’s got a career and is finally getting some dress sense. Hope she doesn’t wind up in Germany, though! Germany in the 1920s – what could possibly go wrong?

  • Alice Ferris January 12, 2014

    Upstairs, I’m a fan of Cora, who always seems to know what to say to Robert to bring him to reality. Downstairs, my vote is for Mrs. Hughes, probably for the same reason, except her target is Carson!

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