Tag Archives: Downton Abbey

BINGE WATCHING RECOMMENDATIONS

war-and-peace

Diane and I spent Saturday night and too much of Sunday afternoon watching “War and Peace”, the BBC adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s 1869 novel that has been described as the greatest novel ever written.

It’s set during the period of the Napoleonic Wars, concentrating on the years between 1805 and 1812 when France turned its attentions to Russia, arguably Napoleon’s biggest mistake.

It isn’t just about the military and endless battles.   There’s the usual romantic entanglements that make a good novel, which keep you enthralled until the end.

The television series lasts eight hours.  According to a website I checked, it takes 32 hours and 40 minutes for the average person to read the book.   So you can save yourselves almost 25 hours by watching the series, even if you do feel guilty about “wasting” a Sunday afternoon binge watching.

Warning:  once you start, you won’t want to stop!!!

(It’s even led to me starting to read the 3 volume set that has been on my bookshelf for fifty years.)

NETFLIX:  THE CROWN

the-crown

We also binge-watched “The Crown” over Thanksgiving when our eldest daughter, her husband and children were with us.  This is the most expensive online production ever, showing on Netflix.  They reportedly spent over 100 million pounds on it (approx. $125 million).  As it’s the first of four seasons, they will be spending a good $500 million before it’s over.   One newspaper said that Netflix is hoping to bury cable with this and other upcoming productions.

“The Crown” tells the story of Queen Elizabeth II, from her marriage to Prince Philip in 1947, up till the present time.  As flashbacks go back to the Abdication in 1936, it effectively covers her life from the moment she learned she would become Queen when her uncle abdicated, until the present day.   The first series ends in 1955, when Sir Winston Churchill resigned as Prime Minister.    Coincidentally, with the recent deaths of the King of Thailand and Fidel Castro, she is now the only political figure who was around in the 1950’s.

Although many of the conversations that take place in the series are pure conjecture, the production is remarkably accurate in its portrayal of the 1940’s and 50’s and its attention to detail.   The deep spiritual and historical meaning of the coronation is brilliantly conveyed to audiences that are unfamiliar with the biblical significance of the ceremony, which has its origins in the coronation of Israel’s King Solomon and his anointing by Zadok, the priest.

Politically, the series will help people to understand constitutional monarchy.   43 countries around the world are monarchies, not all of them constitutional.   Queen Elizabeth II is Head of State of 16 of those countries.  Each country chose to remain a constitutional monarchy at the time of independence.

All four of us recommend the series and look forward to the following three seasons.

Footnotes:  In one scene Prince Philip says something negative about visiting Australia; in a later episode, he is asked to go there alone for the opening of the Olympic Games in 1956 and, again, expresses a complaint.  I question the series’ interpretation of events here.   Mark Steyn, a Canadian of decidedly conservative views who now lives in New Hampshire, wrote an article some years ago about a dinner he had with others at Buckingham Palace, where he was hosted by the Queen and Prince Philip.  In the article he recounted a private conversation with the Prince in which they both compared and discussed the Canadian and Australian constitutions.   It didn’t seem as if the Prince was not interested in the two countries.  The trips were undoubtedly a challenge as they went by sea and were away from their children for months at a time.    This fact is alluded to in the later episode.

Personal footnote:  Our son was helping his eldest daughter, Paris, prepping her for a test on Canada the following day in her fifth grade exam.   One question was “What kind of government does Canada have?”  Kurt told her Canada is a constitutional monarchy.  It turned out to be the wrong answer.  What the teacher wanted was:  “Canada has its own government.”   Even teachers don’t seem to understand “constitutional monarchy,” which has a very good track record of preserving democracy.

ANTENNA

the-hollow-crown

A third series we’ve started binge-watching (well, every Sunday evening for a couple of hours) is “The Hollow Crown,” adaptations of Shakespeare’s historical plays.  The series is showing in the Sunday night “Masterpiece Theater” slot on PBS.  It stars some of the world’s greatest actors. Somehow, we missed the first series, which we’ve now requested through our public library system.   But we’ve started the second series, which begins in 1422 with the death of Henry V and the ascension to power of his son, Henry VI.   Actually, it was not that simple – the new king was only nine months old, the youngest monarch in English history.  In view of his age, there had to be a regency – and that was the start of his problems.   Out of this came the War of the Roses, a civil war that lasted over thirty years.

SERIOUSLY

“Britain’s oldest manufacturing firm put its business up for sale.  Based in East London, Whitechapel Bell Foundry was established in 1570 and cast the original Liberty Bell in Philadelphia as well as Big Ben and bells for St Paul’s Cathedral.  Fewer churches mean fewer orders for large bells.  But the success of “Downton Abbey” has wrought a new market:  for handbells to ring for tea.”  (The Economist, December 10th.)

 

CHARLES VISITS WASHINGTON

Prince Charles and Camilla

Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall, are visiting Washington DC.   During their visit to the US, they will commemorate three things — the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the most important secular document in the history of the English-speaking peoples; the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War; and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

The Prince of Wales visited the National Archives yesterday where a 1297 copy of the Magna Carta is on loan from Lincoln Cathedral in England.  The Magna Carta is embodied in the American Bill of Rights and the Constitution.

I’ve had the privilege of viewing the same Magna Carta, signed by King John at Runnymede on June 15th, 1215, in Lincoln, which is not far from my hometown.   A depiction of the event can be seen on the bronze doors of the Supreme Court building.

It’s been over forty years since the Washington Post claimed that President Richard Nixon was brought down by Magna Carta.   The charter established the principle that everybody is equal before the law, including the king or president.   This principle separated England from the continental powers, where the head of state is above the law.   When French President Jacques Chirac was accused of corruption while in office, nothing could be done about it until he was no longer president of France.

Exactly ten weeks after King John was pressured into signing the charter, Pope Innocent III declared it null and void.  He said that no people had any right to demand anything of their king. Consequently, England was plunged into civil war.

Magna Carta reminds us that:   “God is no respecter of persons.” (Acts 10:34)   We are all equal before God, who is the ultimate Law-giver.

____________________________________________________________________

It’s a good thing that the royal couple were not in America on Sunday, where they might have seen the first episode of “The Royals,” on the E! Network.   This show depicts a fictional royal family ruling in England.

I watched the first 30 minutes of the 75-minute much-hyped premiere.

It was utter and total trash.

If any of today’s royal families behaved like those in the fictional series, they wouldn’t last very long.

Monarchy has a serious side.   According to the organization “Democracy Watch,” the seven most democratic countries in the world are all constitutional monarchies.   They are:   The Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Australia, Canada and New Zealand (the United Kingdom was not included in the list, maybe because it does not have an elected Upper House).

They have all also been the most stable countries in the world.

Constitutional monarchy also happens to be the cheapest form of government.

There’s a lot to be said for constitutional monarchy.   In contrast, there is nothing positive to be said for the new television series, which raises trash to a whole new level – and that’s really saying something when it comes to TV!

_______________________________________________________________________

While on the subject of royalty, I have to recommend the new “Cinderella” movie.

My son and I took his two girls to see it on Sunday.   The girls, aged 8 & 9, have gotten used to me falling asleep whenever I take them to a movie.   Brooklyn, the youngest, promised to wake me up if this should happen again.

But it didn’t.   The movie was engrossing.   It is beautifully made with real people.

I have never been one for fairy stories, even when I was a child.   But this was different.   It’s a real old-fashioned love story, with an upbeat ending that will leave many in tears.

Lily James (Rose in “Downton Abbey”) plays a very convincing Cinderella.   (One of her ugly step-sisters is played by Downton’s Daisy.)   Richard Madden plays the prince.   Helena Bonham Carter, one of England’s greatest actresses, plays a humorous Fairy Godmother and Cate Blanchett plays the Wicked Step-Mother.

The movie was directed by Kenneth Branagh, one of England’s greatest theatrical talents.

A superb movie, perfect for the whole family.   It’s also perfectly respectable for married couples to go without children — I intend to take my wife who could not go on Sunday.

 

 

DOWNTON ABBEY AND THE CLASS SYSTEM

Downton Abbey

The latest series of Downton Abbey is currently showing on PBS in the United States.   The hit series is set in an English stately home. It started four years ago with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.   We have gone through World War One with the Grantham family and are now witnessing events in 1924, when the first Labour government came to power.   Hopefully, the series can get us through to World War Two and its aftermath, before falling ratings finish it off.

As I come from England, I’m often asked if the class system so accurately portrayed on the program still exists.

The answer to that can be found at Highclere Castle, which is the real name of the fictional Downton Abbey.

Whereas Downton is supposed to be in the county of Yorkshire in the North of England, it is actually filmed at Highclere Castle, which is west of London.   It is the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon.

A documentary on Highclere Castle was shown some time ago on PBS.  It showed the Earl and his wife are very normal people who are dedicated to preserving their ancestral home and its estate.   High taxes were a major factor in the decline of the aristocracy, starting with the 1906 Liberal government.   After World War II taxes on inherited wealth were so high that many aristocrats were forced to abandon their homes and property.  The Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, owners of Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s birthplace, now live in the Caribbean; visitors can tour their home, ensuring its financial upkeep and giving the Marlboroughs enough to live on.

What about all those servants?   Downton’s plot lines involve those employed downstairs as much as Lord Grantham and his family.   Sadly, all those butlers, footmen, ladies’ maids and cleaning staff are no longer likely to be there. Some may see this as progress. However, before World War One there were three million domestic servants in Britain – not so long ago, that number was down to 68,000, with three million unemployed!

The documentary on the real Downton Abbey showed the present-day residents have just one butler, a really old gentleman who probably can’t handle all the hard physical work some of the younger staff did decades ago.   What was apparent is that the three of them, both aristocrats and their servant, work together as a team to preserve the historic house and ensure its continuity for members of the public who wish to visit it.   And for any television company that wants to hire it.

So, does England still have a class system?   Great Britain still has titles, but a title does not equate to wealth.   That was true in the latter half of the nineteenth century when Britain was the wealthiest country in the world.  Due to rapid industrialization and cheap food imports from its colonies, many aristocrats fell on hard times.   At the same time, the US had created many multi-millionaires in the aftermath of the Civil War.   Those millionaires often sent their daughters to England to find a titled aristocrat to marry.   The American heiress gained a title and the English husband was solvent again!   Winston Churchill was the product of the most famous marriage between a wealthy American and an aristocratic Englishman.

The question asked – if England still has a class system – belies a simple reality.   That reality is that all nations have an aristocracy. The difference in Great Britain is that British aristocrats tend to have titles. Not all do.   The wealthiest people in Britain today are not likely to be aristocrats, so much as oil sheikhs from the Middle East, Russian businessmen hiding from Vladimir Putin, rock stars, football players and, leading them all, J.K. Rowling, the wealthiest woman in the country, once a struggling single mother who could not buy more than one coffee at the local equivalent of Starbucks, until, that is, Harry Potter came along.   For years, Madonna came in at number two.   The Queen is not even in the top 500 wealthiest people in the country.

Today’s aristocracy is just as likely to be found in the United States as in Britain.

The Economist cover story on January 24th highlighted “America’s new aristocracy.”   An accompanying article showed that education is behind today’s inheritance of privilege.   Educated couples typically earn the most.   They then ensure their children get the best education so they, in turn, are at the top of society.   So an inherited, but untitled, aristocracy continues from generation to generation.   They may not have all the servants the Granthams had in Downton Abbey, but then nobody does today.

Although I’m sure there are good servants still around, I doubt there are many left like Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes and even the old gentleman at Highclere Castle.   Being “in service” is no longer considered a calling – the great-grandchildren of the Granthams’ servants are far more likely to be enjoying life on the dole!

Progress indeed!

COMMENTARY

Dollar

I want to begin by clarifying something I wrote in yesterday’s post.     I shared a quote from Eleanor Clift on the McLaughlin Group, “The dollar is the indispensable currency,” she said. I added that, on this point, she is correct.

I should have added two words to that comment, “for now.”

The dollar right now is riding high and doing better than other major currencies.  But that does not mean the dollar is really strong. In fact, just yesterday Singapore and China announced the start of direct currency trading, bypassing the US dollar, which has been volatile and is not backed by anything. It’s just paper and is held up by confidence and nothing else. Note the following from Channel News Asia.

“BEIJING:  China will allow direct trading between its currency and the Singapore dollar from Tuesday (Oct 28), making it easier for companies here to do business with their Chinese counterparts.

The Sing dollar will be added to the China Foreign Exchange Trade System (CFETS) platform, which currently offers transactions between the yuan and 10 foreign currencies. The announcement came on Monday (Oct 27), after an agreement at the Joint Council for Bilateral Cooperation (JCBC) in Suzhou, co-chaired by Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean and Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

Previously, companies that wanted to convert a large amount of Sing dollars to renminbi (RMB) or vice versa had to do so via an intermediate currency such as the US dollar.

“This will lower foreign exchange transaction costs and encourage greater use of the two currencies in cross-border trade and investments,” the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) said in a news release on Monday.

DPM Teo called this is a “major and significant” development which will reduce the cost of doing business and make it more convenient.”

Singapore is a major hub for the internationalization of the Chinese currency.   Some predict China will overtake America as the number one economy next year.   This means China can take on the burden of being a trading currency just as the US dollar has been.

___________________________________________________

I’ve been reading a novel by Brad Thor set in Afghanistan. The 2009 book is titled “The Apostle.” The author clearly knows the country well and I’ve learned a lot about Afghanistan from it. Frankly, the book is as close to the country as I want to get!

I would like to share two paragraphs with you. The subject is not Afghanistan. The main character is Harvath.

“Harvath just couldn’t understand the liberal mindset. He was convinced that they believed deeply in what they said and what they did; his only problem was that it so often flew in the face of reality. They continually focused their rage on their protectors rather than their enemy. They denigrated their country, believing it was the source of all evil in the world. The truth was, when it came to Islam, it had been violent since its inception. Its clearly stated goal was worldwide conquest. And while Harvath believed there were peaceful and moderate Muslims, he knew from studying the religion that there was no such thing as peaceful and moderate Islam.

“The entire religion was a mess and needed a complete gut-rehab. And though he had a good feeling his country’s new president would probably not agree with him, he also knew that until the politically correct crowd stopped making excuses for them and undercutting any motivation to reform their religion themselves, the majority of Muslims wouldn’t do anything . . . Islam had been Islam for fourteen hundred years and what it had been was violent.”

__________________________________________________________

Which reminds me of the three teenage girls, all born in the USA and from the Denver area, who were detained in Frankfurt en route to Syria to fight with ISIS. All three were of Sudanese and Somali descent. It is not necessarily the case any more that second generations born in America become more American. It seems that, when it comes to Islam, assimilation doesn’t work any more.

__________________________________________________________

This is certainly the case in Tower Hamlets, a rundown poverty stricken area of east London, profiled this morning on PBS’ Focus on Europe. Tower Hamlets has the UK’s highest percentage of Muslims, over 30%. They are mostly from Bangladesh and Somalia.   A recent election there has led to accusations of corruption, including vote rigging. This is unheard of in British elections. Or was, until a significant percentage of Muslims took over an area and introduced their own brand of politics, just like home.

__________________________________________________________

It may seem a big jump from ISIS to Downton Abbey but it’s appropriate at this point.   The fifth series is already showing in the UK on ITV. It starts in the US on January 4th. Apparently, Lord Grantham is going to lose his dog in this series. The reason is quite simple – the dog is named Isis. Lord Grantham has had his dog for four seasons of the show, while the terrorist group is quite new. But viewers do not want to be reminded of terrorism when watching the series in their living rooms. Besides, Isis joined the family in 1912 and the series is now up to 1924. That’s about it for a Labrador’s lifespan.   Ours only made it to five.

DOWNTON AND THE ARISTOCRACY

Downton AbbeyDownton Abbey is back on PBS.  The fourth season began a couple of weeks ago.

Why is this show so successful?  People are watching it all over the world.

The series began before World War I, took us through that awful war, followed immediately by the flu epidemic; and has now reached 1922.  We are now seeing a reduced aristocracy facing highB taxes resulting in a slow-but-sure decline, the subject of Evelyn Waugh’s classic “Brideshead Revisited,” which depicted the aristocracy between the two world wars.

The aristocracy had started losing its power prior to World War I, with the Liberal Party’s victory in the 1906 election.  The Liberals introduced state controlled pensions, which had to be paid for.  In 1910, the Liberals approved a massive increase in taxation.  The House of Lords, the Upper House, over-ruled the Commons, refusing to approve the budget.  It was a major constitutional crisis, which was resolved by the new king, George V, when he agreed to appoint more liberal aristocrats to the Upper House, who would then approve the proposed budget.  The Lords backed down and agreed to the Commons being able to pass budgetary bills without their consent.  From this point on, the House of Commons was the more powerful chamber.  Aristocratic dominance had ended.  In the last century, their power, influence and wealth have been gradually diminishing.  The country is NOT better off as a result of this.

The aristocracy served England well.  They were not perfect by any means but they cared for the country they governed and did what they thought was best to pass on the nation to the next generation.

In stark contrast to today’s politicians, they believed in sound money and a balanced budget.  They had learned the necessity of this running their own estates.  Over-spend and you will eventually go under!

My wife and I have often visited the stately homes of the aristocracy.  Visiting them has given us a greater understanding of why Britain ruled its Empire so well.  Most colonial governors in the early period of the empire were aristocrats.  Cut off from their home base, they ruled over millions of people in a similar way to Lord Grantham in Downton, who clearly cares for his domestic staff and feels he has a responsibility to look after them.  This may sound patronizing but it worked well until World War I brought the old order crashing down.

In our world of constant upheaval, it’s forgotten that these men gave stability to the nations they governed.  A person could wake up in any part of the British Empire and know that the King was still on the throne and his personal representative, the local Governor, was still in charge and that all was well with the world.  This is decidedly not the case now.  That stability and order owed its origins to the English stately home and the aristocrats raised there.

In World War II, one man with an aristocratic background saved the British people and, indeed, the rest of the world from fascism.  His name was Winston Churchill, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill, the second son of the Duke of Marlborough.  Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace in 1874.  You can visit his birthplace.  The palace was named after the first Duke of Marlborough’s famous victory over France’s Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, a victory that preserved British freedom and, by extension, freedom for the colonies.

By some accounts, Churchill himself was offered a dukedom upon retirement.  There are only 19 dukes in the United Kingdom.  The title is hereditary.  Churchill deserved the honor but by the time of his retirement in 1955 it seemed antiquated and he turned it down.  He believed in democracy, describing it as “the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.”

Sixty years later, another quote of his is more apt:  “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.”

Thomas Jefferson, an aristocrat, supposedly said:  “If the common man ever gets his hands on the public purse, the republic won’t last a generation.”  There is now some doubt that he ever said it but whoever did say it captures very well the reality we face today.  Voters will continue to vote themselves ever-increasing financial benefits until the democratic countries go broke.  And leaders will continue to squander vast amounts of money which is not their own.

We should note the following words from the biblical book of Ecclesiastes:  “Woe to you, O land whose king was a servant and whose princes feast in the morning.  Blessed are you, O land whose king is of noble birth and whose princes eat at a proper time – for strength and not for drunkenness.”  (Eccl. 10:16-17)  Surely this is a warning against the weaknesses inherent in democracy!

Judges 21:25 is another one.  “There was no king in Israel in those days.  Every one did what was right in their own eyes.”  Of course, there is a monarch today or a president.  But I believe the verse has a wider meaning.  There is little or no authority today, so everyone does what he wants to do.  World War One has been described as “The End of Order,” the title of a book by Charles Mee.

The death of the British aristocracy can be similarly described as “the end of order.”  A way of life that had given many countries unprecedented stability is gone.

When you think about it, aristocratic dominance constituted a “qualified franchise,” rather than the “universal franchise” we have now.  The aristocrats had a great deal of power and had the vote.  So did many others, but not everyone.

When we lived in Rhodesia, the country had a qualified franchise – and my wife and I did not qualify for the vote!  There were five requirements – citizenship was one.  You also had to pass a literacy test, own property, pay income tax and, if male, do military service or the equivalent.  Only the most responsible people could vote!

Colonial America had a qualified franchise.  So did the US for a long time.  England had one until 1867.  Even then, only men could vote.  It was to be over fifty more years before the vote was given to women.

Our countries would be in a much better state now if we had a qualified franchise!