'Sherlock', 'Downton Abbey' Hark Back to the Age Before the World Went Awry

Victorian England is portrayed in both series as a time when things were clear, even when they were wrong.

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A scene from "Sherlock: The Abominable Bride."
A scene from "Sherlock: The Abominable Bride."Credit: Screenshot

It was a tough decision to make: Should I write about the present as it unfolds on TV, for instance the documentary “Frontline” on PBS about our esteemed PM, or the streaming service Netflix’s much-awaited “aliyah,” enabling us to subscribe and stream legally? Or should I succumb to the temptation to bask in the glories of the past, and extoll the virtues of two TV programs in which time sort of stands still, like “Downton Abbey” (season six and last; finished in the U.K. and the U.S. and just starting here on Channel One, Thursdays at 21:00), or the “Sherlock” Christmas special (a Christmas stop-gap offering in the U.K. and U.S., to whet our appetite for season 4, on HOT VOD in Israel).

By now you should know me: I opt for the past, of course. I am fully aware that the time there – within the series – does not stand still at all: The ultimate season of “Downton Abbey,” a creation of Julian Fellowes, takes place in 1925 (the first season started with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912). The “Sherlock” Christmas special takes the cerebral detective (with a drug addiction and a faithful biographer) from the 21st century, to which Stephen Moffat and Mark Gattis updated him and his ambiance, back to the particular moment in the past – end of the 19th century – when he was conceived in and born from the fertile mind of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

But it’s not only about the timespan and the direction both characters and viewers travel within it. It is also about the awareness, of the characters in both series, of the tricks time plays on the minds, mores and morals of all concerned. In “Downton Abbey,” the pater familias Robert Crawley, the 7th Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) shares with his mother, Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (the one and only Maggie Smith) his tentative plan to cut down on the size of the domestic staff, for economic reasons. It’s also the “proper” thing to do, since the whole country is struggling, equality is in the air and having an under-butler and too many maids is overdoing it. The Dowager Countess is not amused. She simply fails to see the reason for changing an age-old tradition because of fashion. The way Dame Maggie utters the word “fashion” makes you understand how deeply she detests the word and the concept, and how high above it she hovers.

In the one-hour special of “Sherlock,” the sleuth (Benedict Cumberbatch, who alo played Hamlet on stage and Alan Turing and Julian Assange on the big screen) hallucinates, possibly having overdosed on his favorite drug (cocaine, 7 percent solution) after having landed shortly after takeoff in a very 21st century jet. In his mind’s eye he, and Watson (Martin Freeman, who was one of the protagonists of “Fargo,” season one) are transposed back to the Victorian era, where they rightfully belong.

And here is where time – which both changes fashions and fashions accepted worldviews – has struck. The plot of the special, based on the title of a tale mentioned in the original stories but never actually written, “The Case of Ricoletti the Club-Foot and His Abominable Wife,” has to do with a woman about to get married in a white bridal gown, (hence the title of the special, “The Abominable Bride”) who kills several men after seemingly having committed suicide prior to the murders. The solution – this is not a spoiler – has to do with the fact that in the 1890s, women, in Britain as everywhere, were an (inferior) class of their own, downtrodden by male hegemony. The climax of the “Sherlock” special has the whole female species implicated in many gruesome murders, with Sherlock delivering a blistering defense of the fair sex (to whose charm he is apparently immune). He talks mostly about extenuating circumstances, and the unfair way half the human race has been treated by the other half.

Some of the cast of Downton Abbey. Credit: Courtesy

The common trait of both works of art (yes, as odd as it may seem to many, TV series are a form of art) is a certain duality in its view of specific time, culture and class. Victorian England is portrayed in both series as a time when things were clear, even when they were wrong. Class distinctions were observed with more than a touch of class, each individual was aware of his or her place in society, right was right, and one was never wrong about what was wrong. But at the same time, characters and viewers are aware that the distinctions are becoming blurred, and things refuse to remain as they were. Change (for the better?) is in the air, but to make it happen, one has to give up the illusive notion that one lives in the best of all possible worlds, or at least one that tries its best to make sense.

A sonnet written by the Canadian-born American journalist Vincent Starrett in memory of the formidable sleuth and the good doctor sums up best, in my opinion, the charms that both “Downton Abbey” and “Sherlock” manage to recreate on the small screen. The sonnet is entitled “221b."

Here dwell together still two men of note

Who never lived and so can never die:

How very near they seem, yet how remote

That age before the world went all awry.

But still the game’s afoot for those with ears

Attuned to catch the distant view-halloo:

England is England yet, for all our fears–

Only those things the heart believes are true.

A yellow fog swirls past the window-pane

As night descends upon this fabled street:

A lonely hansom splashes through the rain,

The ghostly gas lamps fail at twenty feet.

Here, though the world explode, these two survive,

And it is always eighteen ninety-five.

Yes, indeed, both series are about “the age before the world went all awry” (which is the world we live in), where “England is England yet, for all our fears,” and “though the world explode it is always 1895.”

Or, in “Downton Abbey,” 1925.