How Not to Honour the War Dead on Remembrance Sunday

May contain spoilers for those who have not watched Series 5. Please bookmark to read later or proceed with caution.

On Remembrance Sunday my husband and I went to check out the Rembrandt exhibition at the National Gallery, then after lunch we decided to wander down to the Cenotaph to see the poppy wreaths that had been laid out. When we arrived, despite the official celebrations being over, there were still a fair amount of people in the vicinity of Whitehall and various groups such as the Salvation Army and Veterans for Peace laying their own tributes to the war dead. We ended up staying longer than we intended, having chatted to a policeman, a middle aged couple living in North London and an old man who was an evacuee during the Second World War and took part in the official celebrations earlier in the day. Afterwards, we headed to the Tower of London to see the poppy installation (Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red to give its formal name).

If the wreaths that adorned the Cenotaph were moving then nothing prepared us for the poppy installation at the Tower (despite us having gone to see it in the daytime a few weeks earlier). It was dusk and the area surrounding the installation was filled with people wanting to have a glimpse of the poppies. If the sight of the installation was poignant during the daytime then even more so as the sky turned dark, there was something eerie as the red of the poppies were only illuminated by the street lamps dotted around the Tower and the street as well as from the lights from the surrounding buildings. It was as if the Tower was standing in a vast glistening lake of blood that had poured from the fallen.

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Over dinner, my husband and I talked about how we were both moved by sight of the Cenotaph and the poppy installation and that we were fortunate to have seen both especially on this very important Sunday. With that in mind I was also looking forward to the last episode of Downton Abbey given there was to be a scene featuring when the village war memorial was to be finally unveiled.

I have to say I was very disappointed with the episode. Truth be told I wasn’t expecting much given how Downton Abbey has lurched from mediocrity to mediocrity since the end of series 2, but I had expected that since the last episode coincided with Remembrance Sunday that the war memorial scene would be handled with sensitivity and respect for the millions of war dead. It wasn’t meant to be.

I felt that the scene was far too rushed, there was nothing of the solemn dignity that I saw at the pictures of the various Remembrance Sunday ceremonies up and down the country and the memorial itself was a let-down. It was a hasty conclusion to an episode that had too much in terms of plot, heavy handed recycling and the lack of development.

Worse of all was the inclusion of a tablet for Mrs Patmore’s nephew who was shot for cowardice during the war. The subplot involving the war memorial story line was Mrs Patmore’s campaign to have her nephew Archie Philpotts’ name included in the Downton war memorial given his own home village refused to do so. With Lord Grantham’s help, Mrs Patmore managed to have her nephew remembered even if his name wasn’t included in the Downton memorial. While some viewers might have been touched by such a gesture, I wasn’t.

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Critics have always carped that Downton Abbey’s biggest Achilles heel is the general implausibility of the series. Chief among this is the relationship between upstairs and downstairs and the Crawleys themselves behaving more like an upper middle class suburban family from Pinner rather than being a member of “God’s elect.” Crucially what is jarring is the insertion of twenty first century values and sensibilities in a programme set in the early twentieth century.

As the saying goes, the past is a foreign country and no period drama or historical novel no matter how well written and researched will totally capture the attitudes and sensibilities of the past. Despite all the claims of accuracy, research and that the stories and people were inspired by true to life events and personalities,Downton Abbey has consistently failed to present to viewers the values of that era and how the characters would have behaved faced with situations and their attitudes towards the world they lived in. Fans might say it’s fiction, so what? But even fiction especially set in the past needs to be true to the reality of the time it was set.

The final episode is a clear illustration of this problem. While today there will be greater understanding of and sympathy towards what makes soldiers desert their positions in the front, in the past, such understanding did not exist. The view was that a soldier like Archie Philpotts deserted his position and as a result let down his comrades and destroyed the esprit de corps that is the bedrock of army discipline and morale. The army’s view was that cowardice was a dereliction of duty and therefore carried out the necessary punishment. Hence the refusal of the memorial committee to include his name in the memorial given they were of the view that Archie Philpotts did not deserve to be included in the roll of men who gave their lives for King and Country.

Along with the problem of the implausibility of the series is the lack of character development which reduces them to chess pieces all moved around for the sake of the plot. Someone like Lord Grantham, who we are told was in the army, would have lines that were that weren’t crossed and which were fundamental to him as a soldier; values such as loyalty, fidelity, courage; and he wouldn’t have agreed to put up a memorial to a deserter who had committed the cardinal soldier’s sin of letting down his comrades, however sympathetic he felt personally. In his view, the man had failed in his duty as a soldier and that was that.

What Downton Abbey got right was the refusal of Archie Philpotts’ home village and the reluctance of Mr Carson to add his name to the memorial given that he was regarded as a coward even in death. Families of such soldiers were officially penalised; their widows not entitled to pensions, their deaths not commemorated and their behaviour seen as a disgrace to the community. However harsh and unpalatable that is to our modern day sensibilities, putting up a memorial to someone shot for cowardice would have been seen as an insult to those who fought and remained at their positions and who were commemorated on the war memorial.

And hence why I was left unmoved by the war memorial unveiling scene and that of Archie Philpotts’ tablet. It might have made some viewers cry and given the impression that Lord Grantham had exhibited a Solomon-like wisdom in balancing the wishes of the community and his head cook but it left a bitter taste in the mouth for me. On Remembrance Sunday of all days Julian Fellowes, the cast and crew trampled all over the memory of millions who died, by making the nephew’s memorial the focus of the scene and glorifying a coward at their expense.