I know that Downton Abbey premiered on PBS back in 2011, but at that time I was doing my own “Mr. Molesley career transition” (more on that in a moment) – from radio management to broadcast professor – in addition to moving from New Jersey to Kentucky, I didn’t have a whole lot of time to watch the series. Amazon Prime changed that for me in 2019 when I noticed it had made available the entire six seasons (52-episodes).
Downton Abbey will be coming out as a movie, advancing the story of the Crawley family in September of this year (and Sue & I can’t wait). The cast, the script and the characters are truly addicting on so many levels.
Technology Comes to Downton Abbey
The show is set in England from the period of 1912 through 1926. 1912 was the year that the Titanic sank and its sinking plays a role in the future of Downton Abbey. The sinking of the Titanic also set in motion more intense regulation of wireless communication for ships at sea. The Wireless Ship Act of 1910 only required ocean-going ships to carry radio equipment when visiting the United States and only required a single radio operator. That was amended after the Titanic sank in 1912 to include vessels traveling on the Great Lakes in addition to those on the oceans, plus requiring two radio operators with the wireless being manned around the clock.
Downton Abbey’s first toe-dip into the 20th Century would be electricity. In addition to electric lights, the kitchen at Downton would see its first electric toaster and mixer.
Then came the telephone, a sewing machine and refrigerator.
Watching the impact these new technological devices made on the people of Downton and how each accepted the change is one of the endearing elements of the program. Most times we only hear about how technology changed without considering the emotional impact it is having on people’s lives and futures.
It was in Season 5, the year 1924, that Lady Rose convinces the Earl of Grantham to buy a wireless (aka radio) for Downton Abbey. Lady Rose wants it for music and entertainment but convinces her uncle the house needs one because the King of England will be addressing the nation over the airwaves. The Earl decides to at least buy one of these devices so the family and staff could hear the King’s speech, but other than that see little need for a radio.
The scene could not be more amazing, seeing everyone gathered around the awkward looking device in the great hall, much as many Americans do for a Super Bowl, waiting to hear the King. When he comes on, the family all stands at attention, in much the same way they would if they were in his presence to hear him speak.
When the address is over, the Earl of Grantham has the radio moved to another location in the castle that is out of the way.
Once again, the various members of the family and staff are shown emotionally reacting to this new form of media technology.
Technology’s Impact on the People of Downton Abbey
Contemporary problems with technology that affects people today, can be seen in a whole new way by witnessing its first impacts back in the days of Downton Abbey.
New technology, like the car, were replacing the need for horses. Stable caretakers and carriage men were yesterday, car mechanics and chauffers were the future.
These new labor saving devices now meant that it would take less staff to accomplish the work needed to be done. (I’m sure you can come up with many of your own examples of similar disruption at the places you’ve worked.)
The burden of having to pay back the huge debts for England’s part in the First World War fell more upon the shoulders and bank accounts of the rich. Lack of able bodied men created demand and so their pay rose dramatically as competition for their labor increased.
The higher taxes being levied by Parliament combined with those higher labor costs caused the grand estates to downsize their staff while trying to survive and servants were encouraged to seek other employment.
We see through the people at Downton Abbey how acquiring new skills assured new employment opportunities.
Getting back to Mr. Moseley, he’s a fine example of what I mean and how we are similar. The downsizing he encountered saw him go from a trained butler to a second footman to a laborer in the streets. He saw his working life as a series of steps down and not one that was advancing in stature and pay. But Mr. Moseley loved learning and once dreamed of being a teacher. An encounter with the local headmaster of the town’s school led Moseley to taking a series of exams which proved him to be an exceptional scholar and he was then awarded a teaching position with the school. Moseley’s life was now moving in a direction he only previously dreamed about.
Adapting to Change
The Downton Abbey series is something every person working in radio should watch. It has so many parallels to the disruptions that are going on in the broadcasting industry today, how they impact people emotionally, and how to deal with change.
We all like to wax romantically about a simpler time in history, when life moved at a slower more relaxed pace. Downton Abbey is an eye-opener to tell us that there never was such a time. Every moment has its challenges. Those who can rise to the challenge, succeed. Those who can’t or won’t, are put out to pasture.