Downton Abbey, The Crown, countless World War II dramas — British television loves to romanticise the aristocracy.
The lives of the rich, upper elite have unquestionably been glamourised and idealised over and over again on our screens, perpetuating the social institutions that continue to plague English society across the globe.
Television, in my opinion, is one of the most powerful forms of media today. This tiny little box brings the world into our homes — it brings adventure, it brings drama, it brings new spaces, new ideologies and new ways of viewing our world that we may otherwise never experience. Unlike the cinema, television is intimate — it’s in our home, it’s indoctrinated into our lives.
Because of this invasive intimacy with the content we consume on our televisions, we often become passive viewers, mindlessly watching a programming after a long day in the real world, wanting to escape, without question, into the fantasy world presented to us. We, whether consciously or subconsciously, become complacent with the screens in our homes, accepting the ideas and social norms that are played out in front of us.
Thus, when we mindless watch the Downton Abbey’s and The Crown’s, we are manipulated into believing that the regal lives of the aristocracy is the peak of society and that we too must strive to live this glamorous and care-free life of being a rich socialite.
That was until Sky’s new series Patrick Melrose(which was just nominated in four major categories at the 2018 Emmy Awards) hit the airwaves. Starring the posh boy himself Benedict Cumberbatch, Patrick Melrose is an adaptation of Edward St. Aubyn’s fantastically raw and rich novels chronicling four decades of the life of a man traumatised by his supposed privilege. The five semi-autobiographical novels, which were adapted into five phenomenally stunning episodes, explore how class, family and childhood can traumatise an entire generation.
The team of director Edward Berger, screenwriter David Nicholls and actor/ producer Cumberbatch (who gives one of the most stunning, heart wrenching and visceral performance of his entire career) have produced one of the most provoking and challenging programmes on television at the moment.
— Showtime Limited Series (@SHOLtdSeries) July 13, 2018
Yet, what I have taken from this fantastically rich program is its blatant exposé of the dark lives of the upper class. Despite being about rich snobs like Downton, Patrick Melrosedoesn’t romanticise the aristocracy; rather it exposes it, it strips it bare and challenges the culture of silence, of failed communication, of addiction, and of uncontested traditions that stifles those at the top of society. It challenges the viewer to question the status quo of our social institutions, asking them not to stare mindlessly at the television and accept what is presented to them, but rather to see, hear and feel for a character and to witness how the pinnacle of society and class has destroyed him.
Whereas the Downton’s normalise the separation between the classes (insisting that the aristocrats are noble and righteous in their gracious offerings of a job and boarding for their very Northern, working-class servants), Patrick Melrosecontradicts our stereotypical beliefs about who and what the upper class actually is. The series exposes the unspoken dark secretes of the aristocracy; it explores the toxicity of power and money and its impact on gender conformity; it challenges the passivity of Englishness and the English fear of speaking frankly; but most importantly, it illustrates how the traumas and experiences of a childhood, no matter how privileged, weighs on the psyche of the adult.
In episode five, “At Last”, Patrick, who recently checked himself into rehab for his crippling alcoholism and depression, finds himself in a therapy circle, surrounded by people from all walks of life. He’s joined by middle aged mothers who loath their children, physically strong but mentally weak black men, youthful women with radical tendencies and Muslim men who struggle to live fully.
The therapy circle becomes one of the most powerful metaphors for the programme’s social commentary, as it represents the true identity of modern Britain. Britain isn’t the country of the past, as seen on the Downton Abbey’s or the Upstairs, Downstairs’. It isn’t a country dominated by unquestionable elitism, romantic stately homes and all white, regal landowners. Instead, it’s a country that is suffocated by classism, buried under poverty and hurt and massively manipulated by the white patriarchy. It’s a melting pot of different identities and cultures, coming together to share moments of authentic humanity. Like Patrick in the therapy circle, regardless of one’s class background, we are all human. We all suffer, we all long, we all love. Patrick Melroseattempts to bridge the gap between the classes by bringing an authentic humanity to its aristocratic character, making him part of the group rather than an untouchable deity.
Patrick Melrose, despite his inaccessible class, becomes a figure we stand in solidarity with. When the glamour and prestige of Patrick’s aristocratic life is gone, what is left are commonalities we all share: a need for an addiction to replace deep rooted sadness, a desire to escape from the inescapable, a longing to be loved. The fierce display of Patrick’s vulnerability and, quite frankly, his humanity distances him from the cosmetics of his class, from the dinner parties with the Windsors and the extraordinary lifestyle of the wealthy socialite. Patrick isn’t Earl Grantham; he’s one of us.