Greeting the future.

Photographer: Nick Briggs/PBS, Carnival Film and Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE via AP Photo

'Downton Abbey' Gets a Radio

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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Let’s get the spoilers out of the way: On the second episode of the fifth season of “Downton Abbey,” Lord Grantham changed his mind and decided that the family could get a wireless set after all; Mr. Carson changed his mind and decided that the war memorial could be built in the center of the village after all; a visiting art historian seemed intent on changing Cora’s mind about her fidelity to her marriage vows; and Lady Mary might have changed her mind about sneaking off to meet Lord Gillingham had she not received covert assistance from a plainly uncomfortable Anna, who went to the village chemist to purchase what appeared to be a diaphragm.

Oh, and a policeman showed up in the closing minutes to inquire into the death of Mr. Green, presumably because it’s been a couple of seasons since Mr. Bates was last investigated for murder.

But let’s stick with that wireless.

After several abortive efforts by Lady Rose to persuade her uncle to allow a wireless to be installed, Lord Grantham is finally persuaded when he learns that the king will be speaking on the radio. Nowadays, such news would occasion a shrug. At the time, it was a thunderclap.

George V’s address to open the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in April of 1924 was the first time the monarch spoke on the radio. Historians tell us that the event aroused such excitement that traffic was stopped and loudspeakers were set up on sidewalks outside large stores so people could listen. The occasion was, says Maurice Roche in his history of mass exhibitions, “the first time the British public as a whole had been gathered together to participate in a national event through the new medium.”

The British Broadcasting Company had been founded just two years earlier, and although there were many who shared the opinion of Lord Grantham that enthusiasm for wireless was nothing but a fad, the fact that the king would stoop to addressing the nation on the radio taught a valuable lesson about the power of the new medium. The historian John M. MacKenzie quotes John Reith, at the time the BBC’s managing director, who wrote in his diary: “Everything went most successfully, including the broadcast which went all over the country and was the biggest thing we have done yet.”

The question is whether even the BBC understood how big a thing it had done. Prior to the broadcast, only a handful of British subjects had ever heard the king’s voice. Suddenly, the monarch was almost touchable -- right there in the living room, so to speak. (Although in fairness, the early wireless sets were expensive, and many required earphones.) 

The change sat poorly with traditionalists. When Lord Grantham tells Mr. Carson to imagine the king on the radio, Carson replies gruffly that he would rather imagine the king on his throne. Violet worries that the monarchy would lose its “magic” and “mystery” --  characteristics, she seems to think, that provide royal influence.

To ask who was right is to miss the point. As we saw last week, the overarching theme of this year’s season of “Downton Abbey” is to be the painful process of the decline of the traditions of the aristocratic gentry lifestyle in what would have been considered the modern world. Maybe last night the writers spent a little too much time hitting us over the head with the message that the times are changing.  But the perhaps over-obvious subtext -- whether any structure of authority can survive the intrusion of our ever-changing media -- is a question still very much with us.

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