Wednesday, January 4, 2012

THE ROYAL WATCH: ALL HAIL DOWNTON ABBEY!

Forgive me, loyal readers of The Royal Watch. Up until now, this blog has been devoted exclusively to chronicling the goings on of the British royal family. This week, I'm breaking with tradition to write about another equally fascinating family from across the pond.

I'm talking, of course about those embattled aristocrats of "Downton Abbey" -- and their loyal servants (with a few wicked exceptions).

"Downton Abbey," whose second season premieres Sunday night on PBS Masterpiece is as addictive as any soap opera I've ever seen (and trust me, that's saying something!) But it's not a guilty pleasure. I guarantee you'll feel smarter after watching one episode. For all its sublime plot twists and turns and star crossed romances, the period drama is also something of a history lesson on what life was like in Europe on the brink of World War I. For the uninitiated, the series chronicles the lives of the Crawley family and their servants during the reign of King George V. Season one opened with the news of the sinking of the Titanic, an event which sets the story in motion as the family is left without an heir.

Set against the backdrop of a lavish estate in the English countryside during the late Edwardian era, "Downton Abbey," has it all. Breathtaking scenery gorgeously shot, a lavish production (its been reported production costs run upwards of $1 million per episode) filled with beautiful period costumes offering enough inspiration for years of Ralph Lauren collections, perfectly calibrated performances from first rate actors who literally disappear into their characters and enough drama surrounding class conflict, ambition, sex and sibling rivalry to make network executives green with envy.

And then there's the extraordinary house. "Downton" is itself character in the series played by Highclere Castle located in Berkshire. Shooting a majority of the scenes in the huge, imposing structure and on its sprawling grounds lends a rare air of authenticity to the production.

None of this is surprising of course since its part of PBS' Masterpiece Classic. Downton's pedigree is simply impeccable. Written and produced by Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for his Gosford Park screenplay in 2001), the show is an original work produced by Britain's ITV by Carnival Film & Television with PBS Masterpiece as coproducer. Originally conceived as a mini-series, it won six Emmys last year and is nominated for four Golden Globes this year. It was recently been announced production will soon start on season three.

What is shocking is "Downton's" runaway ratings and surging popularity here in the states at a time where the tastes of the lowest common denominator dictate much of what makes it to the small screen. In season one which aired first in England, Brits and American Anglophiles alike were consumed with the 'upstairs and downstairs' lives of the inhabitants of a sprawling Edwardian mansion. Without the big media campaign and network hype that seems to come along with every 'prestigious' production these days, season one of the show drew an amazing 5 million viewers to each episode. (In contrast, "Mad Men's" wildly celebrated first season drew just under 1 million viewers.) In the U.K., season two -- which as already aired -- drew 9 million viewers. Starting this Sunday, record numbers of stateside viewers will likely flock to PBS to find out how the war has effected the social order of "Downton."

Perhaps some of the success of the period drama can be attributed to its timely resonance with modern life with its themes surrounding class conflict and a world struggling to adapt to new technology (a telephone! a typewriter! electricity!). While it appears the stories surrounding various classes and their issues are very specific to the period, there's an appealing timelessness to the stories as well. "The way of life of these servanted houses has always interested me," says Fellowes. "There is something intriguing about this group of people living in close proximity but with such different expectations. The family is living within a sphere and the servants are living in a different one. All with different hopes and dreams."

Thanks to the show's historical advisor, Alistair Bruce, everything about the era in which these people lived is spot on down to the smallest detail from the way in which a valet assisted the lord of the manor with his evening dress to how newspapers were ironed by a footman before they were sent up on the family's breakfast trays. "If the details are right, chance are people will enjoy it more and get more into the story," explains Bruce.

I have to admit, Downton wasn't on my radar when it premiered last year. Thanks to a nasty bug that kept me in bed for several days over the holidays, I was able to watch the entire first season in one marathon session. When I popped in the first DVD containing Downton's first two episodes I was literally transported to England circa 1914 in minutes. A few hours later, I'd watched of all seven episodes and was stunned by what I'd just seen.

I simply could not get the residents of Downton out of my mind (or the haunting soundtrack out of my head). There are 16 principal characters -- of them all with their own intriguing stories played by a mix of most British veterans and appealing newcomers. I adore Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and matriarch of Downton who presides over the family with her irrefutable opinions and delivers the most delicious one-liners of the series. Hugh Bonneville (who some viewers will recognize as Hugh Grant's best friend in "Notting Hill") is the heart and soul of the show as the stoic, sensible and soft-hearted Earl of Grantham who is married to Lady Cora played by Elizabeth McGovern (Best known for her role as Timothy Hutton's pretty high school friend in "Ordinary People"). Casting McGovern was a canny choice as she is one of very few American actors who live and work in the UK having moved their decades ago when she married British producer Simon Curtis. The Grantham's marriage which is cleverly depicted as having evolved from strategic union common within that class for the period (the Earl married Cora for her money) into a true love affair. The couple's affection for each other anchors the show with a timeless realism not often found in period pieces of this sort.

They have three daughters Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery ) whose love life presents untold complications for the family, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) who seems destined for spinsterhood and secretly resents the attention lavished on Mary and the rebellious Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) with a growing interest in politics.








As for the servants, I didn't recognize any of these actors, but I suspect I'll be seeing a lot more of many of them. Most notably Joanne Frogatt whose poignant portrayal of head housemaid Anna, whose love for Mr. Bates (the wonderful Brendan Coyle) has kept her gingerly trying to break down the walls the emotional and physically scarred valet has erected around himself. The actors playing the duplicitous Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) have taken what could have easily been one dimensional caricatures and turned them into compulsively watchable supporting players.



While season one ended with Lady Mary turning down Matthew Crawley's proposal just as World War I begins, season two opens two years later with all of Europe emersed in the war and life at Downton dramatically changed as a result. Undoubtedly, scenes of war will cast a darker tone on the show taking viewers out of the stately house (which now doubles as a convalescent home for the wounded) and on to the battlefield.

What will that mean? How will the family and staff adapt to a new world filled with uncertainties? I'm simply dying to know if Bates and Anna find love and if Mary's secret will finally be revealed and if so, what does it mean for her and her parents? All of the more trivial matter of season one (lost snuff boxes and stolen wine) will undoubtedly pale in comparison to what the residents of Downton will have to face thanks to the winds of war.

If you want to be surprised, here's a word to the wise: stay away from the PBS website and anything from ITV. Spoilers abound. Part of why I loved discovering the series on DVD was the newness of it all. I knew absolutely nothing about the series when I began watching it. There is something delicious about letting Downton unfold at its own pace. When the screen goes to black after the final scene in each episode, the viewer is always genuinely surprised at its denouement and left wanting more.

For those viewers who feel compelled keep up with the Kardashians every week, "Downton" may not be your cup of tea but I have to say, the show's existence has restored a bit of my faith in the medium that somehow managed to make that creature named Snooki a star.

So if you haven't seen it already, do yourself a favor and run out and buy the DVD of season one now or watch it on Netflix before Sunday night's season two premiere. It's simply jolly good intelligent television. Pour yourself some tea, wrap yourself in your favorite cashmere throw and tune in. Trust me, you won't be disappointed.

DOWNTON ABBEY SEASON TWO PREMIERE
SUNDAY, JANUARY 8 9 P.M. ON PBS



Photos: Courtesy of PBS

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