'Downton Abbey'...Why Americans Love This British Import
The award winning Downton Abbey was created by actor, director and screenwriter, Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for Best Screenplay for Gosford Park. The series takes place in post-Edwardian England during the reign of King George.
(Please note that spoilers follow.)
"But last night, he looked so well. Of course, it would happen to a foreigner. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house."
--- Lady Violet
If you’re a fan of this wonderful series, you are, no doubt, familiar with that sly zinger from the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Lady Violet Crawley -- superbly portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith. Violet is the matriarch of the aristocratic Crawley family. Her son, Sir Robert Crawley (the Earl of Grantham), his American wife, Cora, and their three adult daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil all reside at the fictional country estate of Downton Abbey in Yorkshire.
The year is 1913 and the foreigner Violet referred to is the dashing young Turkish diplomat, Kemal Pamuk, who was visiting the Crawleys at the time. Pamuk apparently suffered from a serious heart condition and had the ill-timed fate to die in the arms of Lady Mary during a late-night tryst. After repeatedly fending off his advances Mary finally succumbed to the unyielding seduction of the handsome diplomat after he entered her bedroom, uninvited.
Distraught over Pamuk’s demise, Mary covertly seeks the aid of her trusted and kind-hearted maid, Anna. She, in turn, wisely involves her mother, Cora. The Countess is devastated that her daughter allowed herself to be deflowered in such a manner. Nevertheless, pragmatism soon takes hold. After all, the subsequent scandal would certainly ruin Mary’s marriage prospects if word of the event ever reached beyond the halls of Downton.
The rank of ‘downstairs’ unites with ‘upstairs’ as these three women -- dressed in their nightgowns -- carry Pamuk’s body on a bed sheet through the long hallways in the early morning shadows. He is discovered later that morning in his appointed guest bedroom, staring at the ceiling with the bedcovers tucked neatly beneath his chin. No one else appears to be the wiser…at least, for awhile.
After Pamuk’s death, Sir Robert advises the butler, Mr. Carson, of their responsibility to alleviate the shock of the event with the ladies: “We must have a care for feminine sensibilities. They are finer and more fragile than our own.”
Lady Mary and Mr. Pamuk - Season 1
The Crawleys have held title to Downton since 1772. Under British law, Robert’s daughters cannot inherit his title or estate. Next in line to inherit was a paternal cousin who died on the Titanic the year before. Thus, the title of heir will pass to a distant cousin, Mathew Crawley. Matthew is a middle class solicitor and specializes in industrial law. Mary’s disdain for his status is further rankled by the knowledge that she is prohibited from inheriting what eventually will become his home.
As with the aristocracy, the servants’ world is not without its own social hierarchy and pecking order. Everyone has their place -- and level -- from footman to valet; scullery maid to cook; and so forth. The bustling activities, daily camaraderie and rivalries are presided over by the housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, and Mr. Carson.
Season 1 - Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) is introduced to life at Downton.
What is especially interesting about Downton are the sweeping changes brought about by the 20th century that test the limitations and boundaries of both worlds. (Although similar in plot to its predecessor and Edwardian cousin, the 1970’s hit, Upstairs, Downstairs, Upstairs is more bleak in the depiction of its characters and the impact of World War I, and the subsequent societal and technological changes.) For example:
“I couldn’t have electricity in the house. I wouldn’t sleep a wink. All those vapors seeping about. First electricity...now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel," remarks Lady Violet.
“What in God’s name is that?” asks Carson when first confronted with an electric toaster.
Once viewed, it is almost impossible not to develop a loyal crush on this series. We Yanks love it, but for reasons that encompass far more than a fascination with the class-based, social hierarchy of Edwardian Britain or foxhunt soap operas in opulent surroundings.
The magnificent confluence of artistry and talent involved in creating this series -- as well as its nearly flawless attention to detail -- are enthralling. So much so, that we forgive the occasional plot machinations that may appear contrived or predictable. This is a compassionate series with characters that are wonderfully human – above stairs and below. For example, Sir Robert's interest in the welfare of those who work for him is genuine, as are the many acts of kindness he and Lady Cora show to others.
Downtown Abbey is, first and foremost, about people and significant societal change. It portrays the parallels and kinship between two coexisting worlds. Both are filled with every-day hopes and dreams; both make sacrifices or choices that can lead to regret and unhappiness. The series is alternately heartbreaking, humorous and thought-provoking.
Mr. Carson, the butler; Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper; and Mrs. Patmore, the cook. (Jim Carter; Phyllis Logan; Lesley Nicol)
During Season 2, WW I has come and gone after wreaking tragedy, havoc and change on the lives of many. Robert and Cora's youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, falls in love with the Crawleys’ chauffeur, the outspoken, fiery Irish socialist, Tom Branson. She leaves Downton and weds Tom in Ireland – much to the dismay of her father. Sir Robert is also about to discover he may not be able to sustain Downton, financially, for much longer. Lady Mary and Matthew finally decide to marry after years of denying their enduring love.
The premier episode of Season 3 begins with the plans for Matthew and Lady Mary’s impending wedding. Sybil arrives at Downton with Tom, thanks to the money provided them by the Dowager Countess. “Tom, you’re a member of the family now. You’ll find we Crawleys stick together,” says Violet.
Tom Branson and Lady Sybil
The Crawleys have a dinner party to celebrate the upcoming wedding. Among the guests are long-time friends, Larry Grey and his father, the Earl of Merton. Larry, a former suitor of Sybil's, is jealous of Branson and taints his drink with some form of drug. As a result, Tom behaves in a drunken and obnoxious manner at the Crawleys’ formal dinner table. When Larry’s involvement in the cruel prank is revealed, he complains that Tom is just "a grubby chauffeur.”
In unison, Sir Robert, Matthew and Lord Merton stand bolt upright from the table. Dressed in white dinner vests and black tails, they remain at attention like indignant yet endearing penguins, glaring at Larry with disdain over his callous behavior. Such antics were considered unconscionable and intolerable, regardless of Tom's former position. "Be silent this instant sir!" Lord Merton tells his son. He then apologizes to Tom for his son’s actions. Matthew immediately shows his support of Branson by asking him to be his best man.
Prior to this incident, Tom goes below stairs to have a friendly chat with the servants who are having dinner. When he appears at the doorway, Carson rises from the table with the other servants in accordance with established protocol. "Do you need something, Sir?" Carson asks, icily. Although Mrs. Hughes is sympathetic to Tom’s plight, Carson wholeheartedly disapproves of his marriage to Lady Sybil.
Beneath the surface frosting, Carson is a decent, caring man with fierce integrity and character. In truth, he is, in many ways, the quintessential parallel to Sir Robert.
Mr. Carson (Jim Carter)
There is much to add about Downton Abbey... the other characters and their lives, as well as and the joys, heart-rending tragedies and betrayal portrayed in season 3. Rather than give away too much detail, I was hoping instead to intrigue a few readers who haven’t yet viewed the series.
Season 4 is scheduled to begin airing in the New Year on Sunday, January 5th. The year for Downton is 1920, which gives us some idea of the revolutionary changes about to take place. Carson once asked with trepidation where everything was headed in this new world. I, for one, am on pins and needles with anticipation.
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Content Notes: (1) The History of Highclere Castle; http://www.highclerecastle.co.uk/about-us/history-of-highclere-castle.html.
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© Copyright 2013 by Genna East All rights reserved.
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