'Downton Abbey': A Period Piece Like No Other. Period

One of the most widely watched TV drama shows in the world showcases British expertise in telling old stories that never get old.

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Dame Maggie Smith plays the Dowager.
Dame Maggie Smith plays the Dowager.

One of the advantages of aging is that one doesn’t have to do anything about it. Whether one wants it to happen or not, one gets older as time goes by. And it does go by, so far so good, which is not very far, and ergo – not very good. And as one gets older (it’s always a process, and one hopes never to get there and be old) one learns to appreciate anew things that are not “new,” and prefer, for instance, a period TV series with a pedigree over a brand-new TV series threading on virgin plot-paths.

This preamble is meant to set the tone for my song of praise – yes, once in a while I enjoy joining in a chorus – for “Downton Abbey,” an ITV and PBS joint venture, currently in a hiatus, with season 4 having ran its premier broadcast course in Britain, U.S. and even Israel (on Channel 1), and season 5 in the first stages of filming, to be broadcast by the end of 2014. The series, which went on air in 2011, is set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey, and depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the post-Edwardian era. By the third season, it had become one of the most widely watched television drama shows in the world.

Speaking of a “pedigree,” Julian 
Fellowes, the series’ creator, had already earned an Academy Award for writing the script for “Gosford Park,” another drama that takes place at the country house of a very British aristocratic family. He built the edifice of “Downton Abbey” on the scaffolding provided by “Brideshead Revisited” (the 1981 British TV series based on the Evelyn Waugh novel) and “Upstairs, Downstairs” (the original BBC series from 1971 – depicting the lives of the Bellamys upstairs and their servants downstairs between the two world wars – as well as the recent 2010 sequel bringing the plot up to 1936). If one is pressed to explain the particular charm of the physical and social venues of those series – a country house where the upper class is in decline and the servants are starting to climb the social ladder – and the particular British aptitude for crafting these venues so well, one is tempted to use the old and weathered phrase “a touch of class.” The Brits have it in abundance and in all its shades of meaning. “Downton Abbey” (in fictional Yorkshire, filmed on locations in Hampshire and Oxfordshire) tells the story of those who live there. They include the extended Crawley family – its head, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), his American-born wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), their three daughters and their suitors, husbands, children and other relatives. And there is the servants’ world, headed by the formidable butler, Carson (Jim Carter), and ably aided by the housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) who rule benignly yet firmly over a staff of maids, undermaids, valets, cooks et al., each of them capable of advancing parts of the plot. This is the stuff of which British TV series are made.

For those of you who are not yet avid fans of the series, the following paragraph may contain information that may be considered by the “spoiler police” as detrimental to your future viewing pleasure. By the beginning of season 4 the series had lost two of its supporting characters (although the distinction between them and the main ones is rather arbitrary in such a rich tapestry of characters). The youngest daughter of the Granthams, Sybil (Jessica Brown Findley) had died in childbirth, leaving a baby daughter and her husband Tom Branson (Allan Leech). He is a former family chauffeur who became manager of the estate, proving that inter-class marriage is a possibility against all odds, even if the course of affairs does not run smoothly. Matthew (Dan Stevens) husband of the eldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and a co-owner of the estate, is killed in a road accident, leaving hereditary and proprietary matters unsolved (he and Mary have a baby son, but he had wanted Mary to be his sole heir). Consequently, the fourth season is about Mary having to come to terms with her new circumstances and those of Downton.

The reason I’ve chosen to write about “Downton Abbey” now is because season 4 is being broadcast again, on Yes OH on Sundays at 22.00. Something good should be hailed whenever there is an opportunity to do so. Due to Israeli memorial days, the next episode, the third of season 4 (the episodes do not have separate titles) will be broadcast on May 11, and it contains a special gem: Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, the opera singer from New Zealand, appears in the episode in the part of an Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba, who is invited to perform a recital for the family (and is also asked to join the family at dinner, to the horror of Carson, who feels that the “Australian singer” – however eminent – should not dine with them). It is not the performance that matters to the plot, but rather what happens downstairs while it is going on, and about that I’ll keep mum.

It also seems to me somehow fitting to praise a series that is neither new nor premiering now, but rather one that tells old stories, requiring a special talent to recreate the feeling of their period, something at which the Brits excel. It leaves you with a distinct feeling that while the world of yore had its many drawbacks, it was still in some way better, more habitable – and classy? – than the one we live in now. These days, when even nostalgia ain’t what it used to be (a quote often attributed to Simone Signoret, 1978, but traced back to Peter De Vries, 1959) we get a kind of cuddly, nostalgic feeling watching “Downton Abbey,” a reflection of a world that was.

Last but not least, and actually, for me she is the first among equals, by far: Dame Maggie Smith reigns over the series as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. All other things being more than equal when comparing this series with others, Dame Maggie lights up the TV screen whenever she has a scene, which she steals effortlessly, with a brilliant one-liner, (“a woman of my age can face reality better than most men”), with a pregnant pause, and even – or especially – when she fixes someone (a character or the TV viewer) with a stare that says more than thousand words. Younger actors and actresses come and go, but Dame Maggie reigns supreme, and as long she is with us, the fate of “Downton Abbey” is safe on the TV screen.