News Column

'Downton Abbey' Returns at Last

Jan 7, 2013

Carla Meyer, The Sacramento Bee

Downton Abbey

The clothes. The stolen pantry kisses. The dog's backside that signals the start of a new episode.

"Downton Abbey," the posh British soap opera that teased out the Anglophile within millions of Americans, returns for a third season on Sunday as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Classic." The two-hour premiere will be preceded by a marathon airing of the second season, starting at 11 a.m.

"Downton Abbey" drew 17.1 million viewers over seven episodes last year, the most ever for a "Masterpiece" presentation. Created by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the similarly upstairs-downstairs 2001 film "Gosford Park," "Downton" is quick-paced rather than stately, and it explores and expands on the landed-gentry limitations of Jane Austen or Merchant Ivory British period pieces.

Maintaining the estate overseen by Robert and Cora Crawley, a.k.a. Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern) and finding suitable husbands for their daughters are top concerns, but so are the needs of a household staff that interacts easily with the manor's lords and ladies.

"We go into a very recognizable, expressly British drama -- and it is a very familiar world in literature and culture -- and then render it in a very contemporary way, to our tastes today," "Downton Abbey" executive producer Gareth Neame said by phone from Boston during a press stop there last month.

"Each of the 25 characters offers a different entry point. It's the way we consume media as a modern audience. We are used to that kind of storytelling."

Each scene usually offers just enough time for Maggie Smith, as Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, to offer a witty remark, or for conniving footman Thomas (Rob James-Collier) to puff on a cigarette and plot his next move. The show's first two seasons also traversed the Titanic's sinking, World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic.

These moments entertained or saddened as viewers anticipated the next time headstrong Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) would see Downton Abbey heir Matthew (Dan Stevens), her handsome, levelheaded distant cousin and likely true love, or bright-eyed housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) might get a kiss from stoic valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle), when Bates got a rare break from Sisyphean struggles.

Few modern TV shows offer "a very big dollop of good, old-fashioned slow-burn romance" as "Downton" does, Neame said.

At Season 2's conclusion, Matthew had proposed to Mary (again), and this time she accepted. Their planned wedding is the front-burner story as the third season opens. (Key world events continue to weave their way into the story. In Season 3, the women's suffrage movement and Irish republicanism will touch on life in Downton Abbey.)

Tonight's episode also marks the introduction of Shirley MacLaine as Lady Grantham's pistol of an American mother.

For those of you cutting crusts off sandwiches in preparation for a "Downton" viewing party tonight, here is a (non-spoiler) look at what's new in Season 3, along with some background information on the show:

The other mother-in-law

As the extremely wealthy American Mrs. Levinson, Shirley MacLaine is like the dowager countess, only less circumspect and even less apologetic. Mrs. Levinson never lets her daughter, Lady Grantham, or her daughter's husband, Lord Grantham, forget that it was her late husband's money that kept Downton afloat.

"She brings a real sort of rivalry to the Maggie Smith character, Violet," Neame said. "She is another sort of dowager -- she is not interested in the trappings. It's old world vs. new world."

Indeed, Mrs. Levinson wears a flapper headband and reminds the Crawleys at every turn that their way of life is passe. When habits or words strike her as stuffy, she announces "It's 1920!"

Through it all, McGovern's Lady Grantham regards her mother the same way she does her daughters: with a friendly, indulgent look that says she enjoys her company but takes no responsibility for their behavior.

The purring '20s

"Downton" is at its least soap operatic in showing the passage of time. Soap operas will milk a single story line for as long as they can. "Downton" burned through eight years over its first two seasons, or 13 episodes total.

This means Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the Jan Brady of "Downton," is now eight years older and officially eligible for the Spinster Hall of Fame. On the bright side, she's sporting a smart bob hairstyle.

She's less trendy than Lady Mary or youngest sister Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay), but as the years have sped past, fashion shifts in "Downton Abbey" have been subtle, as suited to a show set in a bastion of tradition.

The sisters' smart hats and delicately bordered dresses have inspired fashion trends -- and Ralph Lauren's fall 2012 collection -- because of their almost timeless quality.

In Season 3, hair and skirt lengths inch up and dress waists drop. But the only one who looks likely to break into the Charleston is Mrs. Levinson. The men still appear in white tie to dinner, though the more modern tuxedo will appear.

The dowager countess still prefers floor-to-chin Edwardian, as one would expect, and Lady Grantham's lady's maid Mrs. O'Brien (Siobhan Finneran) remains wedded to her severe Mrs. Danvers look, timeless in its own way.

This old house

Downton Abbey is played in the series by Hampshire's turreted Highclere Castle, home for 300 years to an aristocratic family named Carnarvon.

At 10 p.m. Monday, KVIE will air the documentary "The Secrets of Highclere Castle," which will illustrate how the real and fictional houses sometimes intersect.

For example, Highclere served as a military hospital during the Great War (on "Downton," the house became a rehabilitation center for officers). But Downton does not share Highclere's exhibition of Egyptian artifacts. The fifth Earl of Carnarvon was on hand for Howard Carter's discovery of King Tut's tomb.

Highclere Castle (www.highclerecastle.co.uk) is open to the public from April through September.

"Upstairs" scenes are shot at Highclere, but the castle's kitchen is too modernized to double for the "Downton" kitchen. Scenes set there and in other staff areas are shot 60 miles away, at London's famous Ealing Studios. That's a long way to go to deliver a tureen of soup.

That Fellowes fellow

Perhaps the most fascinating character attached to "Downton" is the series' creator, 63-year-old Julian Fellowes. Son of a diplomat, he was born in Egypt, raised in England and attended Cambridge. He spent most of his life acting in small roles in British films and TV shows.

His acting career included a few years in Hollywood, where he appeared as a chauffeur in the 1983 TV movie "Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess," starring Lynda Carter of "Wonder Woman." His big break never came, and he returned to England.

The Hollywood experience would help inspire his second act, as a screenwriter, Fellowes told the New York Times in 2011.

"I had friends there, and often they would ask me to read a script," Fellowes said. "They'd say, 'I've been offered this, what do you think?' and I got into analyzing scripts and how they work."

Fellowes branched out to screenwriting in his 40s. His work on British television caught the eye of producer and actor Bob Balaban, who enlisted Fellowes to write the screenplay for Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," a murder mystery set among the aristocracy.

Fellowes won a screenwriting Oscar for "Gosford Park," a clear precursor to "Downton Abbey" in its upstairs-downstairs setup. In "Gosford," though, the upstairs residents often come off as caricatures. The downstairs lot, played by Alan Bates, Emily Watson, Clive Owen and Helen Mirren and other big names, is more compelling. Maggie Smith's impoverished but opinionated countess was a prototype for her "Downton" character.

Since "Gosford," Fellowes has written two novels, the book for the West End musical "Mary Poppins" and co-wrote the Mira Nair film "Vanity Fair." And if you are looking for someone to blame for the Angelina Jolie-Johnny Depp film "The Tourist," Fellowes co-wrote it.

He has proximity to the highest reaches of the upper class through his wife, Emma Kitchener-Fellowes. Great-great-niece of Lord Kitchener, the famed British military leader, Kitchener-Fellowes was a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. A longtime Tory supporter, Fellowes was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to the House of Lords in 2011.

Mary, minus Matthew

In late December, actor Stevens and "Downton" creator Fellowes confirmed that Stevens' character Matthew will not return for the series' planned fourth season.

Losing Downton's heir and half of the show's key couple no doubt will shake things up. Fellowes has said he will not recast the role, instead working around Stevens' exit.

"We would have loved to keep him," Fellowes told England's Telegraph newspaper.

Stevens, 30, said he wanted a shot at other roles. He sports long sideburns and an American accent on Broadway as Jessica Chastain's ("Zero Dark Thirty") possibly shady suitor in a revival of "The Heiress."

"It's a very monopolizing job," Stevens told the Telegraph about his "Downton" gig. "So there is a strange sense of liberation at the same time as great sadness because I am very, very fond of the show and always will be."

DOWNTON ABBEY

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