‘Downton’: You Gotta Love Those Brits
The reason I finally gave in and watched “Downton Abbey” is flatly twofold.
To begin with, I couldn’t fall asleep with my wife lying beside me utterly absorbed in the latest episode of PBS’ wildly popular upscale British soap opera on her new iPad, while some plummy voiced aristo indignantly declared: “Don’t be daft, my dear. Servants are always more conservative than their employers. Everyone knows that.”
Secondly, I once had a good case of the Screaming Habdabs for Elizabeth McGovern, who plays the rich American socialite whom Lord Grantham wooed and married donkey years ago to save the family estate from going broke, or so my bride reports. This apparently transpired early in season one of the latest British export to sweep America’s Sunday night living rooms (and bedrooms).
“I’ve got the whole first season on DVD, in case you want to catch up!” she cheerfully reported upon arriving home after a week away and discovering I’d watched two whole episodes of UNC-TV’s marathon broadcast of the full second season of “Downton Abbey” last Sunday afternoon.
It was raining and cold, and I don’t know why I did it.
“Oh, let me run and get my Paddington Bear first,” I said, trying to recall the pure agony of watching a single episode of “Upstairs, Downstairs” back in the quaint 1980s. Or maybe it was “Brideshead Revisited” in the avocado-hued 1970s. Truthfully, the decades and aristocrats all run together in my mind.
“Did you know you can even take the ‘Downton Abbey’ test?” she said, oblivious to my droll indifference (or maybe it was simply exhaustion from all those nights with an English-accented iPad).
“What kind of test?” I asked.
“You take it to determine which character on the show fits your personality — in other words, which one you would be in the drama.”
“I quiver to know that,” I said.
“Don’t be such a snob. You sound exactly like Carson, the butler — or maybe the Dowager Countess. She’s played by Maggie Smith. She has the best lines.”
It’s not every day a wife tells her husband he sounds like Maggie Smith.
She was easy enough to identify in those first two episodes I watched — the batty old dame who seemed completely puzzled by all the events and people around her. She did seem to have the best lines, though.
The Ideal Test Dummy
The first rule of a classy soap opera, of course, is that you must hook the viewers in the first episode or two, so I was — you’ll excuse the term — the ideal test dummy for “Downton Abbey.”
Between you and me and the spotted dick pudding, however, I had one jolly tough time keeping the characters and story lines straight. There seemed to be a cast the size of Parliament coming and going, trooping upstairs and downstairs, dipping into bedrooms, whispering in hallways, sharing this confidence or that one, playing footsie with the footman.
But permit me to tell you what I learned in just two episodes. Whether I’m actually hooked remains to be seen.
Let’s begin with the Lord and Lady Crawley, the Earl and Countess of Grantham, owners of the massive fictional Gothic pile in Yorkshire where “Downton Abbey” takes place.
Lord Grantham walks around looking worried and often in a huff, one minute wearing his handsome uniform from the Great War that’s just ending, another moment all spiffed up for an ordinary Wednesday night supper in white tie and tails.
In the second episode I saw, Lord G.’s youngest daughter announces she plans to marry the chauffeur, which causes dropping jaws ’round the table and the good lord’s face to bubble like a pot of cook’s oatmeal left too long on the hob.
“Would someone please kindly tell me what is going on?” complains Dame Maggie the dowager, taking a slug of her sherry, a question I myself would bloody well have been forced to ask.
Anyway, in this episode, or maybe the one before or after it, Lord Grantham — perhaps bored with his wife or temporarily insane from his starchy uniform and his youngest daughter’s shocking pronouncement — tries to make time with a widowed house maid who has a son who aspires to attend some snooty school above his station.
The lord of the manor nobly offers to help the maid get her boy into the school and even resists kissing and groping the grateful maid no more than a few times. He’s good guy, one is led to understand, though a naughty old boy.
Then there’s Lady Grantham.
She used to be Elizabeth McGovern. I remember when she appeared topless in her first movie, “Ragtime.” But that’s another story. She’s 50-something now, a regal middle-aged woman with steel-blue eyes and a backbone to match, a thoroughly modern woman with a dash of early feminist in her.
At one point Lady Crawley marches down to the house’s bustling kitchen and tells the startled below-deck staff they should feed all the homeless veterans returning from the war turning up at the back door. She truly makes a bloke proud to be an American.
In the second episode I saw, or maybe it was the first, the entire household comes down with the Spanish flu, and Lady G. nearly expires, calling my name passionately in her fevered sleep. OK, I just made that part up. But seriously, after all, I did have the Screaming Habdabs for Liz McGovern. I like to tell myself we’re spiritually bonded for life. I just don’t tell my wife.
So on to the children, all girls, no male heirs — which I gather is something of a family issue. As in all fairy tales and proper English soaps about rigidly inbred Brits, there are three eligible and headstrong daughters — one gorgeous and cool, one homely and sweet, and one a tart little scamp who plans to run off to Ireland with the chauffeur. You’ve met her already.
Personally, I like the oldest one, Mary, best. She’s cool and beautiful and clearly keeping a secret of some kind — looks a bit like her mom back in her “Ragtime” days — though she seems to have peculiar tastes in men. Her beau is a social-climbing twit who owns a newspaper and wants the maids to spy on her before they get married.
From my good ladywife I learned that Icy Mary was having illicit relations with a Turkish diplomat when he up and died in bed with her, not long after her first boyfriend (and presumptive heir) went down with the Titanic — a sticky wicket for sure. Oh, if those 600-count sheets could only talk, dearie!
Daughter two is called Edith, and she doesn’t say or do much in the episodes I saw last Sunday. Apparently, though, she had a boyfriend Icy Mary put the kibosh on after Edith told someone what sister Mary had been doing with the doomed Turk. Was he poisoned? Did his visa just expire?
House of Hormones
Lady Sybil, meanwhile, is the youngest and most headstrong lass in Lord Crawley’s house of hormones, the one who plans to stomp her papa’s proud heart like a grape by decamping for Ireland with the uppity chauffeur who plans to be a print journalist.
This is a true representation of the journalistic life, by the way. We all learn to drive before we learn to write, and some of us never do either very well.
Next, there’s “Granny,” aka the Countess of Grantham, she of the great one-liners, foggy memory and bottomless sherry glass. I see her bumping Betty White in a Snickers commercial one day soon.
Now to poor Matthew. I’m not exactly sure to whom he belongs, though he does seem to be the latest designated Grantham heir despite a terrible injury in the Great War that sent him home to recuperate when the Abbey was turned into a hospital.
As a result of his grievous injuries, he could neither walk nor, ahem, perform his future manly obligation — a problem that caused him to send his fiancee, a depressingly devoted gal named Lavinia, away. She loyally returned, naturally, just in time to catch Matty miraculously walking again and even dancing and smooching-up Mary — the ice queen engaged to the social-climbing cad — then promptly came down with the Spanish flu and expired like a wilted corsage.
How convenient, one thinks. Matthew and Mary, I further deduced on my own, have apparently been making goo-goo eyes at each other since short pants.
Finally, there’s the household staff, a tougher lot to process, since they bow and curtsey and keep every emotion neatly tucked behind their lace and bow ties.
Carson, the butler, is clearly the ruling monarch below decks, and Lord Crawley’s valet, John Bates, seems a decent chap, a salt-of-the-Earth sort who’s having a nice walkabout with the head housemaid, Anna.
In the episode I saw they were heading to the registry office to tie the knot despite his former wife’s big trouble for them, which may be why he possibly poisoned her with rat poison (though I missed the last two episodes of season two and don't know yet what happened to him). Something tells me poor Bates will either hang or be miraculously acquitted and run for prime minister.
Brits Behaving Badly
As amazing as it might seem, I gleaned all of this highbrow high drama from just two episodes of “Downton Abbey” last Sunday afternoon, which is exactly two more than I watched of “Upstairs, Downstairs” and “Brideshead Revisited” combined.
It’s not that I don’t like watching aristocratic Brits misbehave and wrestle with life’s banal social problems, or that I don’t love my wife and her iPad. I just never found myself hooked on British soaps until now. Maybe I’ve just grown up. Or old.
Whatever the truth of it, I broke down and took the “Downton Abbey” personality quiz created by Britain’s Guardian newspaper. I guess something like 65 percent of its citizens religiously watch the show trying to figure out who they would like to be were they godlessly rich, idle, bored and disappointed with the claret at dinner. A friend of mine calls it “porn for PBS subscribers.”
My favorite multiple-choice question was:
“What sort of people annoy you most?”
You believe it is not for us to judge others. We must tolerate, love and serve them.
Anyone who is your sister.
No one is significant enough to merit your annoyance.
I submitted my truthful answers and learned the character I most resemble is John Bates, the noble if plodding valet who may have murdered his first wife.
Just my would-be British luck. It’s either the gallows or 10 Downing Street for me, mate.
Then I asked my wife what character she resembled.
“Lady Mary Crawley,” she replied without a moment’s hesitation. “She seems a bit cold, I agree, but she’s really a better person than she seems.”
With this, she asked me to go fetch her a glass of the better claret while she put in the DVD of season one.
“Let’s start from the beginning with my sad Turkish lover and you’ll see what I mean,” she said. “Next year, I hear Shirley MacLaine is joining the cast. Hurry back, Bates, it’s starting.”
“Very good, m’lady,” I said, and went to get her wine.
Award-winning author Jim Dodson, Sunday essayist with The Pilot and editor of PineStraw magazine, can be reached at email@example.com.
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