Sound the gong. On Sept. 20, America’s the thirst for tea will be quenched. The hunger for treacle tart will be assuaged. The pheasants will be shot and the wine decanted. Because on that auspicious Friday “Downton Abbey” returns. Magnified onto the silver screen Barrow will look meaner. Mrs. Patmore chubbier. Lady Mary Crawley will seem haughtier and Dowager Countess Violet’s eyebrows may hit the coffered ceiling of the castle’s stately library.
Never doubt that John and Anna Bates’ boy-child, born on the final episode (March 2016), will speak his first words: M’lord and M’lady.
The lines are already forming.
Tidbits have been leaked for months, mostly about the plot. Rumors had Michael Gregson, the father of Lady Edith Crawley’s love child, reported killed by Hitler’s “brown shirts,” turning up alive. This would present a problem for Edith who is now married to Bertie, an unlikely marquess, and living in a castle that makes Buckingham Palace look like a double-wide. Others predicted the film would open at Violet’s funeral. Not true. The event facing the Crawleys is a visit from King George V and Queen Mary.
Blimey! Couldn’t creator Julian Fellows dream up something more Agatha Christie-ish? Murder in the Stone Barn? Lightening strikes the North Turret? Daisy spikes the scones with gluten?
I’m not ashamed to admit I own all six seasons on DVD. I watch them regularly. Therefore I have never departed the Abbey, either stealthy-by-night like lady’s maid O’Brien or in a huff like Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary’s boorish fiance. Or doornail-dead like Mr. Pamuk, the handsome Turk, who expired after … well, never mind. The characters, each a finely drawn stereotype mouthing some of the best dialog since (playwrights) William Inge and Edward Albee rested their pens, will have another go; Violet returns, although if you do the math she should be at least 100. Master George will look even more like the real-life Prince George. Cora, Carson, Tom, Mrs. Hughes, Molesley, almost everybody returns except Rose, who (horrors!) married a rich Jewish banker and moved to New York.
Circumstances best define the acting: Who would guess that Michelle Dockery, the haughty Lady Mary, describes herself as from a working-class background with matching accent better suited to a downstairs part, while Laura Carmichael — the unlucky-in-love middle sister Edith — holds her own against two-time Academy Award winner Dame Maggie Smith — although this was Carmichael’s first professional acting role.
As for the plot, forget who shot J.R. Nothing replaces the shock of Lady Sybil’s death in childbirth from eclampsia or hottie Matthew Crawley’s demise in a car accident.
Remember the blood dripping down his forehead, on the day his son and heir was born?
Most of all, costumes — the real reason many women watch — will be just as authentically glorious a la late 1920s.
To succeed, any serial drama must grab viewers and hold on for dear life. It must transport them, visually and intellectually, to another world, be it New Jersey mafialand (“The Sopranos”) or the fading aristocracy of Great Britain circa World War I. Hopefully, no matter how elevated or downtrodden, the characters will exhibit behavior with which we identify: What dowdy middle-aged virgin (Mrs. Hughes) wouldn’t worry about how she looks on her wedding night with Mr. Carson? Episode after episode Mrs. Patmore remains charmingly Shakespearean (especially her fling with Jos Tuftin, the hungry grocer) and Mr. Molesley, the eternal sad sack.
The only irritating character was Shirley Maclaine as Cora’s brash, nouveau riche American mother who dripped diamonds and talked of nothing but espousing changing times. Banish her to Newport.
In a period drama episodes, to be relevant, should examine how current issues were viewed back then: unwed motherhood, homosexuality, women’s rights, premarital sex, extra-marital sex, recreational sex, crime, abortion, business, marriage, politics, religion, healthcare, poverty, family dynamics. The blips on technology — electricity, telephone, refrigeration, phonographs, radio, transportation — are just priceless.
You name it, the Crawley household faced it.
Which is why I was worried when, during the series finale in 2016, all the loose ends tied up. We saw three weddings, a new love interest for Tom Branson, Carson retired, Daisy settled, Mary pregnant and Barrow reinstated. Even poor Molesly set his cap for Baxter, Cora’s maid. This didn’t suggest a sequel, the reason, I suspect, why writers invented a royal visit.
About that visit: Lordy, I hope Lord Grantham’s yellow Lab doesn’t pee on the library carpet during teatime. Wouldn’t want Violet to fall and break a hip while curtseying to Their Majesties.
Whatever, I’m prepared for a letdown. “Downton Abbey”, the film, will have a beginning, a middle and an end. No anticipating next Sunday’s installment. Admittedly, “Downton Abbey” is just a soap opera dressed up in fancy clothes. But look what it’s done for British tourism. Highclere Castle, rebuilt in 1839 by Sir Charles Barry, architect of Houses of Parliament, attracts 1,200 visitors a day from the 250 countries where “Abbey” is broadcast. Receipts from promoting what has become a shrine have enabled its owners, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, to undertake repairs.
Not to mention keeping the bone china teapot full and the maids’ aprons starched.
So, beginning in a few days, the environmental and political horrors of 2019 will be swept aside by two hours of pure escapism. The wireless may blast forth jazz but aristocracy prevails.
So God Save “Downton Abbey”….and count me in.
Contact Deborah Salomon at email@example.com