Why would anyone want to watch a series about a British aristocratic family and their servants living at the end of the 19th century? HBO execs pondered that question four years ago and are allegedly still kicking themselves for turning down airing “Downton Abbey”.
The cable network’s loss has been a phenomenal gain for PBS. Millions of viewers tune in every year to watch “Downton Abbey”. Many of the show’s admirers include celebrities and prominent figures. Count FirstLady Michelle Obama, the Rolling Stones and Salma Hayek among the faithful watchers.
The show was recently nominated for several Emmys again and over the years has racked up Emmys wins, Golden Globes and SAG awards.
Which begs an answer to HBO’s original question – why would audiences adore this U.K. drama? Scrutinize “Downton” a bit further and the answer surfaces.
Here is a brief anatomy of the Masterpiece hit.
Stellar Writing from a Passionate Scribe
“Downton Abbey” is the brainchild of Sir Julian Fellowes, the Oscar winning writer of the similar period film “Gosford Park”. Already passionate about the turn of the century time period, Fellowes drew stories from his own family history as well as the book “To Marry an English Lord” as the basis of “Downton Abbey”. The bestseller chronicled how American heiresses crossed the Atlantic to find English aristocratic husbands.
Characters Cora Crawley, an American rich woman and Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham are based on real people referenced in “To Marry an English Lord”.
Brilliant Ensemble Cast
“Downton Abbey” is about the tribulations of the upper crust Crawley clan and the sordid lives of their loyal domestics. The beauty of the show is the upstairs and downstairs characters receive equal billing. Class issues, gender politics and the response to encroaching modernity are spread throughout each group. While the cast is large, the actors play their counterparts so well that they are all memorable. Of course there are standouts.
There is the zinger prone matriarch, Violet, the Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith. There is the loving servant duo, the valet John Bates and ladies maid Anna Bates who met on the job and got married. There is the well-played villain Thomas Barrow, a valet trying to climb the ladder at the expense of others. He also happens to be gay.
Jaw Dropping Plots and Popular Character Deaths
“Downton Abbey” quickly showed it was not your “mother’s” Masterpiece theatre program with many of its jaw dropping plots. Early in the first season, a Turkish diplomat dies in the bed of Lady Mary Crawley, the eldest daughter of the family. They were at the start of their throes of passion at the time. The show continued to buck conventional television rules by killing off main characters.
The middle daughter, Lady Sybil, succumbs in childbirth. In the finale episode of season 3, Matthew Crawley, a popular romantic lead and husband of Lady Mary, dies in a sudden car crash.
Viewers all over the world were outraged and incensed by the plot twist. Some American viewers were so upset that they petitioned the White House to force Dan Stevens who played Crawley to return to the show – or otherwise face deportation. Fellowes regularly receives letters on how the character can be resurrected.
Stevens, meanwhile, continues to apologize for leaving the show, even though he has moved on to focus on his movie career.
A Majestic Setting
“Downton Abbey” is filmed on a real working British estate: Highclere Castle. Tourism to the castle and its sprawling grounds have skyrocketed as viewers clamor to catch filming or tread in the footsteps of their beloved characters.
Appreciating the simplicity and refinement of the times, those who can’t make the overseas trip stage their own “Downton Abbey” themed parties, decked in costumes and all. (Georgia Public Broadcasting hosts a gala to screen the first episode of the new season for costumed revelers every December.)
Viewers can also get a personal glimpse of the real clothing worn on the show by visiting traveling exhibits at the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and next year at the Biltmore House in Ashville, NC.