England Conquers American TV with Downton Abbey


NOTICE: I got this press release which I thought might interest some travelers:

Zicasso, an online luxury travel service that matches discerning travelers with the industry’s top 10% travel specialists, is offering ‘Downton Abbey,’ an exclusive seven day trip to England to visit the filming locations used in the making of the popular TV period drama Downton Abbey. The itinerary includes visits to Oxfordshire, Cambridgeshire, Berkshire, and London, allowing travelers to discover the beauty of the English countryside as well as the highlights of London.  Available from July to September 2012, this custom tour starts from $4,500 per person based on double occupancy, depending on final hotel choices. The price per person is lower when there are more travelers per private group. For more information, please visit: http://www.zicasso.com/luxury-vacation-uk-tours/downton-abbey-themed-vacation

Destination: England

TV Series: Downton Abbey (1st and 2nd Seasons on DVD)

UPDATE:  I sloppily assumed that BBC funded the production of Downton Abbey, but a reader wrote to set me straight in a direct e-mail, which I have copied into the comment section below.  It did play in England before America, however the show first appeared on commercial ITV in England rather than BBC. The show was co-produced by a British company called Carnival  along with WHGB Boston’s public television station.    And to further muddy the waters, an American company, NBC Universal, actually owns Carnival. You can (perhaps) better understand the complex situation by reading this article. Many PBS shows are created by BBC, however Downton is not one of them. Sorry for misinforming you.

Somehow I missed this wildly popular series until Jane Boursaw gushed about it at Reel Life With Jane.  Fondly remembering Upstairs/Dowstairs, which Downton Abbey is often compared to, I streamed the first season from Amazon, and then watched the 2nd season on DVD from Netflix.  Now, like the rest of the universe, I’m soundly hooked and looking forward to the (months away) third season debut on Public Television.

The series, which is, let’s face it a very classy soap-opera in costume, but a soap opera nonetheless, has a Guiness Book of Records mention for the most positive critical reviews, and won 6 Emmys in its first season.

What on earth would we Americans do without the BBC  Brits? Forget the battles over funding PBS, we should be campaigning to be sure that BBC continues to get the lavish funding that allows it to film extravagances like this that are then adopted by PBS for Masterpiece Classics. I’ve also been enjoying Dickens’ Great Expectations and Edwin Drood, and most recently BirdSong.

But to get back on track with Downton Abbey, one of those first-season Emmys went to the inimitable Maggie Smith playing the kind of role she is made for, the cantankerous doyenne of a family of privilege.  One of the reasons I am fervently looking forward to season three is that Maggie will finally have a worthy challenge–an actress who matches Smith’s ability for being adorable while doing despicable things. Shirley MacLaine makes her entrance as the American grandma and foil to British Grandmother Maggie Smith.

So what’s the appeal?

  • A view of a class-conscious society in Edwardian times, particularly since we have foreknowledge, having peeked into what is still the future for the Crawleys, that class distinctions are crumbling, as are the sexist attitudes best expressed in Lady Grantham’s comeback when told that young Lady Sybil is entitled to her own opinion. “No, she is not until she is married, and then her husband will tell her what her opinion is.”
  • A reminder of how rapidly things changed between the beginning of World War I and the end of World War II. People’s accommodation to new-fangled objects provides some hilarity.  Early in the show, Lord Crawley worries about a daughter going into the village where he saw TWO cars on the street in his previous visit. Lady Grantham makes a wide berth around the phonograph machine, and the butler ha grave doubts about the use of a telephone.
  • A peek inside a gorgeous mansion–Downton Abbey being played by Highcleere, whose owner has written a book about the real mansions’ history.
  • Incredible costumes.  In those days, ladies wore tight corsets and long skirts in many layers. Then, as a movie I just watched, Coco Before Chanel, points out, people like Coco Chanel came along and made pants for women, short skirts and unstructured bodices all the rage. Now, when people wear whatever comes to hand, and young women wear next to nothing, there is something very attractive about those gorgeous fabrics and the jewels and elaborate hairdos that necessitated a lady’s maid. I’m definitely wishing I could dress for dinner in one of those creations from Downton Abbey. No, make that, “be dressed by my lady’s maid for dinner.”

The characters are diverse and interesting enough to make you want to find out what happens next in love affairs, dealing with scandals, surviving warfare, etc. even if the outcomes are quite predictable. Except for Lady Grantham (nee Maggie Smith), and I imagine Shirley MacLane’s character will provide a few surprises as well.

If you want to visit England once you have seen Downton Abbey, better hurry up and enter that sweepstakes mentioned at the top.  Otherwise, you might try to book yourself a stay at some grand country house that is nowadays staying alive by “letting” rooms and cottages (as mentioned in the article on the 5 Best Films About England).

You can definitely take a look at Highclere (the castle that plays Downton Abbey.


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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

5 thoughts on “England Conquers American TV with Downton Abbey

  1. I\’ve been an Anglophile since living in England (Devizes, Wiltshire) as a 15-16 year old. I\’m a Baby Boomer—you can do the math. My father was an exchange teacher and during our year in England (1969-1970), the English Speaking Union sponsored an event at Buckingham Palace for the teachers to meet the Queen Mother—who would have been totally at home in Downtown Abbey! (I remember my mother\’s mad scramble to find something suitable to wear that involved a hat.)

  2. I absolutely love this series, although I didn’t start to watch it until half way into the first series it’s probably my most favorite show at the moment. I’d love to go on the Downtown Abbey themed vacation you highlight, it would be a dream come true, just need to sweet talk my partner into it!

  3. This comment was sent to me by reader Peggy Vaughn,(as I explain at the top of the post) and I wanted to share her comment with you.

    “Yes! I’d help fund the BBC in a nano second if I could (sometimes I’m not sure the Brits realize how very good it is).

    I do belong to PBS. Mostly for Masterpiece and the BBC news.

    But, and I could be wrong here, I think Downton Abbey is an ITV production. Maybe a coproduction with PBS.

    They make some pretty good shows, too. Lewis, Endeavor, the Agatha Christie mysteries (I’m going a little blank here, sorry!, trying to think of what is on PBS and what is on BBC America). Whitechapel is on BBCA now and that’s ITV. Sherlock is BBC. Whew!

    Really enjoy A Traveler’s Library. Thank you all!”

    Thank you, Peggy for the correction, and thanks for reading A Traveler’s Library. (Vera)

  4. I’m a fan of Masterpiece Theatre but I was away when the series started. It would be lovely to win a trip to London to see some of the sites. Thanks for sharing this, Vera!

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