7 posts tagged downton abbey
I am always fascinated by the process that brings my favorite books, television shows, and movies to life. On Wednesday night, I traveled to the Upper East Side Barnes & Noble to get the inside story on the program that brings Americans the best of British drama.
Making Masterpiece, written by Executive Producer Rebecca Eaton is part tribute and part memoir of one of the longest running shows in US television history. The book combines her reflections with interviews and anecdotes from Masterpiece actors and staff of the past and present. She describes it as “a story of family sagas”.
Her discussion focused on stories about the past and pieces of the present. Everyone who wanted spoilers on upcoming airings were very disappointed. She fondly remembered Alistair Cooke’s marathon introduction writing sessions and Diana Rigg sharing the best of London gossip. Along with these anecdotes she told parts of her own story. Eaton’s mom was an actress, and she inherited her passion for the theater.
Eaton also explained what goes into making a Masterpiece production. In the earlier days, already completed UK miniseries would be reviewed and picked for licensing. Today, pitches, pilots and scripts are judged carefully for their ability to capture the core of Masterpiece’s audience. Throughout the years, focus groups and complicated market research never contribute to programming decisions.
Some productions were instant hits such as the backing of the 1980’s costume epic The Jewel In The Crown. Others started out rough but turned out well in the end. Eaton initially turned down Downton Abbey due to concerns over US success but got a second chance to back the production. Unfortunately, many pitches for American costume drama sink due to the incredibly high cost of production. Some projects have unexpected results. Eaton did not expect Sherlock to become a runaway hit with viewers in their 20’s.
Although I am only halfway through Making Masterpiece, I highly recommend it. I find my appreciation for my older and newer favorite Masterpiece shows growing as I read. Fellow fans will definitely enjoy reading Eaton’s impressions of their favorite miniseries and actors. Her insider’s view of Downton Abbey and Sherlock can help ease the pain of the final stretch until January. People interested in television history and media studies will enjoy the chapters on the production process. Eaton’s narrative often strays from strict chronological order, however this keeps the reader engaged with her story. I expect the rest of the book to follow the same pattern.
I asked Eaton about her plans for the next 40 years, especially in regards to the younger audience for Masterpiece. There was not enough time to flesh these thoughts out, but I’m already looking forward to seeing the next 40 years of Masterpiece unfold.
Series 2 of Upstairs, Downstairs takes place between 1908 and 1910, which is still two years before Downton officially begins. (If you missed the first Upstairs vs Downton post, click here.) James and Elizabeth drive most of the drama in this series, and their boundary pushing correlates nicely with events from Series 2 of Downton. [Cast photo courtesy of Upstairs, Downstairs Webpages]
James starts off Series 2 by continuing his affair with Sarah. At this point, Sarah has moved on from domestic service and 165 Eaton into Vaudeville. At this point in time, actresses are still far from acceptability. He also blows his allowance on gambling and alcohol and parties so hard that he misses regimental appointments. The relationship ends with Sarah’s pregnancy and James forcibly reassigned to an army outpost in India. Their relationship has only an uneven similarity with Sybil and Branson. World War I loosened some of the class divisions that were rigidly enforced in the pre war period.
In addition, gender disparities factor heavily into the comparison. Unmarried upper class men had lovers of lower social rank, but marriages and illegitimate children were out of the question. Leaked scandals showed a lack of self control, a disregard for society’s standards, and a lack of discretion. On the other hand, Sybil’s relationship placed her in much greater danger of a damaged reputation. Society placed a much higher value on the virginity of upper class women. A successful marriage to a suitable gentleman was incredibly important. Marrying well ensured the birth of more male heirs and passage of money and/or property to the next generation. Sybil in series 2 told Branson they can only kiss until their marriage was finalized. Between the lines, it is safe to assume Sybil wanted more but played it safe.
James ends the season with another class bending relationship. While he was in India, he met and then got engaged to Phyllis, an army pensioner’s daughter. His match was approved because a marriage would ensure he stayed out of trouble. In the Edwardian Era, service in the colonies via the military, colonial government, or private companies served as an opportunity for the working and middle class to gain money and influence. This trend created tension when colonial elites returned to England expecting the same elevated treatment they had in the colonies from the hereditary elite.
Elizabeth matched her brother in scandal quite well. Her marriage to Lawrence Kirbridge started off well, but went downhill quickly after the honeymoon. She went into the marriage with unrealistic expectations and it did not end well. After feeling that Lawrence was not performing his marital duties, she had an affair which resulted in the birth of an illegitimate daughter. She moved out and returned to 165 Eaton. Once she moved back home, she joins a group of women engaging in forceful protests for women’s voting rights. The servant’s quarters at 165 Eaton became a base of an operation to vandalize the home of a rich man who refused to support their cause. Rose tried to stop her but both of them are arrested. A rich social climber named Julius Karekin found Elizabeth’s purse at the scene and paid her fine. In exchange for working to release Rose, Elizabeth agrees to become his mistress. The season ends with her trying to break things off with Karekin because he refuses to give up his philandering ways.
Although Elizabeth and Mary live with the short end of the stick with romantic scandals, damaged reputations, the threat of public knowledge is much more real for Mary. Elizabeth has help from Rose and the rest of the household. In terms of politics, Elizabeth and Sybil have similar ideologies but Elizabeth is much more haphazard with her actions. She appears to engage of rebellion for rebellion’s sake. If Karekin wasn’t there to bail her out, she would be out of sorts with the seasoned suffragettes happy to go down for the cause. Sybil’s work as a nurse show she’s ready to reject her pampered life for a middle class one with Branson.
Karekin and Matthew represent the growing tension between the established elites and men who have made their fortunes through business and other means. Although some may look down at Matthew because he his a lawyer, he is in a better position because of his family connections. Karekin grew up in Armenia and can only use his cash to gain power and a title. If we knew more about Cora’s motivations when she married Robert, an additional comparison could be made with outsiders attempting to assimilate into the British upper class.
Overall, Series 2 of Upstairs, Downstairs combines an account of every day life with drama and scandal. The plots not analyzed here due to incompatibility were just as interesting as what was included. I look forward to Series 3 for the plot as well as how historical events are portrayed.
Sunday night’s episode marked the halfway point for Downton Series Three with the saddest episode yet. Although this review combines the events of 3 episodes, keep in mind each of these events takes place weeks or months apart in the internal time line. (Photo of Highclere Castle courtesy of PBS on Facebook.)
SPOILER LINE DO NOT CROSS IF YOU’RE NOT CAUGHT UP!!!!
Episode 4 brings Sybil and Branson into the center of attention. After Martha Levinson’s visit, they return to Ireland. In Episode 3, Branson is suspected of being an accomplice to destruction of property and must flee before he is arrested or questioned by the police. At this point Sybil is pregnant but must make the trip to Downton alone. Robert intervenes and makes a deal with the government exchanging Branson and Sybil’s ability to ever return to Ireland in exchange for the end to any charges or suspicion. This naturally puts an end to any chance of Branson joining in the fight for independence.
Sybil gives birth towards the end of Episode 4. Complications threaten her life and the ability of the baby to survive. There was an intense argument between within the Crawleys and the doctors in charge of Sybil’s care over preventative surgery. A lack of decisive action to treat the complications made her condition much worse. The decision was made to forgo surgery and deliver the baby naturally. A few hours after giving birth to her daughter, Sybil died of enclampsia. (It should be noted that Sybil’s death is the result of Jessica Brown Findlay leaving the show.)
This subplot not only shows how much women were at the mercy of their male legal guardians, but also how much medical knowledge doctors lacked at that time.If Sybil was giving birth in 2013, she would have been able to consent to prenatal care as well as have access to treatment before severe symptoms developed. Unfortunately, women still die of this condition despite medical advances.
While Sybil’s death does not change the inheritance order, it will change the plot trajectory for Branson, Robert, and Cora. Branson’s stay at Downton will probably become permanent one despite his desire to participate in the final push for Irish independence. Robert and Cora disagreed on the best medical course to take during Sybil’s labor. Their grief could either draw them closer together or pull them apart.
Edith’s unlucky streak continues in these episodes. Although Edith has said and done many questionable things in the past two series, you can’t help but feel bad for her. Episode 2 ends with her older fiancée dumping her at the altar. She longs for the happiness her sisters have but isn’t able to find the right match. Out of a desire to do useful work and make a difference, she writes a column advocating for women’s suffrage in episode 3. Her work turns into an offer for a permanent position. Unfortunately, Edith’s efforts are met with disapproval and fear of scandal.
Changing expectations also affects Daisy’s trajectory. In these episodes, she gets a chance to work on the farm belonging to her in laws. Part of her still believes any benefits from her extremely short marriage to William are undeserved. Back downstairs, she is upgraded to Mrs. Patmore’s assistant after a new kitchen maid. She must decide between the traditional domestic service life and a career where she makes decisions for other people.
For the rest of the servants, there are some ongoing plots and one new development. Anna is still playing Sherlock Holmes in the fight to free Bates from prison. She must find witnesses willing to testify Vera was up to no good. Mrs. Hughes is still unsure if her illness is due to cancer or another condition. Carson notices something is wrong, but he still has no idea what it is. O’Brien is still scheming and plotting behind the scenes. The new footman Jimmy brings in good looks as well as potential problems for Thomas in Episode 3. Thomas likes him, but it is too soon to tell if Jimmy feels the same way.
The financial fate of Downton weighs heavily in episodes 2-4. Letters from the estate of Reggie Swire indicate Matthew is indeed entitled to a large sum of his money. In a similar fashion to Daisy, he also feels unworthy of the money. After a through investigation of the account ledgers in episodes 2 and 3, he decides that the money is indeed necessary to reform Downton’s finances. Years of waste and bad decisions leads to a desire to clean house. Matthew has an uphill battle ahead convincing a very unwilling Robert and an angry estate manager to change course.
Overall, episodes 2-4 are filled with enough interpersonal tension to keep Downton fans craving more. Sybil’s tragedy should not stop fans from watching more because there’s more good and bad in store for the rest of this series.
I am too excited over Downton’s return to PBS to write a formal review. Two hours didn’t feel like enough time. Here’s my spoiler filled thoughts on the Series 3 premiere. (Photo courtesy of Masterpiece) :
- Team FREE BATES is in full swing! Prisons in 1920 suck, and Vera is still ruining Bate’s life from beyond the grave. Thomas thinks Bates is guilty, but Carson smacked him down nicely. Anna is busy playing Sherlock Holmes and looking for evidence to overturn the guilty plea. Meanwhile, Bates becomes a tough guy to avoid getting picked on by fellow prisoners.
- The Granthams are broke! All of Cora’s cash is gone thanks to a railway company going under. Cora’s reaction to this is classic: “I’m an American. Have gun, will travel.”
- Sybil and Branson return from Ireland and things are quite awkward. Branson hasn’t given up the rebellious streak and it’s upsetting those who like to uphold tradition. Prank or no prank, drunk Branson needs to happen more often.
- Matthew and Mary are preparing for the wedding of everyone’s dreams. There’s trouble brewing though. Matthew may be inheriting money from Lavinia Swire’s dad but he refuses to take the bailout cash.
- I really wish Daisy can get her life together and stop everyone from trampling all over her.
- O’Brien is stabbing everyone in the back, what else is new? Her latest scheme involves getting her nephew Alfred hired as a footman. Of course, Thomas is not amused by this so he begins to sabotage him. They are no longer besties, and this pleases me greatly.
- Martha Levinson (Cora’s mom) has come to troll everyone. Shirley MacClaine does an excellent job at challenging the Downton status quo. I could watch Mrs. Levinson and Violet argue forever.
- Poor Mrs. Hughes. She’s sick and it can possibly be cancer. She’s hiding this from Carson, even though she’s losing her ability to work. Mrs. Patmore is rough around the edges, but she’s doing her best to be a good friend.
- Poor Edith. Her sisters found happiness while she’s getting dumped by a guy she really likes.
- Mary and Violet attempt to shake down Mrs. Levinson for money but she doesn’t buy it. Instead, Mrs. Levinson turns a fancy dinner designed to show off the best of Downton into an indoor picnic. Some of the Crawleys clearly can’t deal with the harsh reality of the changing times, and this will be a huge theme in the episodes to come.
What did you think of the season premiere?
Last week, NYC’s Strand Bookstore celebrated the release of the second companion book to the series The Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Author Jessica Fellowes was interviewed by Carol Wallace, whose book To Marry An English Lord inspired Downton Abbey.
Chronicles is the sequel to the book The World of Downton Abbey. Both books were written at the same time as filming. While World focused on the overall history and behind the scenes action, Chronicles focuses heavily on the characters. Each chapter focuses on the back stories and history of one or two characters. [As a note, both Chronicles as well as the rest of this article does not contain any Series 3 spoilers.]
Throughout the evening, many behind the scenes filming details were dished out. On the set, the actors pretend to eat in the dining hall scenes because the food is real but often congealed after several hours of filming. Highclere (where the upstairs scenes are filmed) is also incredibly drafty. Once the cameras are off coats are put on.
There was also plenty of insight into the writing process. Julian Fellowes based every character on the premise that people are naturally good natured. Some of the characters are based on the Fellowes family history while others are compilations of people from the period. As an example, O’Brien was based off a maid who was “polite as a courtier and manipulative” to the point of driving away all of her mistresses’ family. Robert’s resistance to change was very typical of those in his position at the time.
Several hints were dropped of what was to come in Series 3. The economic challenges of running Downton after World War I will form a major plot point. Chronicles foreshadows this by including a map of the estate. The new society required people with skills and business sense, not just a force of nature and inherited leadership. Cora’s bailout of the state is no longer enough to keep Downton viable. Some of the great houses survived through changes in business practices but others fell into disrepair. Some old homes were saved by the newly rich wishing to appear just like the old aristocracy. In some ways, Jessica Fellowes noted Downton has some apparels with modern society adjusting to rapidly changing technology.
Along with economic changes, Series 3 will also deal with shifts in expectations and roles. Upper class women like Edith wished to do more than household management. Middle and working class women are no longer content with domestic service and childrearing and were moving into the workplace. More women are also earning degrees. For the lower classes, more career options opened up after the war. Thousands left domestic service to pursue a wide variety of career options. In addition, more people were gaining access to education. Anything was possible, and this will be reflected in the storylines of Edith and Daisy in particular.
The Q&A portion of the evening raised several additional points of interest:
- Audience concern over the lack of racial/ethnic diversity has been noted and a new minority character will appear in Series 4. Details are still hazy.
- I asked if fans will see a tiny piece of the Jazz Age/flapper action in Series 3. Unfortunately, it is a few years too early for the trends the 20’s are most remembered for.
- Matthew becomes “magisterial” in upcoming episodes.
- Downton has remained in tact from the first drafts of the script all the way to the pilot. Executive meddling was not a factor in production.
- Whether the injured soldier really was Patrick Crawley or an impostor is a purposeful mystery. No one knows if he will come back in a future episode.
The event was a great way to kick off the final countdown until the Series 3 premiere. Can it be January 6th now?
Downton stands on Upstairs, Downstairs’ shoulders. For younger Downton fans who have never seen the 70’s classic, a Netflix Instant marathon of Upstairs is a great way to pass the time until PBS debuts Series 3 of Downton on January 6. [Cast photo courtesy of Upstairs, Downstairs Webpages]
Each Upstairs episode is about 50 minutes long. However, some early episodes were released only in black and white due to production strikes. Some episodes were recolored later on, others were left as is. Oddly enough the lack of color adds to the old-timey charm of the series. Fans new to Upstairs, Downstairs will find a lot to like. Interpersonal drama and conflict drive the episodes. Shippers will find plenty of subtext and canon to latch onto. The plot pacing is a bit faster than Downton, but still easy to follow. Usually several months pass between each episode, however, the opening credits keep the viewer aware of the month and year.
For those who love fashion and costuming, there are many styles to keep you entertained. Upstairs Series 1 shows a lot more of the Edwardian Era, which is a nice benefit for history buffs. Most of the characters have more than one dimension of personality, so there’s plenty for fans to adore and loathe. The acting, writing, and directing is top notch, which led to critical acclaim and awards on both sides of the Atlantic.
It is important to note that there are enough differences between Upstairs and Downton to refute claims of Downton being a wholesale ripoff of Upstairs. Those who judge Upstairs based only on the 2010 reboot will get an entirely inaccurate picture of the entire series. The original Upstairs was a game changer, so it is easy to see some tropes and themes reappear in productions that followed.
Upstairs, Downstairs revolves around 165 Eaton Place; the Edwardian London residence of Richard and Marjorie Bellamy. Richard is a Conservative MP, and politics of the day often show up in the plot of the show. Marjorie is a well to do heiress with important political and social connections. Their children, James and Elizabeth also live in their house. A crew of around 8 servants attend to the Bellamy household. The first season starts in November 1903 and ends in June 1909, so a direct historical portrayal comparison to Downton is imposible for now.
Richard and Marjorie have more differences compared to Robert and Cora. Marjorie’s family has firmly British elite roots, which is a stark contrast to Cora’s rich outsider status. The Crawleys are Earls and landholders, while Richard’s position as MP disappear the second election results go the wrong way. Robert and James have a similar military background despite the age gap. The Bellamys have less interaction with their extended family in Series 1 compared to the Crawleys. Friends and distinguished guests more often come to call at 165 Eaton.
The inheritance dispute pivotal to the Downton plot is not a factor at this point. James is the Bellamy heir and therefore does not have anything in common with Series 1 Downton characters. Elizabeth is close in age to Edith or Mary but she acts a lot more like an irresponsible teenager than the Crawley sisters. Her political ideas are even more progressive than Sybil’s, and she turns her words into action.
The staff in Series 1 consists of a valet (Hudson), cook (Mrs. Bridges), footman (Edward), coachman (Pierce) a head house parlourmaid (Rose), and few lower level maids (Sarah, Emily, Alice, Roberts, and others). The downstairs bureaucracy seen in Downton is a lot more fluid in Upstairs. Often servants are asked to fill multiple roles because 165 Eaton is a lot smaller than the Abbey and the surrounding countryside. The roles and personalities of Carson and Mrs. Patmore match up quite closely to Hudson and Bridges. Rose and Anna also have a lot in common. The junior maids and footmen of Upstairs aren’t as easy to compare, especially when personality is taken into consideration.
Closer quarters in 165 Eaton naturally lead to more interactions between the classes. On more than one occasion servants discussed extremely personal problems affecting their employment with either Marjorie or Richard. On two occasions Richard had to use his influence to get staff members out of trouble with the police. Rose becomes one of Elizabeth’s closest friends. In Series 1 of Downton, most of the problems of lower level servants are filtered through Carson and higher level staff upstairs.
Discussions about societal roles and challenges to the existing order are a lot more pervasive in Series 1 of Upstairs compared to Downton. The servants and the Bellamys mingle with rich and poor alike. Controversial issues such as rape, abortion, and socialism are also featured in much greater detail in Upstairs, Downstairs. In comparison, Downton is isolated in the countryside. Their interactions with other societal classes are more limited. Radical ideas at Downton are filtered through books and Branson. It should be noted that Branson’s pet issue is only mentioned once in Series 1 of Upstairs, Downstairs.
I believe watching Upstairs, Downstairs allows you to understand Downton Abbey better. You can see some of the material the writers are drawing inspiration from. Don’t believe people who say you have to choose between Upstairs and Downton. It’s very easy to like both. Whenever I finish Series 2 I’ll post another side by side review.
I watch way too many miniseries. This year’s competition is going to be very rough for me because I like too many of the potential candidates. Here’s how I would like the category to play out, but I doubt this will end up happening.:
All of these shows have compelling writing, directing, and acting. However, I believe this year is Sherlock’s year due to the increased attention industry critics and audiences alike have given the show. Downton Abbey has gained quite a bit of momentum too, but it is at a disadvantage because it won last year. Sherlock this season has tightened up it’s writing, directing, and acting. Although Political Animals is still relatively new, it has a factor going for it that the British shows don’t. 2012 is an presidential election year, and fictional politics becomes more popular as a result. The show is clearly USA Network’s attempt to break away from it’s traditional quirky character procedurals, and it’s already working. If the show can continue to balance successfully the soap opera elements with the more deep dramatic elements, it can do very well.
Best Actor In A Miniseries
Idris Elba- Luther
Hugh Bonneville- Downton Abbey
Benedict Cumberbatch- Sherlock
Cumberbatch’s ingenious portrayal of Sherlock Holmes is quite tough to compete with. Bonneville’s stoic Lord Grantham has a very good chance of winning as well. Elba is a bit more of a longshot.
Best Actress In A Miniseries
Michelle Dockery- Downton Abbey
Sigourney Weaver- Political Animals
Weaver’s portrayal of Elaine Barrish-Hammond challenges the traditional tropes of political dramas. She doesn’t “stand by her man” but chooses to pursue her own career ambitions. She is the center of attention on the show, and the audience can’t look away. Dockery’s portrayal of Mary Crawley has improved considerably this season, but she faces tough competition from her other co-stars.
Best Supporting Actor In A Miniseries
Martin Freeman- Sherlock
It’s extremely hard to pick supporting actors out of shows with many secondary and ensemble cast members. However, Freeman’s portrayal of John Watson had the unique ability to make us laugh and cry at the same time.
Best Supporting Actress In A Minseries
Lara Pulver- Sherlock
Maggie Smith- Downton Abbey
Ruth Wilson- Luther
Although all of these shows have extremely strong female secondary characters, Maggie Smith is on a level that very few people can top. Wilson’s character featured less prominently in this series of Luther, which puts her at a disadvantage. Pulver’s portrayal of Irene Adler was awesome but some might be quick to dismiss her character as nothing but a glorified sex object. This view of course prevents seeing the complexity of her character. I would need to see all of the minseries to figure out which supporting actress stands out the most on Political Animals.
I hope you liked my choices. I’ll be back soon with my own dream Emmy ballots for comedy and drama.