TUPELO – “What is a weekend?”
For fans of “Downton Abbey,” that’s more than just a question. It’s a famous piece of dialogue from a beloved English TV show that has drawn millions of viewers, not just in Britain, but in the United States.
“Downton Abbey” draws men and women, grandmothers and granddaughters, history professors and teenagers to PBS on Sunday nights to see the latest drama of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the early 20th century.
That’s quite a feat for a show that’s a part of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic series – a series that, until “Downton,” had a reputation for being stuffy and for the AARP crowd. The acting, wit, drama, beautiful castle and stunning period costumes of “Downton Abbey” are just a few reasons why so many fans are returning to PBS.
“It draws folks from all generations, many different types of backgrounds, even different types of cultures, and I love that about ‘Downton Abbey,’” said Margaret McPhillips, director of public relations at Mississippi Public Broadcasting. “It has a universal appeal that has helped get a lot of the excitement transcending generational lines.”
Crazy about Crawleys
Downton Abbey is the fictional estate of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and his family, which employs a host of servants, including the head butler, Mr. Carson (Jim Carter).
The house is full of drama: There’s the will-they-won’t-they relationship of cousin Matthew and Lady Mary; Lady Sybil falls in love with the chauffeur; the valet, Bates, faces a murder trial; and, off in the distance, servants Thomas and O’Brien smoke and scheme ways to bring down anyone who crosses their paths.
History plays a big part in the show’s plotlines: The family’s heir dies on the Titanic in season one; the upstairs and downstairs men find common ground on the battlefields in World War I in season two; and season three focuses on the changing trends of the Roaring Twenties.
Ask fans their favorite part of the show, and it’s almost unanimous: actress Maggie Smith, who stars as the snarky, smart family matriarch, Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham.
“I love Maggie Smith,” said Matt Johnson, 40, an Oxford resident. “She’s never been less than brilliant in anything she’s ever done. This is probably her finest work, which is really saying something. The way she can just turn a phrase – she’s brilliant.”
An aristocratic woman’s honest question – “What is a weekend?” – is one of the show’s most famous lines.
“It’s ingenious,” said Laura Schulenberg, a 33-year-old graduate student at the University of Mississippi. “It’s so appropriate for her.”
For Roye Langford, 77, of Tupelo, it’s the interweaving, true-to-life stories that bring her back season after season. She watched the entire first season on Christmas Day and has been hooked since.
“There’s wonderful acting, and it’s a good story. It’s very interesting,” she said. “It’s hard to find something good to watch.”
Jessica Nelson, 29, also of Tupelo, agreed.
“It’s just really well-crafted historical fiction, and it’s visually stunning,” she said. “It’s more stimulating than most of what’s on TV these days.”
The show is filmed at Highclere Castle in England, and it’s that setting and the history that drew in Hatley resident David Murphy, 32.
“I like period dramas, and that time in history – the early 20th century has always fascinated me,” he said. “The house on the show is beautiful.”
As a history professor, Johnson finds the show particularly interesting.
“It’s the beginning of the end of the old aristocratic order of England, and they’re aware of it,” he said.
He’s hosted friends over for dinner and “Downton,” so they can discuss the show.
“‘Downton Abbey’ is probably my favorite show on TV right now – probably my favorite show in several years,” he said. “With other shows I’ve watched, my friends weren’t watching it at the same time, so there’s a community as ‘Downton Abbey’ viewers. Even if only for a few minutes, we’ll slip ‘Downton Abbey’ into a conversation so we can talk about it.”
Feeling the love
“Downton Abbey” has done well for bookstores, where books related to or inspired by the show are flying off shelves. It’s also done well for tea shops, like Tea for T’Arts inside His Hers Antiques and Collectibles in Tupelo.
“We had two teenagers come in here last week and they said they wanted a British tea like on ‘Downton Abbey,’” said owner Virginia Chambers. The shop also sells vintage clothing and hats, and ’20s-era clothes are especially popular, she said. Chambers has even considered hosting teas and “Downton Abbey” chats for fans.
PBS is feeling the love, too – for many fans, “Downton” has brought them back to the station.
“This is the most PBS I’ve watched since ‘Sesame Street,’” Schulenberg said.
MPB has hosted season two and three premiere screening events in Oxford; the season two premiere drew a small but interested crowd, while the season three premiere earlier this year, held at The Lyric Oxford, was like a party, with more than 200 fans dressed in 1920s-era fashions and other “Downton” costumes. Fans enjoyed a British tea and played “Dowton Abbey” trivia.
“It’s been fun for us,” McPhillips said. “It’s the first time we’ve ever had a premiere screening for a Masterpiece program. Nothing compares to ‘Downton Abbey.’”
Though none of the fans interviewed for this story said they’d donated to MPB, McPhillips said pledges were up.
“We’ve seen a lot of excitement from that end. We’ve been very thankful and pleased that our viewers have shown support by contributing,” she said. “Viewer support really does make a difference in the types of programs we can air.”
Mississippi cartoonist Marshall Ramsey’s “Downton Abbey”-inspired cartoon about pledges has earned him his “15 minutes of fame,” as he called it.
In the cartoon, which he published on Twitter after the season three finale, a PBS employee holds a gun to a “Downton Abbey” script and shouts, “Send in your pledge or another ‘Downton Abbey’ character dies!!” – a nod to the show’s most recent season, which saw the deaths of two major characters.
Actor George Takei and author Anne Rice, neither affiliated with “Downton,” saw the cartoon and shared it with fans, and the cartoon’s success exploded from there.
“I just sent copies to the writer, the producer, the president of PBS, the producer of Masterpiece,” Ramsey said. “The cast loved it, too. On my Facebook page alone it had 55,000 shares, and on George Takei’s it had 50,000. On Twitter it went crazy.”
Until season four airs in America on PBS in January 2014, that cartoon and the recently released season three DVD set may be all that fans have to tide them over.
Nelson can’t wait for more smart television.
“It’s not passive entertainment. It requires intellectual engagement on the viewer’s part to understand the context,” she said.
For Schulenberg, “Downton Abbey” is as much a state of mind as it is a TV show.
“You get transported to a different time and place,” she said. “I love the era of dressing up, and I love the pomp and circumstance. I can turn it on and go to that place, and I don’t have to think about anything else. It moves me to a different place.”
“Downton Abbey” ended season three with a dramatic, shocking death, but fans are ready for season four.
“It’ll be entertaining and interesting, no matter what,” Langford said. “It’s such good drama and acting, and there’s so little out there today that fits in that class. I’d recommend it to anyone – and have.”
• Written and created by Julian Fellowes
• Cast includes Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley), Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley), Jim Carter (Carson), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil Crawley), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Joanne Froggatt (Anna), Brendan Coyle (Bates), Lesley Nichol (Mrs. Patmore), Lady Edith (Laura
• “Downton Abbey” just wrapped a successful third season on PBS on Feb. 17, scoring 8.2 million viewers for its finale – twice as many as the season two finale. Fans sent nearly 80,000 “Downton Abbey”-related tweets on finale night, making it the second-most tweetedabout TV show that day.
•On Superbowl night it was the second most watched thing on TV, bringing in 6.6. million viewers.
• Season four begins next January on MPB Television.
• Watch full episodes and see behind-the-scenes footage of “Downton Abbey” at pbs.org/wgbh/masterpiece/downtonabbey. DVDs and more are available at shoppbs.org.