Downton Abbey triumphs again in Hollywood

The new series of the acclaimed TV drama launched this weekend to a rapturous welcome from critics, public and Hollywood showbiz moguls. What's the magic?

The second series launched across Britain this weekend and picked up no fewer than four glittering prizes in yesterday's annual Emmy Awards in Los Angeles. The 10th biggest-selling newspaper in the world was ecstatic: 'What joy! Downton's back and as polished as the family silver' sighed the headline on the Daily Mail front page.

There followed a breathless review by their writer Jan Moir: 'Oh, Lady Grantham, forgive me. Bob, bob, curtsey. But I have just got to say what a delight it is that you and the dear Lord are back again, bringing us all the cosy thrill of this most delicious Sunday evening entertainment.'

Downton Abbey is a British television drama set on the fictional estate of Downton starring British actors Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville and written by the actor and writer Julian Fellowes.

The series presents Highclere Castle in Berkshire as Downton Abbey, the home of the Earl of Grantham, his American wife Cora and their three daughters, the icily beautiful Lady Mary, the tricky but feisty Lady Edith and the feminist Lady Sybil. The first series, launched a year ago, took place during the two years before World War I. In the second series it is 1916 and Downton is turned into a convalescent home.

As the programme publicity says: 'Downton Abbey portrays a world of elegance and decadence, a world of duty and obedience and a world of romance and rivalry.' All over the world, it seems, there is an unquenched appetite for British history.

The series is made by a British company Carnival Films and is broadcast on ITV. It has 12 million viewers and has won many awards. Last year ITV trebled its profits to £321 million, largely thanks to the 'the Downton effect'. Prince William and his bride have both professed to be huge fans. This year the series entered the Guinness Book of World Records as the most critically acclaimed television show in the world.

Form or content

What's the magic? Some think it's all style and nostalgia: the beautiful costumes, the fabulous locations, the brilliant acting and the sheer delicious escapism of sitting down with millions of other Britons at the same time on a Sunday night (plus millions of others all over the world) for a trip into the past.

Others have argued that the essential power is the content - the double love story at the heart of the drama: one between two members of the upper class, Lady Mary and Matthew, and one taking place 'below stairs' between the housemaid Anna and the valet Bates. Like Romeo and Juliet, Pride and Prejudice or Bridget Jones, these romances are beset with problems. The 'will they? won't they?' plot keeps millions on the edge of their seats.

You Decide

  1. Why isDownton Abbeyso popular? Can you explain the curious appeal of the costume drama?
  2. Is nostalgia for past times sensible or foolish?

Activities

  1. Write an opening scene for your own costume drama. When would you set it?
  2. Write a review for a piece of television that you think deserves an Emmy Award. What makes it so good?

Some People Say...

“Downton Abbey is just a cheap soap opera in petticoats.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Are the Brits best in the world at costume drama?
So it is often claimed. Earlier this year, in anObserver list of the ten best costume dramas of all time, for instance, only two were non-British.
Name some.
Brideshead Revisited (ITV), Bleak House (BBC), Upstairs Downstairs (ITV), Pride and Prejudice (BBC), I Claudius (BBC)… the list could go on and on!
Is this part of an industry?
Absolutely. Because Britain is an old country with lots of history, Britons have become very good at 'selling' the past. From Royal Weddings, to historic houses, to the Proms and costume dramas, a huge and lucrative British 'heritage industry' has been created over the past 20 years.

Word Watch

Emmy Awards
These US awards are the most prestigious prizes that can be won by a TV entertainment production. They are equivalent to the Oscars, in film.
Maggie Smith
76-year-old Maggie Smith is one of Britain's most highly respected actresses, famous for a glittering career on stage and screen, including a high-profile turn in the recent Harry Potter films.
Convalescent home
Many stately homes were partially converted for military use during World War I, either as training camps or hospitals or homes for recovering soldiers.
Below stairs
In Edwardian England, the servants' quarters were collectively known as the area 'below stairs'.

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