Thursday, February 23, 2012
I’ve always loved English drama – live, on radio or TV, or at the movies. Jim’s four-year tour of duty in England in the 1970s was pure joy for me to get all that theater first-hand. In America the best place to see these productions on a regular basis is on PBS and the best shows – for me – over the years have been Mystery and Masterpiece Theatre, now combined as Masterpiece Classic. My favorites here have always been traditional, mostly set in the 19th and 20th centuries, either on Baker Street or Eaton Square in London, a tiny village like St. Mary Mead, or a vast country estate, just about anywhere on that British isle.
Thus I like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes with his faithful Watson and Agatha Christie’s Jane Marple and Hercule Poirot. The edgier, darker more modern dramas are not as much to my taste, except for Prime Suspect with the incomparable Helen Mirren, who has beautifully played a British housewife, a detective chief inspector and Queen Elizabeth II, among others.
But perhaps the stories which provide me with the most pleasure – and the best “escape,” are those set in huge households with a multitude of servants. The families are rich and titled, live in sumptuous homes, wear the finest clothes and jewels, and never have to lift a finger. Now who wouldn’t like that?
The series Upstairs, Downstairs, set in a beautiful London town house, was the successful story of the Bellamy family “up” and the servants “down.” Both had their dramas and traumas and featured unforgettable characters, like Hudson the butler, Mrs. Bridges the cook, Rose, the perfect head parlor maid, Sarah the scheming but piquant kitchen help, Lord and Lady Bellamy and their grown children, the rebellious Elizabeth and the sometimes much-too-dapper James. The sinking of the Titanic plays an important role in the later part of this production.
The rural descendant of that show is Downton Abbey, the background estate of Lord and Lady Grantham. The Titanic is also pivotal to the plot at the beginning of this story, and is the cause of the probable change of fortune for the family. Downton Abbey has 50 bedrooms and at least three dozen characters – a lot to keep track of, no matter how many staircases there are. But Season II has just ended, leaving all its fans hanging on and hoping for more. Will the dark secret involving the family and the servants ever be revealed? Will Matthew finally wed the prickly Lady Mary? Will she and her sneaky sister, Lady Edith, make peace? Will Lady Sybil, who (horrors!) married her Irish chauffeur Branson and went to live in Dublin, come back as a successful politico’s wife?
How about servants Bates and Anna? Will they be reconciled if he is released from prison after his murder conviction? Will the horribly injured World War I patient prove to be the savior or the scourge of the family? And finally, will the Dowager Countess Violet, played by the excellent Maggie Smith who steals every scene she appears in, be the one to finally rescue the whole situation? Stay tuned. Surely Julian Fellowes, writer and creator, is hard at work on Season III.