Film & Television

From Parodies to Paper Dolls, COUNTDOWN TO DOWNTON

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Pardon me, ladies, while I entertain myself with a bit of math. As I type this, we have 37 days, 12 hours, 34 minutes, and 58 seconds until the premiere of Downton Abbey’s season five here in the U.S. (By the time you read this, we’ll have shaved three days off and be even closer to all the delights of Downton.)

Mark your calendar, if you haven’t already, for January 4 at 9 p.m.

More than 15.5 million tuned in for last year’s season premiere, making Downton the most successful drama in PBS history. Its popularity continues to increase, with the new season promising additions to the cast (like Doctor Who’s Richard E. Grant, and Anna Chancellor, best known to many of us as “Duckface” from Four Weddings and a Funeral), plus all of the intrigue, drama, and romance we’ve come to expect from Lord and Lady Grantham, their family and household.

So, what to do in the meantime?

If you truly cannot wait, there are a couple of options for you. First, if you have the financial resources you can relocate to the U.K., where the new season premiered a couple of months ago. Or, you can order a box set of the series from amazon.uk, but be warned: Its DVD and Blu-Ray systems are different from ours; you will not only need to spend £19.99 plus shipping, but will likely need to upgrade your player to a universal or international one. This becomes a rather pricey proposition.

Alas, most of us are resigned to waiting. But, have no fear: The coming weeks need not be completely Downton-free. If you want a sneak peek of the new season, a good place to start is your local PBS station.

This week, PBS presents Downton Abbey Rediscovered, a helpful recap of the first four seasons and a behind-the-scenes preview of what’s ahead. Hosted by Bernadette Peters (following in the footsteps of Angela Lansbury and Susan Sarandon in prior season pre-shows), the program promises to answer (or at least tease us with) our most burning questions. Which suitor will win Lady Mary’s hand? What’s to become of Edith’s love child? Will Mr. and Mrs. Bates be happy at last? Check your local listings online.

You can also enjoy a veritable smorgasbord of Downton content on the PBS website, including a lively blog devoted to the show. You’ll find tempting treats like “How to Entertain Like the Granthams,” “Mary Brings Sassy Back,” and “The Downton Dish.”

The coming weeks might also give you a chance to revisit some of the earlier programs that clearly influenced Downton creator Julian Fellowes. Upstairs, Downstairs, which ran for five years in the 1970s, follows the lives of the Bellamy family and their staff. Although the production values can’t rival what we’ve become accustomed to, the characters are just as rich and the stories just as tantalizing—from forbidden affairs (Lady Sybil wasn’t the first to fall for a staff member) to plotlines pulled from real events of the day. Jean Marsh, who created the show and starred as head housemaid Rose, recently returned to 165 Eaton Place for two seasons set in the 1930s. Although the newer show didn’t enjoy the adoration of Downton Abbey, it’s well worth watching.

Fellowes, himself, co-wrote 2001’s movie Gosford Park, which featured a star-studded cast and an interesting look at upstairs-downstairs class dynamics when a shooting party turns into a murder. (Downton fans will particularly enjoy Maggie Smith’s turn as Constance, Countess of Trentham, a nice preview of things to come.)

There are several excellent books to savor while you’re waiting for season five to begin. The Countess of Carnarvon, real-life mistress of Highclere Castle, has penned two books about her predecessors: Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey and Lady Catherine, the Earl, and the Real Downton Abbey. They are carefully researched and well written; it’s fascinating to see where fact and fiction blend in that now-famous house. Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers is a wonderful novel about five wealthy American girls who sail to London to marry nobility (or, to be crass about it, buy themselves titles). To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl, covers the same subject matter and is loaded with photos, quotes, and juicy period gossip.

Downton Abbey has inspired several books as well—from humor (Downton Tabby) to handbooks (Rules for Household Staff), calendars to cookbooks. I highly recommend Jessica Fellowes (Julian’s wife)’s The World of Downton Abbey and Chronicles of Downton Abbey. Both include luscious photography, interesting historical tidbits, and all the drama behind our favorite drama.

If you’re willing to laugh (affectionately, of course) at Downton Abbey, there are countless parodies. Some of my favorites include Sesame Street’s Upside Downton Abbey; Downton Arby’s, which takes place in a fast food franchise; Dollshouse Downton, produced by a couple of London teenagers; the extremely off-color 2012 spoof Breaking Abbey, and an irreverent response to Downton’s much-ballyhooed “first black character” by Sean Combs, Diddy Does Downton.

Vulture.com, the online “entertainment destination” of New York magazine’s culture staff, offers a wonderful series of Downton Abbey paper dolls, which you can download and print. The set includes Sybil with appropriate suffragette attire and the Dowager Countess with her “assortment of emotions”—judgmental, sneering, skeptical, and smug. Ever-plotting Thomas and O’Brien come with evil accessories, and Matthew and Mary are accompanied by an added bonus doll of the already expired Mr. Pamuk. At least, we assume, he died happy.

Although we have the holidays to look forward to, January 4 can’t come soon enough. But, gentle reader, I hope that some of my suggestions will help you pass the time. Until then, I’ll leave you with a phenomenal tribute to the great Maggie Smith and her utterly unforgettable character. Set to Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” the video captures the Dowager Countess’s greatest one-liners and uncontested scene-stealers.

It is fitting—in this story, as in life at Downton— to let the Countess have the last word.

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