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Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Glory of "Downton Abbey"

The British stately home that is the location of one of
the best TV series in recent memory
A couple of weeks ago going to a meeting at La Défense business district I decided to ride the metro since it is just a straight line from my home in the Bastille area, with no need to change trains. I settled into my seat (quite a feat to find one in the overcrowded trains) and set about tuning out the various audio attacks Paris metro riders have to contend with:

- The incessant PA messages about the inevitable problems facing travelers: traffic signals, breakdowns, sick passengers ― only in Paris can sick passengers bring the whole transportation system to a screeching halt.

- Panhandlers who seem to have graduated from the same school since their whining speech is uniformly similar: "Sorry to bother you, mesdames et messieurs, but I have been unemployed for a year and have no place to go. I'd be grateful for a lunch voucher or a coin so that I can eat and sleep without having to resort to any illegal activity"― quite articulate come to think of it, only in Paris are bums so classy!

- iPod/iPhone-toting commuters who firmly believe that the rest of mankind has only one dream and one right: sharing whatever loud noise that calls itself music and comes out of their mobile devices, and the louder the better; or those who carry on mind-numbingly vacuous cell phone conversations.

- The loud noise of train brakes, especially as they enter metro stations: I can't understand that with modern technology we are still unable to, if not develop silent trains, at least reduce the din they produce.

- Gossiping people who punctuate their remarks with hollering loud laughter.

Try as I might, I found it impossible to tune out the two female chatterboxes. The fact that they were sitting one on each side of me and addressing one another across my face and, unfortunately, ears was a major factor. I plodded along resolutely, trying to engross myself in my book but couldn't help overhearing their conversation as they gossiped about what was obviously friends and family relations.

"I don't know what's wrong with Mary. Why is she dating that boring and snobbish guy when Matthew is so cute? And he's going to inherit the property."

"Unsure of that, isn't ...(train brakes piercing my left ear drum) having a child who could be the heir? Oh, and what about that old bitch? The grandmother "

"I love her! She may be a conniving and nosy woman, but she has her family's interests at heart. The one I can't stand is Elsie "

"My favorite is Anna. She's so sweet, and I think there is something cooking with Bates..."

By then I had pricked up my ears. There was something oddly familiar about the people they were gossiping about. And then it suddenly hit me. They weren't gossiping about friends or family or co-workers. They were commenting on the latest developments of the British TV drama series, Downton Abbey!

I soon put down my book and joined the conversation as we heatedly exchanged our views about this fascinating series, each one of us having our favorites among the show's characters, our ideas about future plots developments (I was several episodes ahead of my fellow riders.)

Back in the 1970s and 80s British TV was second to none. I, Claudius based on the eponymous Robert Graves novel, is still the best Roman drama ever produced on the small screen (with HBO's Rome, a close second, though,) with other great BBC fare such as Yes, Minister to be followed in the 1990s by House of Cards, before it crossed the Pond in a  popular show currently being broadcast, and Rumpole of the Bailey, based on the excellent books by John Mortimer. ITV's Brideshead Revisited was the pinnacle of British television.

But in the late 1990s and going into the new millennium, quality moved to the US with a flurry of great series such as The Sopranos, Six Feet Under or, more recently, Mad Men. However, with Downton Abbey, whose first episode aired in late 2010, it is obvious that the British are fighting back with what they do best: period drama of the highest quality.

In case you have no idea what Downton Abbey is about, it is set in an English castle, the stately home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and portrays the relationships between the aristocratic family and their servants, between the members of each class, and how the outside world (WWI, sinking of the Titanic etc.) does from time to time come and knock on the door to remind this self-contained universe that there is another world outside, often a nasty one. Sure, you can criticize the rosy view of master-to-servant relationships, the paternalistic attitude of the aristocrats and the deferential way the staff serve their lordships and ladyships. But there is no ignoring the sheer power of an excellently written script, brilliant dialogues and terrific performances.

Written by Julian Fellowes, who has made a name for himself as the expert in depicting the British upper class (starting with a similar Academy Award-winning script in the Robert Altman movie Gosford Park), every character, down to the most insignificant kitchen maid or footman, is so subtly drawn that you can't help becoming addicted. As they grow more complex after each episode, helped in no small way by the amazing quality of the cast (only Elizabeth McGovern as the American-born Countess is a bit of a letdown; Maggie Smith is proving, if need be, that she is one of the world's greatest living actresses), and the nice setting and costumes, along with the archaic traditions, every season just grows on you to the point that it becomes completely natural to be discussing it with perfect strangers on the Paris metro.
The blogger, at age 20, in another famous British stately home:
Glamis Castle, the Scottish seat of the Earls of Strathmore
since the Middle Ages and childhood
home of the late Queen Mother

So, if you haven't heard of or watched Downton Abbey, don't waste any more time. You don't know what undiluted pleasure awaits you in what is simply television perfection.

The blogger inside Glamis Castle which is also the setting for
Shakespeare's "Macbeth"