One night last January I phoned home from a business trip out West to say goodnight to my wife, only to discover she was having a torrid affair. She admitted it without a fig of guilt — in fact, a giddy laugh.
“I can’t stop thinking about him,” she admitted, sounding alarmingly coquettish for a woman who just turned 50. “I’ve been so bad, eating chocolate and drinking wine. I’m not ashamed to admit I’m having a great time. I’m like a woman possessed.”
“What’s his name?” I asked.
“Bates,” she replied. “Or should I say — Mr. Bates.”
“How often do you see this Mr. Bates?”
“Pretty much every night since you’ve been gone.”
“What does this Bates do besides steal the affections of other men’s wives in their absence?” I put to her.
“He’s the Earl of Grantham’s personal valet. And such a lovely man, so kind and honorable despite his wretched little wife, who is cunning and full of greed. You wonder how a man so kind and gentle ends up with a horrible woman like that.”
Turns out, Dame Wendy — as I now call her — was was bundled into our upstairs matrimonial bed with all three dogs, a nice bottle of pinot noir and a box of Godiva bittersweet chocolates, hopelessly engrossed in the first season of Masterpiece Theater’s Downton Abbey, the lavish period costume drama imported from Britain about the travails of a family of Yorkshire aristocrats and their meddling but loyal servants during the fading days of the Empire prior to and just after the First World War.
At that moment in time the series was already being hailed as the most successful serialized program in British TV history, and with the second season set to debut on PBS within days, my bride had somehow laid hands on a friend’s video of season one and was having her own private Downton marathon (orgy?) in order to catch up with the rest of Downton-crazed America.
“You have to watch it when you get home, if only for Granny’s barbs. She’s deliciously wicked.”
“Why do you sound like Jane Seymour?” I pointed out. “And who on Earth is Granny?”
Granny, she explained, was Dame Violet Crawley, played with brittle arch perfection by veteran stage actress Maggie Smith, sharp-tongued mother-in-law of Cora, the wealthy American widow whom Lord Robert Crawley married in a hurry in order to preserve Downton Abbey from potential financial ruin and the clutches of a distant and self-made relative, a third cousin once removed and the estate’s presumptive heir. Cora, she explained, was played by Elizabeth McGovern — last seen, at least by me, playing the fetchingly naked Broadway showgirl Evelyn Nesbit in Ragtime, the 1981 film adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s epic novel. But I digress.
“That’s just half the intrigue going on upstairs,” her ladyship continued. “Then there’s Mary, the beautiful eldest daughter who is falling in love with Matthew Crawley — the heir who turns out to be quite handsome and likable — even though she’s hiding a terrible secret, the fact that a Turkish diplomat’s son died in her bed. And, oh, don’t forget Mr. Bates. Lovely Mr. Bates, such a man’s man . . .”
“Who could forget Bates?” I asked from faraway California. “But it sounds like you need an official game program to keep all the hanky-panky straight.”
“No,” she came back, “you just need to watch the program. Trust me, you’ll get hooked just like the rest of us.” She mentioned a colleague at the college where she works who’d managed to get half the faculty and the entire administrative staff hooked on the series, including a dozen secretaries, two vice presidents and half the board of governors.
“Have no doubt. You’ll soon be mad for it, too. Must run now, dear boy. Have to get back to Mr. Bates.”
Naturally, I scoffed.
You see, I’m an ardent and unapologetic Anglophile when it comes to many things British — warm beer, Graham Greene, Rumpole of the Bailey, pub food, links golf, no two toilets that flush exactly alike, the early Beatles, even cold and rainy weather.
But I vehemently draw — or did — a bold line when it comes to watching anything about the royal family or British drawing room costume dramas of any sort unless they involve sword fights and the possibility of full frontal nudity (purely for the sake of historical authenticity).
In the early 1970s, to cite a prime example, as a highly impressionable college freshman, I fell in for a brief time with a number of brainy English lit types in order to pursue a most attractive young woman in my British Romantic Poets class who could quote Virginia Woolf with the best of any post-Bloomsbury intellectual.
Prospects for l’amour seemed bright when she invited me to a special dinner party celebrating Masterpiece Theater’s premiere broadcast of Upstairs Downstairs — the first British costume drama, you may recall, to keep America awake on Sunday nights. Unfortunately I showed up at her fete wearing faded jeans and a flannel shirt and bearing a six-pack of Rolling Rock only to find everyone else — including my hoped-for — wearing period costumes and sipping Champagne. After a while, I snuck off downstairs to drink beer with the host’s younger brother and catch the end of a Carolina basketball game.
A decade later — same year as Ragtime appeared, by the way — my Atlanta girlfriend (an admitted Masterpiece Theater junkie) organized a series of dress-up dinners for highbrow friends who were mad for Brideshead Revisited, another tedious British import based on a novel so God-awful the author himself once described it as “appalling” in a famous 1950 letter to Graham Greene. After laboring through two or three episodes, I simply couldn’t bear to revisit Brideshead any longer and bailed out on Sunday nights to watch Bonanza. My high-brow girlfriend bailed out on me not long afterward, marrying an Englishman a short time later.
Given all this serious serial romantic baggage, you can well apreciate the depth of my surprise and appalling embarrassment when, during a weekend my wife was away at an educational conference, several weeks into DA’s second season, I opened a bottle of Old Peculier and popped my wife’s DVD of season one into the Blu-ray machine, simply to see what all the Downton hullabaloo was about.
By the time she returned, I’d polished off all the Old Peculiar and watched the entire season one and — though it pains me to admit — joined the second season mid-stride.
Hopelessly hooked, in other words, on my first British costume drama.
Strictly between you and me, fellow DA addict, I’ll even confess to taking the special personality quiz for the craziest — oops, meant to say most devoted — Downton fans who wished to see which of the cast of characters they most resembled.
My favorite quiz question was as follows:
I have a whole weekend to myself. I’m going to:
a) What’s a weekend?
b) Find some poor soul to help.
c) Attend a political rally.
d) Make plans to ruin my rival’s life.
e) Stay alone in my room and read.
f) Attend a jolly good foxhunt followed by billiards and good cigars.
g) Get ahead on next week’s work.
Truthfully, I don’t recall all of my answers on the wildly popular quiz (which, by the way, it’s not too late to take; simply Google “Downton Abbey Personality Quiz”), though it was pretty rich British irony which character I wound up most resembling.
Call me Mr. Bates.
Loyal, kind, possibly dim-witted Bates, a man’s man limping nobly though life and dearly beloved by all (save that cellar rat Thomas Barrow) and the lord of the manor, a possible ladykiller in more ways than one. One of the surprises of season two, it had emerged, Mr. Bates — now romantically entwined with a sweet young housemaid called Anna — was the Crown’s leading suspect in the violent death of his estranged wife.
“It’s hard to imagine he had anything to do with her death,” my own Dame Wendy dismissed the likelihood out of hand. “But if it’s true, well, she probably deserved to die — clingy and greedy little trollop that she was.”
My own ladyship, by the way, maintains that every bit of these unexpected turns of Downton fate — her husband’s surprising conversion to British costume dramas, the mysterious death of Bates’ ex, the coming of world war and flush toilets — were simply the sweet hand of Providence and writer Julian Fellowes jointly at work — and that even I was destined, among other things, to find my inner Mr. Bates and fall hard for the glory of Downton Abbey.
Some pop culturists have even advanced the notion that the unprecedented popularity of Downton Abbey — which has spawned several best-selling books and been a boon to the British travel industry — provides a revealing window into the psyches of modern viewers — suggesting that each of us must see something in the personalities of the series’ characters that speaks to us on an individual basis, posing a beguiling question:
Whose life at Downton Abbey, given the chance, would you fancy inhabiting — and why?
With season three set to make its record-breaking debut on January 6 — fittingly the feast of Epiphany on the Anglican calendar, the modern word meaning a sudden breakthrough in personal perception — and premiere parties reportedly being planned for everywhere from the White House press room to Florida biker bars, it seemed only natural to put the question to PineStraw’s own friends and neighbors, a shocking percentage of whom turn out to be even more addicted than I am to the Crawleys and their meddlesome staff.
Look a little closer and you’ll see some of them playing their favorite roles on the cover.
“I was kind of embarrassed to discover how much I really liked the series, how easily the story and characters dragged you in,” says Ran Morrissett, a fellow late-comer to the Abbey who cheekily refers to himself in the regal third person as Lord Rantham. “I came to Downton Abbey well into the story. I kept hearing Amy at the Java Bean talking endlessly about the series — making a point to tell me how much I would love the show. It wasn’t until August that I was in a Barnes and Noble and saw the first season DVD and figured, what the hell, I’ll check it out. I plowed through the whole thing in less than two weeks. My girlfriend and I even began getting up at 5 a.m. to watch it before the kids got up. That’s how drawn we were to it.”
“I’ve watched it from the beginning and am more drawn to it than ever,” notes Jeanne Paine, type cast as Isobel Crawley for our cover cast. “The costumes, the twists and turns of the story both upstairs and down, it all completely takes me in. I relate to Isobel because she’s so plain-spoken on issues regardless of the consequences and because, well, my mother was named Isobel. Like her, I’m a widow too. My late husband lived in a world of servants — or at least in his head. He was from Louisville, Kentucky, which may explain it.”
PineStraw columnist and redoubtable social observer Deborah Salomon has her own explanation for the drama’s ever-widening popularity. “It’s the definition of eye candy for adults and anyone who has any inkling of history. We’re all fascinated by where we come from, and though few of us can relate directly to Edwardian times, everything that happens to these people in their well-mannered lives is just as real today as it was back then — the class distinctions, the sacrifices and snobberies, sex and money, romantic intrigue and even mother-in-law problems. It’s all still around. They just make it so irresistible to watch.”
Some fans, on the other hand, can trace their obsession to their roots. “I’ve always adored the British dramas on Masterpiece Theater,” says Sheryl Comer, “and have a strong passion for anything from the Edwardian and Victorian eras. I collect antiques and jewelry from that time and have, for instance, a real piece of the queen’s mourning jewelry from that era, made from coal. I never quite knew why I was so attracted to that time until my mother’s genealogy turned up the curious fact that we are related to Lady Godiva [the 13th century English noblewoman who rode naked through the streets of Coventry to protest her husband’s unfair taxes on the people] of all people, whose courage and ingenuity I’ve since come to greatly admire. That’s the kind of spirited behavior you see in characters like Sybil in Downton Abbey.
Given these antecedents, it’s no surprise Comer was a fan of the series from the first minute of episode one, and became something of a one-woman force of nature promoting the series at Sandhills Community College. “It’s true,” she allows with a charming laugh. “I’ve bought all the videos and books and placed them in the hands of I suppose eight or nine people, all of whom have become big fans. About the only thing on my bucket list, to be honest, is for my daughter Morgan and me to go see Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed. I love getting as close to the authenticity of it as possible, just the way we did with Lady Godiva in Coventry.”
Which, madam, begs another intriguing question. Anything, well, significant about your plans for celebrating the third season’s debut? Dare we ask, might her ladyship plan to catch the much-anticipated premiere in a manner made famous by your celebrated ancestor?
“Don’t be silly,” Comer says with a dismissive laugh worthy of dowager Violet Crawley herself. “But even if I did, they just did everything behind closed doors in those days. I’d never tell the likes of you.”
Which, translated, means: Mr. Bates always knows his proper place. PS