Downton Abbey returns: The enduring charm of lavish living

In a TV world where sensational dramas like Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones win devoted fans and critical acclaim, the British period melodrama Downton Abbey, which returns Sunday, has found a very different way to hold its own.

Season four of British Edwardian TV melodrama begins Sunday

Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, left, has a word with her maid Anna Bates, played by Joanne Froggatt, in a scene from the fourth season of Downton Abbey. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

When awestruck visitors arrive at Toronto's carefully preserved Spadina house, they often blurt out: "This looks just like Downton Abbey."

Of course, the midtown mansion is not home to the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who are at the heart of Downton Abbey, the British Edwardian melodrama that returns to North American TV screens for season four on Sunday.

Downton Abbey fans would have no trouble imagining characters from the British TV period piece relaxing in the west drawing room of Spadina Museum in Toronto. (Submitted by Spadina Museum/City of Toronto)

But it wouldn't be hard to imagine the show's Lady Mary, still pale and now mourning the loss of her husband Matthew in a shocking car crash at the end of season three, reclining in Spadina's luxuriously appointed west drawing room. Or her kindly maid Anna rushing through the halls of the restored 1920s-era three-storey home.

"We're lavish in the same way [as Downton Abbey] and we're visually rich in the same way, and I think that's the … thing that people really respond to," says Ann McDougall, a historic interpreter at the house, now called the Spadina Museum.

"They want to step into another world and both Spadina and Downton Abbey offer that to people."

A lot of people have stepped into Downton's world: the show has gone global in a way none of its actors or creator Julian Fellowes ever imagined possible.

The Emmy-award winning period piece has also held its own in a TV world where drama of a much more fast-paced and shocking kind — particularly from American creators — also garners devoted fans and critical acclaim.

Key to Downton's ability to hold its own may lie in the fact that it offers a kinder, gentler atmosphere compared to what's on display in such shows as Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones, the wildly successful HBO fantasy series that included a "Red Wedding" episode featuring a family massacre. (Numerous characters were slaughtered — not at all like what happened when Lady Mary married Matthew, or even when her less-lucky-in-love sister Lady Edith was left, sadly, at the altar.)

'Simpler time'

"In some respects, [Downton Abbey] seems like a simpler time where life was easier and more beautiful and … it's not so far back in history that you really can't identify with it," says Pamela Foster, a fan and Burlington, Ont., blogger who has written an e-book cookbook, Abbey Cooks Entertain, featuring food of the Downton era.

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), the middle Crawley sister, and Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) are shown in a scene from Season 4 of Downton Abbey. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

"Having said that, some of the issues that the family deals with can be directly related to issues people are having now with keeping their homes and their livelihoods together, so it's an interesting mix."

Jason Anderson, a freelance writer and arts critic for The Grid in Toronto, says Downton Abbey could even be seen "as a bit of an antidote" to a lot of shows attracting attention during what's been called the new golden age of television. There is an audience, he says, for entertainment that isn't "quite so sensationalistic, that isn't so vicious."

It’s a common mistake, he suggests, to think that being "adult" or "edgy" is the greatest virtue when it comes to entertainment. There's a whole other "counter-tradition," represented by shows such as Downton Abbey, where "it's all about what's not spoken," where the action is coded and full of subtlety, that can have great appeal.

Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol), left, has always been there to guide Daisy (Sophie McShera) in the kitchen at Downton Abbey. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

"All that stuff … can be very, very interesting and very satisfying to an audience," says Anderson.

In Downton's case, there is great satisfaction above and below stairs, with fans equally enamoured by the day-to-day comings and goings of everyone from the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith, playing her role to great acclaim) to Mrs. Patmore, the cook, and her young assistant, Daisy.

"Everybody loves the Dowager Countess and she has some wonderful lines in the series where she talks about how suddenly it's like living in an H.G. Wells novel because everybody has a telephone or things like that," says McDougall, recounting what Spadina house guests say during their visit to the museum.

But as much as people respond to the Dowager Countess's zingers, Spadina guests seem to be equally interested in the life of the servants. Last year, the museum opened its third-floor servants quarters to the public for the first time.

Cultural difference

But unlike Downton Abbey, at Spadina, the maids and other staff had slightly more comfortable circumstances.

"Our servants here at Spadina had larger quarters as well, and one of the things we love to talk about on our tours is why that is, because it's actually a cultural difference between Canada and the U.K.," says McDougall.

"It has to do with the fact that people were coming to Canada, usually looking for a better life, and so it was really hard to get servants here so you had to treat your servants quite well."

Gary Carr plays Jack Ross, a jazz singer and Downton Abbey's first black character, in Season 4 of the series. (PBS/Masterpiece, Nick Briggs/Associated Press)

Spadina's Downton tours, which will run from March 10 to April 13 this year along with a display of costumes from the show, follow a slightly different route from regular tours of the 55-room mansion.

"We talk really specifically about major plot points on the show and then how those would translate to the real world, both on a manor like Downton and here in Canada," says McDougall.

One of those plot points revolves around Mrs. Patmore, who needed eye surgery in season one.

"That happened here at Spadina. The cook in this family actually got ill and one of the things we talk about a lot is there's no social safety net in Canada at that time, so if you got ill, if things went badly for you, your employer could just toss you out on the street," says McDougall.

"The family here at Spadina did exactly what happens on Downton Abbey. They took care of [the cook] … and in the meantime replaced her while paying her wages, so that kind of interpersonal relationship, that drama, that all happened in real life."

Historical niggling

Of course, Downton's appeal is not universal — it has been criticized, particularly in Britain, for plots that don't, in the end, offer much in the way of drama. There has been niggling over historical accuracy and much debate about the show's portrayal of class.

One particular and considerably darker plot development in season four, which has already been broadcast in the U.K., sparked considerable criticism and a defence from Fellowes.

Spadina Museum historic interpreter Ann McDougall: Downton Abbey is 'not just fun to watch, it opens you up to how rich and magical history can really be.' (Submitted by Spadina Museum/City of Toronto)

But melodrama is just that, and for those who follow Downton Abbey the melodramatic elements are a significant allure. In one of the show's soapier plot lines, long before Mary married Matthew, she had to figure out how to deal with the dead body of a handsome Turkish diplomat who succumbed to a heart attack while in bed with her, a story Fellowes has said is based on a real incident.

"What I love as a historian is that often real life is just as soapy," says McDougall.

The key to the show's popularity, she suggests, is how it "helps people to see how we got to where we are now."

"It's the beginning of the modern era and I think people really respond to seeing … the origin of the culture and technology that we enjoy now. It gives us a sense of place and a sense of, not exactly heritage, but a sense of belonging with the past."


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