"Downton Abbey": The U.K.'s biggest import since the Beatles

The British Embassy's recent junket in D.C. proves "Downton" has achieved Fab Four levels of (muted) hysteria

By Roger Catlin
December 27, 2012 1:41AM (UTC)
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Amid a whirlwind media blitz that had the “Downton Abbey” cast doing a panel discussion in L.A., at Knicks games in New York and spoofing “Breaking Bad” on "Colbert," here at last, in Washington, was a setting befitting the regal cast. The posh British Ambassador’s residence on the embassy grounds in D.C. hosted a PBS-sponsored reception on this month that drew fans, station officials and what serves as celebrity in this town: Bob Schieffer, Gwen Ifill, Andrea Mitchell and Alan Greenspan, among them.

And there, beneath the chandeliers and portraits of royalty past, the seventh Earl of Grantham, in tweed, seemed right at home.


“It’s a beautiful residence,” said the actor Hugh Bonneville, in his familiar dulcet tone before the reception was in full swing. “And it feels, well, it feels like Downton really.”

“It’s just like home,” Elizabeth McGovern, the show’s Lady Grantham, added, playing along.

Using the British Embassy to showcase cultural exports is something that goes back decades and includes reception for the Beatles in 1964 just after their first U.S. show at the Washington Coliseum, when an overly anxious souvenir hunter clipped a hunk of Ringo’s hair. “We didn't stay there long,” the drummer remembered later, saying “These diplomats just don't know how to behave."


Things were more genteel nearly a half-century later, with the most fervent fans brandishing cell phone cameras instead of scissors.

Nobody could remember when it had been used to celebrate a British television show, there had been an event earlier this fall at the embassy to mark the opening of the most recent James Bond movie, “Skyfall,” although Daniel Craig was not present.

“It’s actually a very flexible place,” said Embassy press secretary and head of communications James Barbour. “You can do a lot with it. And it’s not always TV. We’ve done fashion shows here. We’ve done art exhibitions. We’ve done technical accounting seminars. You can do anything in this place.”


The idea to use it for a reception for “Downton” came during a PBS meeting that was held on the grounds earlier this year. It seemed then like a likely pairing. “I feel a lot like the Lord of Grantham,” the British Ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott said in brief remarks to the reception crowd. “I live in a big house, I have a wonderful staff to run it and I’m married to a wonderful American woman.”

Westcott praised the series, which returns on Jan. 6, for fostering understanding of British culture and history to its millions of viewers. For decades much of the best programming on PBS had been imported from the U.K. And Sharon Rockefeller, the president and CEO of Washington’s PBS’s member station WETA, claims D.C. has the highest percentage of anglophiles in the U.S. Certainly it has enough to warrant the station starting its own offshoot channel that only plays British comedies and drama 24 hours a day – WETA U.K. Rockefeller, who is also wife of the U.S. senator from West Virginia, also referred to the British ambassador’s home as “the house of all houses in Washington, D.C.” the White House notwithstanding.


The embassy, the only American work by British architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, is of a different era than England’s celebrated Highclere Castle, where “Downton” is filmed, but was built in an era that the series is just now reaching, the 1920s. The opulence of the Queen Anne–style mansion and its choice holdings of art were further enhanced by the annual Christmas decorations.

“We imagine every house in Washington is like this,” said Sophie McShera, in much the same wide-eyed manner she uses to portray the Daisy Mason, the assistant cook in the mansion.

McShera and Joanne Froggatt, who portrays Anna Bates, were saddled with plenty appointments for interviews and presentations, but were adamant about taking an early morning trip the next day to see the Holocaust Museum, the monuments and Arlington Cemetery.


“We’re taking it all in,” McShera said of the visit. “But we’re dying to get out and see it.”

Rebecca Eaton, the executive producer of “Masterpiece” that has been presenting “Downton Abbey,” said she had been to the embassy a half-dozen times before, including the time she won an Order of the British Empire for her work in presenting British drama through the years. “It is the best platform for British drama in the world,” Eaton said of PBS. “It has the largest audience.”

And “Downton” has reached a new pinnacle for “Masterpiece,” with its season two finale last February giving PBS its highest ratings in three years, with 5.4 million viewers — double its usual audience.


“There’s something about this mixture of drama, comedy and romance, and these characters that audiences just connect to, like they are an extension of their own families,” said executive producer Gareth Neame in explaining the show’s success outside of Britain. “ There’s something very unique about it.”

Its latest Golden Globe nominations on Dec. 13 – in the best drama category instead of miniseries, “puts us in to the highly, highly competitive territory where no British show has ever been,” Neame said. “We are head to head with the greatest American TV shows, we’re very proud that we’ve achieved that.”

Bonneville agreed. “It’s lovely to joining the others at the top table, alongside shows like ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Homeland,’ and so on.”

How has a drama about the strict class system so caught on in a country that thinks itself free of such distinctions?


“It’s astonishing,” Bonneville said. “I thought that this might work in a certain section of British audiences, because it is so about the nuances of place and structure and social structure and mores of a certain time. But it’s now a hit in 100 countries, and I’ve yet to hear of it flopping. Even the Chinese have had it on their main channel and adored it.”

In the U.S., “I thought it would appeal to an anglophile audience, a standard PBS audience, a very literate audience, an older audience,” Neame said. “But even in the U.K., it’s exceeded expectations. It’s got a 40 percent share which shows don’t get.”

Still, Bonneville said, “I would say the default position of the British psyche is to be suspicious of success.”

But initial backlash to subsequent seasons there have made way for more big rating numbers. And the crush of popularity in the U.S. on the tour and at the embassy, where guests snapped madly away at the stars, was palpable.


“It’s reaching a pitch of interest here,” Bonneville said. “American fans are much more comfortable expressing their enthusiasm for the show, which is a real burst of energy for the cast when they come. It really makes everybody feel great.”

And unlike that Beatles visit nearly half a century ago, nobody had to worry about hair being clipped. The formidable eyebrows of Jim Carter, who portrays the butler Carson, were safe.

Roger Catlin

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