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DEAR 'ABBEY'

It’s rare for English mansions like the one in the hit show to survive over the years. By Anthony Paletta.

One-quarter of English estates changed hands between 1918 and 1921. On the face of such change, Downton Abbey’s having endured this long with the same family was an accomplishment in itself. Such are the sad and fascinating facts on offer in John Martin Robinson’s Felling the Ancient Oaks: How England Lost its Great Country Estates, a lavish and handsome account of 21 estates lost to the ravages of time, and denied the chance even for a second life in BBC exterior shots. Mary Grantham predicted, of nearby estates, “they will fall, lots of them.” How correct she was.

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Reproduced by permission of English Heritage / National Monuments Record

The afflictions of the English estate did not begin with World War I. The Great War was, in many regards, a final shove delivered to an already-tottering institution, which was still a high society talisman and attractive to the nouveau riche like Robert Carlisle, but infrequently self-sustaining. The traditional agricultural foundations of these great estates, which drew their income from rents, had been under steady assault from cheaper, foreign, and especially American imports for decades. Thus all the greater irony that Downton required another American import, Cora Grantham, in order to keep the estate running. (Another New York heiress sustained one of the estates mentioned in the book, Cassiobury, in precisely the same fashion.) George Eliot’s Felix Holt, the Radical, set in 1832, already signals the difficulties ahead:

Meanwhile the fortune that was getting larger in the imagination of constituents was shrinking a little in the imagination of its owner. It was hardly more than a hundred and fifty thousand; and there were not only the heavy mortgages to be paid off, but also a large amount of capital was needed in order to repair the farm-buildings all over the estate, to carry out extensive draining, and make allowances to incoming tenants, which might remove the difficulty of newly letting the farms in a time of agricultural depression. The farms actually tenanted were held by men who had begged hard to succeed their fathers in getting a little poorer every year, on land which was also getting poorer, where the highest rate of increase was in the arrears of rent.

I’m Still Here

Shirley MacLaine’s Latest Act

At 78, MacLaine costars in the new movie 'Bernie' and will have an upcoming turn on 'Downton Abbey.' Lorenza Muñoz talked to her about her work ethic and why America is a disaster.

Shirley MacLaine had a few facts to go on when she accepted the part of Marjorie Nugent in Richard Linklater’s latest film, Bernie: It is based on a true story. Nugent was mean and nasty. She was a widow hated by most of the town of Carthage, Texas. She was rich and stingy.  She was murdered by her friend, the town mortician named Bernie Tiede.

Everything else was up to MacLaine to figure out. At first she said she hoped Linklater would give her more clues. But he was “ambiguous.”

“The first meeting was strange because he didn’t answer any of my questions,” said the 78-year-old Oscar winning actress. “I said, ‘Do you want me to look like her? What is the wardrobe like? Do I speak in that accent?’ I had to find my own way about everything. All of us were operating on our own.”

Shirley MacLaine

Shirley MacLaine and Jack Black in a scene from Bernie. (Deana Newcomb / Millennium Entertainment)

The massive success of 'Downton Abbey' has brought PBS an increase in donations, funding for 'Masterpiece,' a boost in ratings for other programs, and an unlikely place in the zeitgeist.

Patton Oswalt obsessively live tweets it from his weekly viewing parties. Katy Perry is using it to distract herself from her marital woes. Roger Ebert has stepped outside the movie realm to praise it in his blog. Saturday Night Live spoofed it. Mob Wives star Big Ang Raiola recited favorite quips for Us Weekly. The Onion equated watching one episode with reading a book. And Wednesday night The Soup will celebrate it with a special parody starring RuPaul and drag queens Raven and Shangela.

Could all of this fuss really be about a PBS show? Quite right. Masterpiece's Emmy- and Golden Globe–winning hit, Downton Abbey, created by Julian Fellowes, a TV ratings success and cultural phenomenon, has catapulted the public-television broadcaster with the stodgy reputation to the cool kids' table.

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PBS

“We don’t know how to handle that over here,” said Mel Rogers, CEO and president of PBS SoCal, the PBS member station that serves greater Los Angeles. "We got accidentally popular.”

Lost Legacy

The Real Downton Abbey

Séances, Rothschild love children, the Curse of Tutankhamen. Tom Sykes on the shocking real-life history of Highclere Castle, the setting for the smash-hit British TV drama.

Highclere House is one of the great British stately homes, familiar to the wider Anglophile world as the location for the British TV drama Downton Abbey.

Now its current chatelaine, Lady Fiona, the Countess of Carnarvon, has penned an account of Almina Carnarvon, the enormously wealthy heiress and illegitimate daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, who, in 1895, married the fifth Earl of Carnarvon, the explorer who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen.

Despite the fact that Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle contains no references to Downton Abbey beyond its sales-friendly title, it is a fascinating insight into how the seriously rich once lived.

Highclere Castle

Lady Carnarvon on the grounds of Highclere Castle (Matthew Lloyd / Getty Images)

Newlywed TV

Downton Abbey’s Royal Fans

The second season of the smash U.K. hit show doesn’t premiere stateside until Jan. 8, but it’s already on in Britain—and Prince William and Kate Middleton are addicted.

Among the millions of British viewers who settled down to watch the sixth episode of the BBC costume drama Downton Abbey’s second series on Sunday night were the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who have told one of the show’s stars they are “huge fans” of the program.

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Inset: AP Photo

The news of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s taste in television comes from Jessica Brown Findlay, the 22-year-old brunette who plays the kind-hearted aristocrat turned war nurse Lady Sybil in the U.K. hit, the best thing for the English nobility’s image overseas since Brideshead Revisited. When the actress met the royal couple at a Los Angeles event organized by the British film and TV awards body, BAFTA, they confided that they are addicted to writer Julian Fellowes’s portrayal of life upstairs and downstairs at a fictional British “Big House” in the early 1900s, Findlay told the British edition of OK! magazine.

“I was flattered and privileged to be presented to the two of them at the BAFTA event in Los Angeles,” Findlay said. “They picked me out and spoke very highly of Downton Abbey, and it was lovely to hear. They told me they were huge fans of the show … It felt surreal as an actress playing English aristocracy to meet them in L.A.”

TV Royalty

Brits' Surprising Emmy Hit

‘Downton Abbey’ creator Julian Fellowes and the cast of the critically acclaimed period drama talk to Jace Lacob about their Emmy nominations, the show’s insane popularity, and what’s coming up on season two.

Few could have anticipated the fever that critically acclaimed British costume drama Downton Abbey brought when it first premiered last year in the U.K. or when it arrived on U.S. shores in January. Since its launch on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, which brought in 13 million viewers, even more have discovered it on DVD and online.

Now season two is almost here, and the cast and crew are eager to find out how many of its numerous Emmy nominations will lead to wins in September. Downton Abbey’s second season will air in the U.K. beginning Sept. 18 and then stateside on Jan. 8, 2012. (Unlike the first season, which had roughly 20 minutes eliminated from the full run, season two will air in the U.S. in its entirety, without any edits.) Meanwhile, the period drama is up for a whopping 11 Emmys, including outstanding miniseries or TV movie, a category that is typically owned by pay-cable network HBO.

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“Nothing is more pleasurable then when you start to reach other countries,” said creator Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park). “You take a show which is, after all, in some ways quintessentially English, and yet you find an audience beyond England. I don’t want to be too jejune. Of course, I love being nominated for things, and it’s great when you win them, but the main thing is just it demonstrates that your show has traveled, and that’s marvelous.”

Across the Pond

Downton Abbey Comes to Masterpiece

In the U.K.'s smash hit Downton Abbey, coming to PBS Sunday, the period drama is reinvented for a new generation. Jace Lacob talks to creator Julian Fellowes and the cast.

The venerable British costume drama—embodied in such classics as Upstairs, Downstairs, Brideshead Revisited, and Pride and Prejudice—gets an intelligent, cheeky reinvention with the addictive Downton Abbey, the brainchild of Julian Fellowes, who won a best original screenplay Oscar for 2001’s similarly themed Gosford Park. Downton Abbey, airing over the next four weeks in 90-minute episodes, launches this Sunday evening as part of PBS’ Masterpiece Classic’s landmark 40th season.

Like classic 1970’s mainstay Upstairs, Downstairs—which ran from 1971-1975, and returns to American television in April, also on Masterpiece—Downton Abbey offers a lavish take on the period drama, depicting the lives of the wealthy Crawley family and their servants at an English stately home just prior to World War I. When the sinking of the Titanic takes the lives of the next two heirs to a vast estate, the Crawley family is left with a dilemma as the next in line to inherit is a distant cousin, a middle-class solicitor whom none of them know.

The result is akin to porn for costume drama fans, intoxicating and alluring as it shines a light on the final days of the rigid British class structure of the early 20th century.

When it aired this past fall in the U.K., Downton Abbey was an instant ratings phenomenon, regularly topping more than 11 million viewers in each installment, making it the second-highest rated period drama since 1981’s Brideshead Revisited, and reigniting the population’s love for a genre that had more or less fallen by the wayside in recent years. The Daily Telegraph's Ceri Radford hailed it as “sumptuous [and] instantly riveting,” while Simon Heffer described it as “what television should be.”

One on One

The Stars Dish

Shirley MacLaine Rattles ‘Downton Abbey’

Shirley MacLaine Rattles ‘Downton Abbey’

Shirley MacLaine, slumming across the pond in ‘Downton Abbey’, talks with Sandra McElwaine.

Period Drama

Elizabeth McGovern Cuts Loose

Character Study

My Tea With Mrs. Patmore

Michelle Dockery Talks Fashion

In episode 6 of "The Look" Laura Brown sits down with 'Downton Abbey's' Michelle Dockery to talk all things fashion.

Presented at Court

Not Just For Foreigners

Downton Abbey’s Royal Fans

Downton Abbey’s Royal Fans

The second season of the U.K. hit is on in Britain—and Prince William and Kate Middleton are addicted.

Posh

Juiciest Bits

The Real Downton Abbey

The Real Downton Abbey

Séances, a Rothschild secret, the Curse of Tutankhamun. Inside the real setting for the British TV drama.

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Splitting Heirs

6 Best ‘Downton Abbey’ Spoofs

6 Best ‘Downton Abbey’ Spoofs

Jace Lacob looks at the six best spoofs of PBS’s ‘Downton Abbey,’ nominated this year for 16 Emmy Awards.

Not a Fan?

What Else is On?

18 Shows to Watch This Winter

18 Shows to Watch This Winter

Jace Lacob offers a look at 18 new and returning TV shows, from ‘Game of Thrones’ to ‘Carrie Diaries.’