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What makes this show one of the most critically acclaimed English-language television series ever watched? It became so popular right from the beginning that by the third series it had become one of the most widely watched television drama shows in the world. Five series and four years later (the fifth series being aired in the autumn of 2014 in the UK and Ireland) it has acclaimed numerous awards including a Golden Globe Award for Best Miniseries.
So, back to my original question….really, what makes ‘this’ show so different, so popular and so captivating? Is it the story itself of an aristocratic family and their servants? Is it their lifestyles and era of the early 20th century? Can it be the fascination of a large English country house set in historical times? Or is it the characters that the people fall in love with? Whatever the reason it certainly has drawn a lot of viewers who can hardly wait for the next season to arrive.... in our case this Sunday - January 4th. It can't come fast enough.
I love the era that Downton Abbey portrays. It’s a fascinating time of new inventions and change although coupled with war; it was certainly a time of growth and new understanding. People endured hard times and became stronger because of it; old times and traditions were being held onto by the elderly whilst the younger generation embraced change. The upstairs, downstairs era and holding onto rightful male heirs was threading its traditional ways into the early 1900’s too, a practice that always seemed to bring heartache or a loveless marriage into the picture. These customary ways seem to fascinate the modern day individual especially when there’s a story of ‘true love’ steering its way in where it’s actually rare in the aristocratic world, isn’t that the most charming story of all times? Just take a look at all the Jane Austen novels – she was a real charmer when it came to those stories, marry for money or marry for love. Or can both be found? Fortunately, Lady Mary married for love and he happened to be the rightful heir, even if he did die, the romance was still there at the beginning.
Julian Fellows is not only a gifted writer with a wonderful imagination but is very particular to detail and that’s what I love about Downton Abbey. The way they presented themselves, the servants’ roles and protocol is so exact, right down to the way they dressed. It fascinates me. My grandmother grew up in London with servants and we could always tell that she was raised wealthy by her certain code of behavior. Take teatime for instance, the table was set so precise, even the way the spoon was sitting in the jam jar, it’s just the way she was, it was ingrained in her. She was a nurse during WWII and served in London during the blitz, she also served in Germany, Egypt and Italy. She lost both her brothers and sister during WWII and also the family inheritance. Times were tough for her but life went on and she became a strong woman because of life’s trials. So, when I watch these Downton Abbey shows I can’t help but think of my grandmother and the life she lived – she experienced both the upstairs and downstairs lifestyle.
I’m impressed with historical events that take place in Downton Abbey, with history having an effect on their lives with such events like the sinking of the RMS Titanic, the outbreak of the First World War, the Spanish influenza pandemic and so forth. Julian Fellows made sure that each series was true to historic times including the interwar period, the formation of the Irish Free State, the Teapot Dome scandal and the UK’s general election of 1923. It makes me feel like I’m living in the world of my ancestors, I find that alone quite exciting to watch.
Highclere Castle, the setting for the series plays an important role to the Downton Abbey story, although the TV-drama is about an estate in the Yorkshire countryside, it’s actually based on the historic accounts of this majestic castle that sits in rambling grounds in Berkshire. The aristocratic lifestyle of Highclere Castle interlaces an authentic historical perspective into the Downton Abbey saga with details and events that actually took place. George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon married Almina Wombwell in 1895 and she became the heart of Highclere Castle, putting a lot of time, money (from her wealthy father) and energy into the place and its people. Lady Almina was the one who opened up Highclere Castle to wounded soldiers in June 1914 after a top military official had lunch with her and George, this is what she said to him: "I wish to turn the castle into a hospital during the event of war and I wish to be acknowledged that I can come under the southern command, the military command, and, therefore, patients from the front will be sent to me."
In some ways, her role reminds me more of Isobel Crawley than Lady Cora, as Lady Almina went about employing 30 nurses during the war and made sure the soldiers were taken good care of at the castle. After that, her life was completely devoted to nursing, healing and hospitals.
As for the downstairs life at Highclere Castle, there were actually around 60 members of staff in and around the castle, including 14 footmen, hall boys and steward room boys, all the staff and the chefs. About 250 families lived around the place working in forestry, the gardens, carpentry, the house steward, butler, valet and so forth. It was a very well-run house with mutual respect both upstairs and downstairs, with lively dancing, parties and late suppers on both levels of the house.
So, if you’re on this side of the pond and are eagerly waiting for series five to start, remember this is a life that real people lived in times of war, change and relationships that are just as real as ours. And as for Lady Almina, who left a legacy of helping families with an attitude of kindness and contributing to peoples lives – a Good Samaritan lifestyle – it’s because of her and her family that we have the Downton Abbey series today. A much loved story in a magical era.
Here are a few photos from previous series – to help remind you what you’ve been eagerly waiting for. Like you need to be reminded!
Doesn't it look exciting already, I wonder what's in store for us in season five.....January 4th will enchant us all!