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Downton Abbey to get a Musical Guest, and my Brush with Wagner

March 3, 2013

I got to see half of Parsifal yesterday.


It was Wagner’s last opera. I guess it wasn’t the Ring Cycle that killed him. Apparently it is said to be the most spiritual of Wagner’s operas. It was a different take on the Holy Grail legend than the Monty Python movie. And these guys actually had the Grail, although they had foolishly lost the Holy Spear. I’m not sure if they still had the holy knife and fork from the last supper, but I hear that they still had the holey sieve (groan).


I had enough time for three hours of viewing, but it took six hours, complete with intermissions. The First act alone took close to two hours. So I had to leave early in the second act. Still, half of a spiritual Wagnerian loaf is better than none, and especially when it comes to a performance of that quality. It was a great production, staged at the Met in New York. But I was in Toronto and I was watching a Live at the Met performance. I hear that things really pick up in Act 2. I had to leave just after we saw the evil wizard scooping up a river of blood and pouring it over his head. You get the idea. And speaking of all the blood, I missed the part of Parsifal (Percival in English) surrounded by the pretty, but probably evil girls. You can tell the girls are evil because they have diaphanous clothing, really long hair and they are standing in blood. Plus they have really evil looks on their faces. I wonder if they had vampire fangs as well. At least the folks at the Met will have something to wear at Halloween.


The theatre had a huge screen and while there is nothing like being there, I really liked the live at the met experience. For someone like me, who doesn’t like to rattle his jewelry, the more down to earth Live at the Met experience is pretty good, and the viewing is a lot better than what you can see from the nose-bleed seats I can normally afford if I go to live opera. Am a fan of Live at the Met? Yes I am. I’ve never seen a Met performance before, but after seeing Parsifal yesterday I am hooked. I’ve seen opera in Helsinki, Vienna, Budapest and Toronto, but Parsifal was probably the most lavish performance I’ve yet seen. The Met is doing a great job with Wagner this year, with the Ring Cycle still to come. Unfortunately the Ring Cycle won’t be shown in HD (i.e., we won’t be able to see it on Live at the Met in Toronto). But don’t despair if you can’t go to the Met to see opera in person. There are still two more HD performances this season and they both look pretty interesting. One is Handel’s take on Julius Caesar, and the other is Francesca, which is a love triangle where the two lovers get killed. Sorry I spoiled the ending for you, but hey, it’s opera and people have to die. The full schedule is shown below.


But let’s get back to Downton Abbey. It seems that Dame Kiri Ti Kanawa, New Zealand’s greatest opera singer, who retired from opera in 2009, is looking for another gig. And maybe the folks at Downton Abbey were looking for a new twist to keep the show fresh. So voila, Dame Kiri shows up as a musical guest and performs a song on the show. I wonder if Dame Kiri will be singing something from a musical or broadway show (maybe comforting the kids in thunderstorm with “My Favorite Things”?).


And it is not just Dame Kiri freshening up the show ( ). “Other new actors joining the cast include veteran actress Harriet Walter, who recently played Brutus in an all-female production of Julius Caesar, and former EastEnders star and theatre actor Nigel Harmon.”

An all-female production of Julius Caesar? Women at a toga party? I doubt that George Frideric could Handel that (another groan). I hope that this doesn’t mean that Downton Abbey will be turning into a frat house next season. And if they do they definitely shouldn’t invite those evil girls from Parsifal to the parties or they might lose their holy spears.
High class opera, and high class soap opera. Will Dame Kiri be just the start of a new wave of aging opera stars adding soap opera appearances to their resumés?



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Downton Abbey and Pride and Prejudice? Yes There is a Connection

February 10, 2013

It wouldn’t surprise me if there is a pretty good overlap amongst fans of Jane Austen’s  Pride and Prejudice and fans of Downton Abbey.

So what’s a Downton Abbey fan to do when one of here favorite characters (Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens)


is killed off? Yes he does do a good job of looking dead. Perhaps he’d make a good zombie as well.


Well it would be a shame to waste all that heart-throbbiness, so what’s an actor and the costume drama industry to do?

Well, there is always the Jane Austen franchise to consider.

Here’s Colin Firth setting hearts a flutter playing the role of Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice in 1995.


Perhaps Pride and Prejudice has been done to death in recent times? But wait, it turns out that other talented authors have sought to carry on where Jane Austen left off. P.D James (below) wrote a sequel to Pride and Prejudice in 2011 (, entitled “Death Comes to Pemberley”.


Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times review of the book.

“The story is set in 1803, six years after “Pride and Prejudice” was finished (though it wasn’t published until 1813) and presumably when the marriage of Elizabeth and Darcy took place. They have two young sons now, and the arrival of a third child is shortly to be announced. But their tranquillity is interrupted one wet and windy evening when an unexpected carriage comes rocketing up the drive.

Inside is Elizabeth’s airhead sister Lydia, the one who eloped with the charming but unreliable George Wickham, screaming that her husband is dead. Actually he isn’t, though many, including Darcy, for whom Wickham is a constant source of embarrassment and irritation, might wish he were. A search party discovers Wickham in the woods, drunk and bloodstained, beside the body of his best friend, Captain Denny, and he babbles what sounds like a confession. But is Wickham, although a deadbeat and a serial seducer of young women, really a murderer? Even Darcy can’t quite believe that of him.”

And here’s the potentially juicy news. Poor dead Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) from Downton Abbey may be reappearing as Darcy in the P.D. James riff on Jane Austen (
and there may even be parallels with Downton Abbey itself:

“Pemberley, which the novel suggests is like any great estate in having a continuing life, regardless of who happens to hold the title, turns out to be a burden more than the blessing it first appears to Elizabeth (and even more so to her grasping mother). With a great fortune, it turns out, comes great responsibility.”

So fear not, life taketh away, but life also giveth. Sure, go ahead and keep watching the Dan Stevens-free Downton Abbey with a clear conscience, for Mr. Stevens will no doubt soon be popping up in another juicy role and maybe even in another English estate.
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Downton Abbey: Forget the Love Interest, it’s all about the Estate

January 31, 2013

You know that Downton Abbey has got the Americans by the Throat when Time Magazine starts doing a lengthy deconstruction of a single episode (

Downton Abbey Series 3

And can you blame them, this show has some of the cream of British Acting. The picture above shows Elizabeth McGovern as Countess of Grantham, Cora, Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith, Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet. And who better to deliver the Dowager’s zingers than Maggie Smith. Here’s a deconstruction of the Time deconstruction of Season 3, Episode 2.

Dowager Zinger of the Week: “No bride wants to look tired at her wedding. It either means she’s anxious or she’s been up to no good.”
And there it is. The Big wedding. After two seasons we are having to let go of the unresolved sexual tension (UST). So will viewers turn the show off now that will they or won’t they is no longer an issue? Probably not. The real star of the show is the Abbey after all. And with all those lives co-existing within it, you can bet there will be enough threads to keep the viewers interested, especially when the lines are being delivered by fine actors in their best British. Plus, for whatever reason many Americans tend to go weak at the knees for a good British accent, and we shouldn’t discount the plummy accent factor in accounting for some of the show’s popularity across the pond.
With more rooms in the Abbey than you can shake a feather duster at, there are always plenty of plot twists and tensions waiting to keep viewers in the recesses of their couches. Here are some of them cited in the Time article:

• Tom and Sybil are back in town for the wedding. Men! In tuxes! Playing pool! Sorry—I mean, billiards! (Sybil, however, doesn’t get a single chance to look dashing: she of the fab harem pants has gone to frump town, which we’ll choose to blame on Irish maternity-wear styles of 1920, which are beyond her control.)
• The well-meaning Isobel Crawley, who gets nothing but a hard time from the ladies of the night—clearly identified by being the only people in England with frizzy hair—whom she has decided to help, has another run-in with Ethel the ex-maid.
• Anna visits Mrs. Bartlett to get her story about the first Mrs. Bates. In her very poetic recounting of the last moments of Vera’s life, Mrs. Bartlett tells of a fearful Vera walking away into the mist, on a night lit by gaslights, after nervously scrubbing pastry from underneath her fingernails, even though Anna thinks the information is worthless.
• Bates, who’s getting pretty scary, is warned that his cellmate has planted contraband in his bed. Hard to tell exactly what it is—a little packet of drugs of some sort, something about which a 1920s-era drugs expert might enlighten us in the comments section?—but Bates finds it in time and stashes it away.

It’s so easy to poke fun at the culture behind the show even while one is enjoying watching it. I rather like the reviewer’s take on a Downton Abbey picnic:

a picnic = white linens, centerpieces, champagne flutes and a footman serving the meal. But it’s outside! It’s a picnic!
I wonder how many of the viewers secretly wish they could enjoy the British upper crust lifestyle in the early 20th Century. But maybe as long as it includes the Internet and Facebook.

And just to finish off, let’s look at what some of the Brits are saying about Downton Abbey ( It’s big news in old Blightey too!

Nearly 8 million Americans tuned in to watch the beginning of the third series on PBS, double the number of viewers at the beginning of season 2.
Here are a couple of the downstairs servants hard at work (Daisy and Annie). Apparently all the makeup is only for upstairs, along with the French Maid outfits.

And here is Maggie Smith showing the young un’s how it is done.
One last little tidbit is the endless speculation about whether or not Downton Abbey will make it to the big screen as a movie. If you want to see a video clip of the show’s writer discussing that possibility, see:
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Is Downton Abbey Going Down or is David Mitchell Ranting in Vain?

January 23, 2013

I was talking to a Downtown Abbey fan today and she was telling me that she loves the show, but that she also loves David Mitchell’s rants. Which is interesting, because David Mitchell has recently been ranting against the show (


The first series was better, than the second, the writing has gone to pot, and the whole World War One thing is reminiscent of Narnia. You get the idea.


For those of you who don’t have the time to check out the David Mitchell rant on YouTube, here are some excerpts (

He criticised plots such as the heir to Downtown losing the use of his legs then suddenly being cured, and a bandaged impostor claiming to be the heir to the Earl’s fortune, vanishing, and never being mentioned again.

Of the second series, which saw audiences of up to 10 million, he said: “Lord Grantham nipping over to the Somme in an Apache helicopter wouldn’t have noticeably increased the daftness.”

And he concluded: “You can’t help but realise it’s just actors saying lies in hats.”

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A Historian’s Take on Downton Abbey

January 13, 2013

I admit it. I’ve never watched Downtown Abbey. But I was fed a steady diet of British period dramas as a kid, and I watched seemingly endless episodes of Upstairs, Downstairs. And don’t get me started on Coronation Street, I’ll save that particular rant for another day. So I think I have paid my dues, and although I may not know the exact story lines I think I have a pretty good idea of the gist of it. But why listen to me when we’ve got a honest to goodness professional Historian ready to deconstruct Downton Abbey for us?

Historian Margaret MacMillan is the warden of St. Antony’s College at the University of Oxford and a professor of history at the University of Toronto. I got this information from an article by Jenny Hall that I downloaded from on January 13, 2012. And I hope that the citation will keep the historians happy.

Downton2 01 09 13

That’s the wonderful thing about being an academic, who else could be a warden at Oxford University in the UK, a professor at a Canadian University, and offer an academic perspective on a tv show? And Professor MacMillan is a serious academic, with publications such as Paris 1919, and Six Months that Changed the World, under her belt. The world could still do with a bit more changing I expect.

The weekly PBS show Downton Abbey (Sundays at 9) is actually a British show and presumably it is not for export only. The show depicts “the lives of British aristocrats and their servants in the early 20th century” and it has just started its third season. I believe that the Brits watch it too, with their servants. Just kidding, they are no longer called servants.

Do you watch the show? It turns out that Professor Macmillan does, although probably not in her academic capacity. She says that she “quite” enjoys the show. I didn’t do the research, but I’m starting to think she is British…. My parents used to “quite enjoy” things too. She says that bits of it are good although there has been a tendency to add “melodrama” to keep people interested, which is not something that historians would generally approve of. But what DOES she think of the show as a historian? Well, she’s pleased that it is getting people to think more about the past. (Historians like that). But like a good academic she goes on to point out that to understand the past properly you have to consult more than one source. “A television series, no matter how well done, is not going to give you as full a picture of the past as reading memoirs, novels and historical studies.”

But what about the depiction of servants? Surely that mixture of snobbery, deference and ownership can’t have been realistic? According to Professor MacMillan Downton Abbey was a pretty good place for it’s servants. Apparently Abbeys in Edwardian times are a bit like nursing homes today, some were/are better than others. “You get a sense that the servants are all well housed and clothed and fed”. One only has to read Charles Dickens to get an idea of what the alternatives might have been like. “A lot of servants in those days worked extremely hard. They had virtually no holidays; they were up at 5 in the morning.” Not that jobs like that have fully gone away. I hear that bakers still have to get up pretty early. So it seems that Downton Abbey might be a slightly saccharine version of life inside a British “Great House” in Edwardian times.

Of course, one of the anomalies of living with servants from our more modern perspective is that there was very intimate contact (e.g., having someone else help you get dressed) “which most of us would find very uncomfortable today.” Having servants everywhere in one’s private life was probably not a great way to keep things private.

It was interesting to get the historian’s perspective on how the great historical events of the time, World War I, the flu epidemic, etc. were treated in terms of their impact on the lives of the family and the servants. In this case Prof. MacMillan thought it was beneficial. “I think it’s easier for people to understand the great movements in history if they can see them in very personal terms. You can read that 20 million died of the influenza epidemic, that’s almost too big to comprehend. Seeing what it meant to a family is different.”

One of the benefits of seeing the show is how it teaches us what life (and death) were like without many of the benefits of modern medicine. “Babies often died and things that we would recover from easily today, because of antibiotics, often killed people then.”

Why is it that England still has great estates, while they have all been broken up in countries like Germany, Austria, Hungry and Russia? For that we can thank primogeniture, where the eldest sons in England inherited everything. This leads to one of the big themes in Downton Abbey. Lady Mary has no brothers, so even though she’s the oldest, she can’t inherit. Poor old Prince Charles. His mother doesn’t seem interested in enforcing primogeniture, which seems downright Edwardian (Elizabeth is threatening to break Queen Victoria’s record for longest reign).

One of the fascinations in watching shows like Downtown Abbey is that the people you see in the show “are a doomed class.” The world is changing quickly and the agricultural output of the great estates is no longer as valuable as cheap foodstuffs imported from other countries. There was also the blow that World War I to the class system. Perhaps the mystique of the class system and the differentiation between master and servant broke down after you had different classes fighting (and dying) alongside each other.

According to Professor MacMillan, “The war hastened the decline of the landed upper classes because it was expected that their sons would be officers. The death rate for young officers who were on the line was high—there were parts of the line where the life expectancy for a lieutenant was two weeks. In some families, virtually every male of military age got wiped out. There were horrendous losses in the other classes, too. But the aristocracy was a small class. They were losing their power anyway for a number of reasons, and fact that so many of them got killed hastened their decline. ”

The first world war also had a big impact on women’s rights. It “changed things because women started doing things that men traditionally did. You see them in Downton Abbey learning to drive cars. Other women worked the land, worked in factories. I think one of the reasons women got the vote after the war was recognition of the fact that they had been playing an important part in society through the war.”

So the bottom line is that shows like Downton Abbey have an important role to play in teaching young people about history. Otherwise, there is a danger that many young people will take what we have today such as more equality and better medicine, for granted. Let’s finish up with an apt quotation, and who wants another world war anyway?

“Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
George Santayana (according to a dubious source that I found on the Web…)

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Meet the Real Downton Abbey

January 6, 2013

I remember watching Upstairs Downstairs as a kid. No one can do costume dramas, the class system, and snobbery like the British. One has to wonder about a nation that is so naturally theatrical. But perhaps it is best just to sit back and enjoy these brilliant confections and not worry about the underlying psychoses.

Downton Abbey is the most successful British period drama since that old staple Brideshead Revisited which launched Jeremy Irons and his mellifluous voice (who else could have done Scar in the Lion King?) to stardom. I’ll never forget the scene where the aging father is dying and there is a crisis over whether that lifelong atheist should receive the last rites (he does). As always, a psychological issue for the author (Evelyn Waugh) makes a tremendous dramatic moment which is milked for all it is worth by the very old version of Sir Laurence Olivier (he who used to throw up with stage fright before every performance).


Fast forward almost thirty years and all that tweedy Britishness is again setting the hearts of PBS viewers aflutter. What was it with Mitt Romney and Big Bird in the last US presidential election? Perhaps Mitt was really sick of PBS importing the British upper class instead of letting America’s aristocracy rise the top of public discourse.

So forget Big Bird, the real enemy is the new British (Edwardian) imperialism is in the form of Downtown Abbey. And the real Downton Abbey is not in its fictional location of Yorkshire, but in Hampshire, where it is known as Highclere Castle. Did you know that a branch of my mother’s family has a castle in Scotland. But no one has ever given me the keys for a night over, so it hasn’t done me a lot of good. But back to Highclere. It’s pretty impressive as you can see from the picture below.

797px Highclere Castle

“In real life, Highclere’s earls are the Carnarvons not the Granthams, a hereditary British peerage that traces its noble family lineage back to 1628. The Carnarvon family has lived at Highclere since 1679, witnessing everything from the Industrial Revolution to the two World Wars, and overseeing the house’s transformation in the early 1840s when English architect Sir Charles Barry rebuilt it in spectacular Renaissance Revival style. With its soaring towers and decorative turrets, it invites comparisons with Barry’s other great work, the Houses of Parliament in London. ” (

One interesting fact about Highclere castle is that it is home to an Egyptian Exhibition, which was founded by the 5th Earl who, along with his archaeological colleague Howard Carter, discovered the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. The 5th Earl was an enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist, undertaking in 1907 to sponsor the excavation of nobles’ tombs in Deir el-Bahari (Thebes). So it is good to see that more looted ancient artifacts have found a cosy home in the English countryside.

“Highclere has been open to the public since 1988, but, in the last two years visitor numbers have more than quadrupled, thanks to the popularity of Downton Abbey, whose broadcasting rights have been sold to more than 100 countries. With opening times confined mainly to the summer months (check the website for sporadic winter openings), the onslaught of “Downton-mania” has led to busy car-park attendants and plenty of in-house bottlenecks. But, factor in the castle’s extensive grounds, its highly civilised English tearooms and some fascinating Egyptian artefacts courtesy of the 5th Earl that are bivouacked in the cellars, and Highclere is well worth the two hour drive from London.” (

Forget Tutankhamen and the Jacobethean architecture, I am a sucker for English high tea. Clotted cream to clot the arteries! Next time I am in England I’ll add Highclere Castle to my list of destinations, if I can get past the hordes of American tourists.

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