30 abril 2012

On Downton Abbey series' worldwide success

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Will it be Downton's Countdown?
Highclere Castle, setting for Downton Abbey series.
I’ve been living with Downton Abbey for almost a year now. It must be so, because I heard of it by chance around March last year... So, a year has gone by, I've grown older now, and nope, I ain’t got enough of it. Not—just—yet. 
When I started writing this article last month, I played Every breath you take (Scala & Kolacny Brothers' version) in the hope that, if the trailer for season one's theme song kept crooning in the background, I'd draw enough inspiration from it and write a worthy piece at last. Now, though I can't get weary of listening to the same track time and time again, the music didn't help much, and for one reason or other, I was forced to delay my writing this review. 
The beauty of the musical interpretation by this group of singers and pianist, plus the way their music seems to go hand in hand with Downton Abbey's crucial scenes simply draws you to listen—like the way people keep dying in Naomi Watts' The Ring, you just can't help watching.
But that's all about box-office-hit series, isn't it? One can never be too thirsty for Season Two, while Season one has barely finished and Season Three is already being shot. Confessions of a Downton Abbey fan ('dislike' the word fan, but in the present case applies): 
I've been putting off the end of the second season... Just because I can't wait to lay hands on the third one asap!
Julian Fellowes, author.
A lot’s been rumoured and hinted about this endlessly fashionable product originally created by Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame (and "principally written by Fellowes," as reported on Wikipedia). A lot’s been said and done about the well-known series that’s found comfortable room into the Brits’ homes and has literally transfixed  Americans. 
But what's the X-factor behind Downton Abbey's bloom and ongoing popularity? Is it the collaborative nature of the product, originally co-produced by Carnival Films (UK) and WGHB Boston (US)? Well, one may as well naively wonder, “Where does the secret lie for a best-selleing book?” Why would Downton Abbey, ground-breaking period drama series, succeed so quick-and-easy in the world of raining "half men," the age of series named after (pseudo) scientific theories and follow-the-Potter-like-tide sagas? How come Downton came to be such a worldiwde hit overnight?
This is not Julian Fellowes speaking here, and I am not part of Downton’s outstanding cast. But I'll attempt to draw my own conclusions from the humble point of view of a long-life prejudiced fiction writer, a stubbornly budding journalist, a half-frustrated actress and a passionate-though-willingly-secluded pianist. 
As casual as that, here it goes.

Inside Highclere Castle.
Julian Alexander Fellowes can’t afford to deny the winner does take it all. And he, much as I could—or should, just certainly ought to—envy him, belongs to the Agatha Christie, the J.K Rowling best-selling row of timeless authors. He is not, as it happens, an ordinary fellow writer. Without dwelling on his ancestors, or the funny way he married his present wife or the acres boasted by his estate, one must say he truly stands out as one of a never-dying breed, the winning fellows.

But Julian’s success was not born with Downton Abbey. Rather, Downton seems to have given him the chance for the writing revival that will often push from down inside us, writers, after a long period of missing inspiration or lack of publicity. By the way, Fellowes's not only a writer, he also acts. I mean, the guy knows how to delve into art, and he's quite good at it!

Many can’t help drawing numberless comparisons between Fellowes’ latest hit, Downton Abbey, and the story that turned him down and up with a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award, Gosford Park, back in 2001. Gosford Park’s plot, characters and style unmistakeably match Downton Abbey’s storyline, main fiction themes and style.

Talking of comparisons… There once lived an admirable English lady who decided against the times and the fashion and made her fate out of the writing craft. She died young, but her six masterpieces will have survived for centuries on end... Now, doesn’t the title Gosford *PARK* ring any of you Janeites’ bell? And what about Downton… *ABBEY*!!!
Ten to one you still haven’t got it if you’re a "don’t-know/don’t-care who Jane Austen is"—and ten to one you have guessed if you’re with Jane and me. All right, you win: the thing is that this admirable English woman writer is also the author of Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey. Quite ordinary titles, you may think. Especially if one recalls Henry James’ Washington Square. All such titles resort to places for their main stars, don't they? It is the house, the estate, the castle that bears witness to astonishing, worth-telling events that are turned into the main characters somehow— it’s still places that gets the best part of it. And history landmarks will also make their cameo within Downton: from Titanic news to World War I, plus the beginning of women's fights for their own rights and countless humourously witty, cultural allusions, Downton Abbey joins British and Americans alike in what seems a product designed to suit each side's sense of the other.

One of the theories which keeps nagging at me on the strategy behind Downton's success is that Julian Fellowes is, in fact, an amazingly strategic author himself. He's given his product not just any name but a catch-all name, one that immediately clicks into place among a row of unforgettable literary classics and their corresponding big-screen adaptations. Set within the premises of an impossible-to-miss sight, breath-taking Highclere Castle, Downton Abbey doesn't stick to an audience: it doesn't portray either the landed gentry's issues or the pity-bestowing, middle-to-lower class' deeds. In fact, it aims at depicting both, simultaneously and not exclusively, that is, while servants usually lead their life downstairs and the Crawleys upstairs, there's still a margin for challenging what at first sight may appear as clear-cut roles and classes.
Lady Sybill making her first attempts at cooking.
With such a go-beyond-borders philosophy for basis, of course it wouldn't fail to catch everyone's attention, from avid period drama advocates and classic literature readers to mere period-costume admirers and British-humour fans. 

Yet, even with a formula as strategically planned as that, it could have failed, though it didn't. Why? Have a peek at the cast, and you'll know why. 
Traditional dinner scene at Downton.

Among a set of highly-acclaimed names and outstanding performances, there is Maggie Smith to be considered as one of the key ingredients: playing one of her infallible, high-class prototypical characters, the Right Honourable Violet Crawley, Countess of Grantham, what with such a name to sponsor her person she falls nothing short of spectacular! Just her presence alone had stirred half the critics' expectations. Just the rumour of her possibly quitting the show caused an avalanche of "Please, don't!" exclamations below a Daily Mail article dating back to March this year*:

If Maggie Smith leaves Downton Abbey, it will be the ruin of the show. 
(Sally, Anywhere, 6/3/2012)

Oh my goodness Maggie please don't go! You're one of the best actor on it. Love you humor and wit. Oh please say it isn't so. 
(Maureen Masi expat, Pennsylvania usa, 6/3/2012)

(Kay, G.B, 6/3/2012)

Downton Abbey's staff.
Now, though Maggie Smith is, undoubtedly, a must-stay if you ask me, there are are, however, remarkable performances to report from each and every actor selected to play a part, however small and however lasting, within the Downton Abbey series. Among some of the wealthy Crawley family's side, there is Hugh Boneville as stout Earl of Grantham; Elizabeth McGovern as the Countess of Grantham, Cora Crawley; blooming Michelle Dockery in her central role of the eldest daughter of Grantham, the selfish and capricious Lady Mary Crawley; and, of course, ever-gallant Dan Stevens in the role of the presumptive heir to the estate, the ever honourable Matthew Crawley (Mary's cousin). 

Just a few steps down below are the unforgettable members of staff at the Downton estate: Jim Carter as Carson, the efficient butler; Brendan Coyle as grave-looking Mr. Bates, Lord Grantham's valet; absolutely stunning Lesley Nicol as pushy Mrs. Patmore; and Phyllis Logan as the trustworthy housekeeper, Mrs. Hughes, to name but some.

There's been plenty of rumours about the whole series ending with Season Three. I don't believe it, though I'd very much appreciate it. There comes a point when a writer knows he must wrap up his gift to the world and put an end to his story. Just as J.K Rowling did with Harry Potter, perhaps three seasons would be enough to round off the storyline. And yet, I'm pretty sure that if a fourth, even fifth season should come out, I'd be eagerly waiting to watch it!
Maggie Smith, SEASON II.
As for Maggie Smith, she's been confirmed to stay by several web sources, just as she is reported to be sitting in the fence by as many others... Now, if you ask me, I doubt she would keep up with the rest of Downton Abbey main stars for a fifth season—if there ever comes to be one at all.
What will surely stay the same is the feeling we Downton fans get whenever we watch any of the series episodes. It's the adrenaline, the passion, the absolutely fascinating scent of good-quality stuff, carried out by good-quality means and with a deep sense of commitment on actors' part. My favourites? Hm... Hard to make one's choice, so I'll go for two females and two males: Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol); Carson (Jim Carter) and William (Thomas Howes). ◘  ◘  ◘ 

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