Downton Abbey : You’re Awful, But We Love You


Downton Abbey's Lady Sybil shows off the latest fashion. Gasp...pants!! (Photo courtesy PBS)


I have a few longer pieces in the works, which I’m looking forward to sharing soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d offer you a little appetizer before the main course. (Actually, it’s more like serving dessert before the main course. A rich, luscious cream puff, perhaps?)

If you’re going through Downton Abbey withdrawal, you’re not the only one. The season finale of the series earned PBS its highest ratings in years with 5.4 million people tuning in to watch the conclusion of the second season.

It’s been fascinating to witness the show’s popularity across all age groups. My young friends have been streaming the show from the PBS website, and mothers, daughters, husbands, and friends have been gathering together on living room couches on Sunday evenings. A few weeks ago, I was visiting my friend’s 92-year-old grandmother in the local retirement home on a Sunday night and was greeted with a British invasion of blaring television sets. As I walked through the corridor, Maggie Smith bellowed from behind the closed door of each and every room I passed.

According to websites that keep track of such things, a third season of Downton is in the works and Shirley MacLaine has been added to the cast of the popular show. But until today, this was all I knew about the elusive third season.

Thanks to British composer Peter Wyer, whose opera Numinous City has been featured on Gwarlingo, we may have proof that a third season of Downton Abbey is being filmed in London as we speak. Yesterday, the composer was walking down Waterloo Place (between Pall Mall and The Mall ) and had a chance encounter with this film shoot. One woman in the crowd confirmed that she had seen one of the stars from the popular series. Pete snapped these photos while he was passing by and kindly gave me permission to share them.


British Composer Peter Wyer had a chance encounter with a Downton Abbey film shoot this week while walking the streets of London near Pall Mall and Waterloo Place. (Photo © Peter Wyer)



A candid photo from the film set of Downton Abbey's third season. Can someone please get me a pair of the shoes being worn by the lady in green? (Photo © Peter Wyer)


All of these well-dressed extras milling about looks like a potential wedding scene to me. And if it is Downton, what better excuse than a wedding for Lady Cora’s mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, to make the long journey from America?

Today The Sun published the first photograph of MacLaine in her Downton Abbey attire. Rumor has it that during the third season, Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, will clash with the matriarchal Dowager Countess – played by Dame Maggie Smith. With the right script, it’s easy to imagine the sparks flying between MacLaine and Smith. Let’s hope that writer Julian Fellowes is up to the challenge. Fellowes has recently said the theme of Catholicism would be touched upon in the new season.

I’m not sure what concerns me more…The fact that I care about all of this or the fact that I just visited The Sun website?


Downton Abbey

Rumor has it that Lady Cora's mother, played by Shirley MacLaine, will clash with the Dowager Countess-–played by Maggie Smith during the third season of Downton Abbey. (Photo © Flynet Pictures via The Sun)


If, like me, you suddenly feel the need to purge the Rupert Murdoch aftertaste, perhaps this essay by James Fenton from The New York Review of Books will serve as a palette cleanser. In “The Abbey that Jumped the Shark,” Fenton takes a few affectionate jabs at the PBS series (the show isn’t gay enough, Lady Edith would never have outed her sister to the Turkish Ambassador, Downton is shot in the South of England, when it’s set in the North, etc.)

I do agree with Fenton that the plot twist with the disfigured soldier was one too many, but surely there are sharper criticisms that could be made? There is the over-the-top melodrama and hammy dialogue (both are more prevalent in the second season), plus the too-good-to-be-true timing of certain events. (Matthew suddenly appearing at Downton at the very moment Mary is rousing the soldiers and staff with a sentimental song was one coincidence I found particularly irksome).

Fenton does make a few amusing points. I particularly like his observation that no other culture has a country house tradition in literature and film like England does:

“The greatest rival to the English country house tradition is the Russian, with its rich suggestions of a feudal system in decline, and with its great questions hanging in the air: How shall I live to some purpose? How can I reform the world I know? Those who ask such questions may be querulous and ineffectual, but the questions themselves are intelligent and profound, whereas the great questions that hang over the English country house come, for the most part, from the far side of stupid: Can I score a personal triumph at the flower show while forgoing first prize for my roses? Can I secure my lord’s affection by pretending to go rescue his dog? (The answer Downton Abbey offers is yes in both cases.)”

Yes…”How shall I reform the world I know?” versus “Can I score a personal triumph at the flower show?” This sums up the situation nicely.


It's hard not to love the period costumes and sets, those hilarious Maggie Smith quips, Sybil's love of radical ideas, radical clothes, (and radical chauffeurs), and the sneers of Thomas and O'Brien during their gossipy cigarette breaks. (Photo courtesy PBS)


While I found Fenton’s essay entertaining, I thought The Guardian‘s Viv Groskop was more on target with her comparison and critique of the first two seasons (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the entire series, you may want to skip this passage)

Perversely, given that creator Julian Fellowes has tried to cram so much into this series, the story has lacked any real detail. Series one was at its best when it concentrated on minute plot points – a missing bottle of wine, a bitchy moment between two sisters, Mrs. Patmore’s failing eyesight – and made us care about them. Because Downton has such a superb cast, this worked brilliantly: it was all about rivalry, betrayal, repressed sexuality, humiliation, passion, ambition. And all the action happened on the actors’ faces.

Crucially many of series one’s most perfect moments happened off-stage: the untimely death of Mr. Pamuk (“Poor Kemal!”), the theft of the snuff box, O’Brien placing the soap next to the bath. What mattered was not the events themselves, but the characters’ reactions. Series one was seen exclusively in close-up. In series two we’ ve pulled too far away from the actors to care.

That said, it has been absolutely hilarious (apart from when William died and I cried for the entire episode). Personally I am torn between feeling utter betrayal and total delight. Which strikes me as a very Downton place to be. Could it be that series two is actually better because it is worse?

As Groskop says, “Downtown Abbey: you are awful…but I like you.”

I’m in full agreement. Who cares? It’s hard not to love the period costumes and sets, those hilarious Maggie Smith quips, Sybil’s love of radical ideas, radical clothes, (and radical chauffeurs), and the sneers of Thomas and O’Brien during their gossipy cigarette breaks. The pleasures outweigh the annoyances.

As I said at the beginning, this is more like a delectable cream puff than an entree. Granted, ceam puffs aren’t high art, but they are artful–tasty, beautiful, pleasurable, and much harder to make than those Toll House cookies that come in the plastic tube.


The servants of Downtown Abbey (Photo courtesy PBS)


What are your own thoughts on the first two seasons of Downton Abbey? You can leave your comments below or share your thoughts on the Gwarlingo Facebook page.

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By | 2016-11-11T21:53:05+00:00 02.28.12|Images, News, Words|8 Comments

About the Author:

I’ve spent almost 20 years helping thousands of successful artists of all disciplines and working to make the arts more accessible. (One friend likes to call me “the arts enabler.”) From 1999-2012 I worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony, but I've also done time at an arts magazine, a library, an art museum, and a raptor rehabilitation center. In May of 2012 I left MacDowell to pursue writing, speaking, curating, and creative projects full-time. In 2015 I was named a “Top 100 Artist, Innovator, Creative” by Origin magazine. I've appeared as an arts and culture commentator on New Hampshire Public Radio, and in 2017 I was the recipient of the Wampler Art Professorship at James Madison University. I am the founder of the Gwarlingo Salon series, which connects artists like DJ Spooky with rural audiences in the Monadnock region. In 2017 my collaborator Corwin Levi and I will publish our first book, Mirror Mirrored, which combines Grimms’ fairy tales with vintage illustration remixes and the work of contemporary artists like Kiki Smith, Carrie Mae Weems, and Amy Cutler. I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia, but have called New Hampshire home since 1999. My studio is located in the historic, mill village of Harrisville. I miss fried okra, the early southern spring, and restaurants that stay open past 9:00 p.m., but rural life agrees with me. In New Hampshire I can see the stars, go kayaking or snowshoeing, watch bald eagles fish in the lake, and focus on my creative work in silence. I no longer have to worry about traffic jams; deer, wild turkeys, and frost heaves are the primary road hazards here. Although I live in the country, I’m fortunate enough to be part of a vibrant arts community that extends beyond this small New England village. The quiet days are punctuated by regular travel and frequent visits to museums, theaters, readings, arts events, lectures, and open studios around the country. (You can read my full CV here.) Thanks for visiting Gwarlingo. I hope you'll be in touch.


  1. Michelle Aldredge February 28, 2012 at 9:38 am

    A reader just sent me this Downton Abbey parody from the BBC…

  2. Judith S Miller February 29, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Thanks for posting the BBC parody.

  3. Anna Dibble February 29, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    Thanks for the post. Agree with a lot of what you said. Am somewhat (but not Too!) embarrassed by my obsession with the series. I actually liked the second season better than the first – and as you said – maybe it was more likeable because it was worse. But I think the second season was mainly satisfying because it gave the viewers a chance to delve ‘deeper’ into the characters and their situations. I found myself completely forgiving all the unbelievable plot twists and points. Who cares?! All that matters is the story – and what a story, bunch of stories, it is. Can hardly wait for the next one.

    • Michelle Aldredge February 29, 2012 at 8:39 pm

      I have to agree with you, Anna. I find Downton Abbey gripping regardless of the melodrama and can’t wait for the third season. The very thought of Shirley MacLaine sparring with Maggie Smith on camera is enough to make me tune in. And then there’s Sybil and her chauffeur. The timing is right for the Irish War of Independence–the IRA versus the Black and Tans. Clashes over religion and class should make things interesting for Lady Sybil in Dublin. I can’t wait!

  4. . March 1, 2012 at 9:17 am

    The filming was not for Downton Abbey but acutally for a film called “Summer in February” which is a book by Jonathan Smith about the life of Alfred Munnings the artist. Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey is in the film so he was at the filming and as it is the same era there might have been some confusion. Dominic Cooper and Emily Browning are also starring in the film. It will be brilliant!

    • Michelle Aldredge March 1, 2012 at 9:40 am

      Thanks for this update about “Summer in February.” I searched the web high and low for any verification that this was actually a Downton shoot, but couldn’t find a single mention of any film shoots in London this week. Those who were present at the shoot were convinced it was Downton because of the period costumes and because they saw Dan Stevens on the set and assumed he was there playing Matthew Crawley. Do you mind my asking how you learned about this new film? It does sound great. Thanks for commenting and clarifying. It will take the wind out of the sails of some Downton fans, but I’d rather get the facts straight! And now we have a new period drama to anticipate…

  5. . March 1, 2012 at 2:53 pm

    I can completely verify it as I was on the set and can see myself as an extra! It is going to be a fantastic film!

    • Michelle Aldredge March 1, 2012 at 5:25 pm

      Wonderful! It doesn’t get any closer to the source than that. Thanks for writing and clarifying. “Downton” fans will be glad to know about this new film. Here is the link to the official “Summer in February” site for those who are interested in investigating further.

Comments are closed.