I discovered Downton Abbey while I was in the middle of writing the thesis for my history degree, which basically means that I caught the first episode on a writing break and spent the rest of a weekend procrastinating finishing a chapter by mainlining seasons one and two (all that were out at the time). I have always been a lover of British period dramas, but something about Downton really got to me. Whether it was the engaging theme music, Bates & Anna’s love story, or Mary’s ill-fated romance with Mr. Pamuk, I was hooked by the end of that weekend and have watched every episode since. The wait for the US premiere of a season is so excruciating (particularly if you have British friends talking about it on social media) that I may have resorted to other means of watching. (Don’t worry, PBS, I’ll watch again in January and buy the DVDs. And calendars. And tea. And everything else labeled Downton Abbey.)
New Yorkers longing for the January 4 premiere date got a little relief last week, however. Last Tuesday night, PBS hosted a screening of the Season 5 premiere followed by a Q&A session with some of the stars from the show, and Downton fans came to the Hudson Theater in midtown in droves. As part of the festivities, there were life-sized cutouts of Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Bates, and Anna to pose with as well as Downton-themed props so you could form your own tableau and be professionally photographed. (Ours featured me in a lovely flapper headband and my friends Kim and Jordana in top hats with teapots. I blame the surreality of our costume choices and pose on the open bar.) There was also Downton Abbey tea in abundance, so we all ended up with quite a stash of Grantham Breakfast Blend.
After about twenty minutes of picture-taking, tea gathering, and admiring the ensembles of the Downton fans who had donned period-appropriate costumes for the event, we went into the theater and settled down for the evening’s entertainment. Rebecca Eaton, Executive Producer of Masterpiece Theater, came out to say a few words about the program and name-drop that she’d had lunch with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. She told the audience that because of programs like Downton and Sherlock, ratings for Masterpiece increased by over 100%, helping to make PBS the fifth most watched network in the country. What does this mean for viewers? That we’re getting an extra twenty hours of Masterpiece programming this season. A teaser reel for the new season was shown, and the new shows look amazing, particularly if you like period dramas. Eaton also informed us that there will be a Season 6 of Downton, and then the lights went down and it was time for the premiere of Season 5.
I’m not spoiling it, because January 4 isn’t too far away, but everything you love about Downton is in this episode. It’s 1924 this season, but the Dowager Countess is still trying to manage village society, Lord Grantham is still having a hard time dealing with change, Barrow is still plotting, Molesley is still endearingly hapless, and Lady Mary is still the Crawley daughter with the most romantic prospects (poor Lady Edith). We only got to see the first forty minutes of the show (this is the mixed blessing/curse of an advanced screening, they always leave you hanging), and then it was time for the Q&A with cast members Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Rob James-Collier (Barrow), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) and show runner Gareth Neame. And because I know my recounting it is a poor substitute for the actual event, the video of the entire Q&A is below.
Downton Abbey returns to PBS Sunday, January 4 at 9/8c on Masterpiece. Who’s watching it with me?