PBS is accustomed to having programs that become somewhat popular in the United States. Oh, not like American Idol or The Big Bang Theory popular. No, just programs that develop a devoted following among the PBS viewers. Masterpiece is one of their most watched series. That program carries British series divided into three categories: Classic, Contemporary, and Mystery. And in 2011, they struck gold with a Classic series – Downton Abbey.
Downton Abbey has attracted an audience beyond the usual viewers of Masterpiece. Fans range in age from teenagers to seniors. Starring Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Jim Carter, Brendan Coyle, and Phyllis Logan, the story revolves around the aristocratic Crawley family, headed by the Earl of Grantham, and their servants, examining each group’s place in the world of early 20th century England – and their interactions with each other. As the series has progressed, we’ve seen the beginnings of societal change and how the characters react. Tradition and innovation clash. But much more important, loves are found and lost and found again. There are feuds and backstabbing within the different classes. Wartime affects the entire household. Even peacetime brings new worries. Now who could resist that?
With season two of Downton Abbey coming to a close this Sunday night and many months until season three comes to American television, fans might want to check out or revisit some titles that also give us a view of life in a manor house or a look at the uniquely British relationship between servant and master.
- Gosford Park (2001) – Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, won an Oscar for his screenplay of this murder mystery set during a weekend party at a country manor house in 1932. Maggie Smith, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, and Ryan Phillippe star.
- Upstairs, Downstairs (1971-1975) – The original British TV series of the interactions of master and servant, also set in the early 20th century. This series, too, was a huge hit for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre when it aired in the 1970s. Created by Jean Marsh and Eileen Atkins, Marsh also plays head housemaid Rose Buck.
- Upstairs, Downstairs (2010) – Taking place some years after the first series, the story continues as a new family takes possession of 165 Eaton Place. Jean Marsh reprises the role of Rose, with Eileen Atkins joining the cast. Also stars Keeley Hawes, Ed Stoppard, and Claire Foy.
- The Remains of the Day (1993) – The story of a butler whose devotion to duty blinds him to the actions of his employers – and even to the chance of love. It stars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
- Cranford (2007) – This lovely series depicts life in a Victorian-era English village, a place where class lines blur as friendships are created. Judi Dench, Eileen Atkins, Imelda Staunton, Philip Glenister, and Jim Carter star.
- Jeeves and Wooster (1990-1993) – Light-hearted, often hilarious, look at how a good servant can save the day, especially when his employer is a bit dim-witted. This series stars Stephen Fry as Jeeves the butler and Hugh Laurie as Wooster the master. (For those who only know Laurie as Dr. Gregory House, his performance will amaze you.)
- Berkeley Square (1998) – British television series focusing on three young women employed as nannies in Edwardian-era London. Of course, love and tragedy come into play. Claire Wilkie, Victoria Smurfit, and Tabitha Wady star.
Manor House (2002) – British reality TV series that gives us a look at the everyday life of those who lived in a manor house during Edwardian times. An eye-opening view, as participants discover the incredibly hard work that went into creating a comfortable home for the master class.
For a closer look at the manor houses of Great Britain, you might want to check out these books.
Chequers: the Prime Minister’s Country House and Its History
The English Country House: a Grand Tour
Great Houses of England & Wales
The Manor Houses of England
The Servants’ Hall: a Domestic History of a British Country House
Waddesdon Manor: the Heritage of Rothschild House
So curl up with a nice cuppa tea and some shortbread cookies and spend a few hours in the English countryside with a few friends above and below stairs.