"Downton Abbey" the movie arrives Friday, Sept. 20 to remind Long Island fans of their love affair with the 2010-16 series, possibly to rekindle it. But what precisely was the PBS series' special appeal?
Long Island and South West England — Wiltshire, to be exact — where "Downton" was set would seem to be opposites, removed by space and time and culture and (above all) by temperament. But TV successes that transcend TV, like this one once did, have a way of bridging space, time, and place, too. Ask any fan — maybe your next-door neighbor. Maybe yourself. Why this show?
" 'Downton' encompassed the range of human emotions, from matriarch to diva, to lost souls, to strivers and cads," says Huntington's William Forrester, a self-described fan of English period dramas. "I seem to remember when I asked people early on 'do you watch 'Downton Abbey,' and there was a pause — 'what's that?' I'd say 'Masterpiece Theatre,' and they'd say no thanks. But it caught on and for us, it may have contrasted with the routine grind of most Long Islanders' daily lives of work, traffic, paying bills and raising families. It was the essential escape."
Greenlawn resident and "Downton" devotee Anuradha Sharma Magee says "I've been a longtime fan of the entire series. As a Desi — East Indian — whose parents grew up in India during the partition (of India and Pakistan) and then subsequently in independent India, we all had a sort of affinity for all things English, strangely enough.
"This story is about grandeur and opulence that one can only imagine and admire from afar," she adds.
Think of the movie as one of those very-special-Christmas episodes from past seasons — albeit not set during Christmas — with largely self-contained plots, and their own dilemmas and predicaments. In the movie, King George and Queen Mary are to pay a visit (the film is set in 1927). Oh dear: What will everyone wear? More pressing, what will everyone eat? What will the King and Queen think of Downton? (One of His Majesty's servants describes it as a "minor country house." Oh dear …) Dangling threads from previous seasons are tied. To say which ones would be spoilers but you can easily guess: Unrequited love is in the air at Downton, and such love must be requited. Suffice it to say, the movie is unashamedly sentimental.
But it is also mindful of the nostalgic lure of the original, and of the ties that bound fans around the world to a distant place and time they could only imagine.
Liz Trubridge, executive producer and longtime associate of series creator Julian Fellowes, says "The one thing a lot of us look for now is that sense of connectedness, and there is something of that came through in 'Downton.' Despite outward appearances, there is a connectedness [among the characters] and the audience engaged with that. "
That was certainly something longtime fan Jessica Ley of Huntington, engaged with. "To see all the characters, with their good breeding and fortunes," she says, "who were damaged, or had jealousy, hatred, fear, anger and all those other emotions simmering below the surface of gentility, and to see the members of their staff, who had to put on a good face but who had that undercurrent of hidden agendas, made them people you could relate to."
Ley, a former librarian at Port Washington Library, held a farewell costume party there when the show finally wrapped in 2016, attended by a hundred "Downton" die-hards adorned in their Edwardian finest. She recalls that there was a distinct " sense of sadness" throughout the room although "one person did say to me that if they introduce one more character or one more dramatic storyline she was done. 'I'm up to my eyeballs in drama and characters.' Everyone was."
Nevertheless, Ley adds, "I'm really looking forward to the movie."
LI's GOLD COAST AND 'DOWNTON'
Among the attractions that drew fans to "Downton Abbey" were the visuals — the sumptuous period details, the fashions, and the house.
Or that one house in particular. Some local "Downton" fans say Highclere Castle — Downton itself — forged a special bond with Long Island, or at least Gilded Age Long Island, with its palatial homes spread along the North Shore, some still extant, like Sands Point Preserve's Hempstead House, which has some of the same Tudor touches of Highclere and all of the extravagance.
"We had the Gold Coast, and the upper class and the lower class," says Ley, "and seeing them [the show's many characters] in action, working together on 'Downton' as they did, was something we could identify with. We could imagine what that life was like, right here on Long Island, just before the First World War."
About 2,000 such "palaces" were built along the Gold Coast from the late 1800s through the 1920s, says Gary Lawrance, an architect who lives in Stony Brook, and is co-author of a coffee table book, "Houses of the Hamptons, 1880-1930 (Architecture of Leisure)." One home in particular, he says, evoked the world of "Downton." Harbor Hill in Roslyn -- once the biggest house in America, demolished in 1947 -- was built by financier Clarence Hungerford Mackay from 1899 to 1902. He and his wife "were like the King and Queen of Roslyn. They sat on their high hill and entertained the villagers for Christmas, and were patrons of the town. Edward, who became Prince of Wales, came over in the 1920s and said it was as fair as any English country house."
Lawrance says about 1,000 Gilded Age mansions are still scattered around the Island, while something of their original spirit remains too. "People just dream of being a princess or the King, and the people who built these houses aspire to be somebody too [but] jpeople also love watching stories about the rich and famous, and sometimes the rich and famous have tragedies and lives that aren't perfect. 'Downton' had all of that, too." — VERNE GAY