Culture & Conversation

Downhill for Downton?

When they kissed the night before their wedding, Lady Mary opened her eyes – a broadly announced sign of bad luck. In the opening hours of Downton Abbey’s third season, yet another fiasco befell the long-simmering romance between the eldest sister and Matthew Crawley. The day was saved, but the sound of society wedding bells could not out-chime the death knell for Downton.

The unlikely hero was best man Tom Branson, the one-time chauffeur turned radical journalist who ran away with the middle Crawley sister, to the ire of her highbred family. First he shocked everyone by unleashing a republican tirade at the elegant dinner table, then he stepped in to save the wedding and even agreed to wear formal attire. Branson’s conversion, like several other dramatic shifts in the extended episode that launched the third season on PBS this past Sunday night, seemed to happen a tad too quickly. But then rapid change is a major theme in the wildly popular upstairs/downstairs world created by Julian Fellowes, backed by a highly polished cast and crew.

Watching Shirley MacLaine as the American matriarch Mrs. Levinson do battle with Maggie Smith as the dowager Crowley, I had the feeling Smith stole most scenes, though both had clever comebacks. Ultimately, the American won the day, mainly because her blunt democratic manners made Downton and everything it stands for seem so silly. When an accident with the stove threatened to ruin an “important” dinner party, Levinson stepped in to suggest a buffet with singing, and even the neighbours were impressed. Still, the season opener seemed to announce the end of civilization as Lady Mary knows it. Can I be forgiven for not sharing her grief?

Meanwhile, the downstairs characters soldiered on, making do with a neophyte footman and struggling with downsizing as the man upstairs faces ruin over his disastrous investment in a Canadian railroad venture. Nevertheless, even for the few of us who haven’t peeked ahead at plot summaries or pirated versions of the popular British series, it seems likely there will be a few more glory days ahead before the whole thing settles into some kind of misty reconciliation between old and new.

Downton Abbey is now an international phenomenon, with viewers in dozens of markets. The series has given a great boost to the fortunes of the American Public Broadcasting System, which snagged it for their Masterpiece Theatre slot long before its crowd-pleasing potential was evident.

Last Saturday night, PBS Mountain Lake – which counts Montreal and Quebec as its main viewing base – held a successful fundraiser at the Rialto Theatre on Avenue du Parc. More than a hundred PBS supporters shelled out $150 each to eat a delicious British-style meal (an oxymoron?) provided by the Rialto catering staff. Period costumes were the order of the night. At the Rover table, theatre critic Mélanie Grondin and her friend Pam Ireland wore elegant gowns rented from the Segal Centre. Huffington Post general manager Patrick White and his companion Nadine came in contemporary black attire and looked just fine. Rover writer Linda Renaud wore a timeless black velvet gown with sequins. Yours truly relished a chance to finally wear her muskrat stole, a minimalist concession to the theme and a cozy one at that. Am I really writing about what we wore? Pinch me.

Stay tuned for the next episode of Downton Abbey on PBS Mountain Lake (for Videotron cable subscribers). Bell subscribers can find it on PBS Boston. That’s Sunday night at 9 pm. Other times as advertised.


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