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Popular period drama 'Downton Abbey' back on PBS for third season

| Friday, Jan. 4, 2013
Maggie Smith as Lady Violet Crawley and Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson in season 3 of 'Downton Abbey.' Nick Briggs
The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at Downton Abbey as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season. With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award-winner Shirley MacLaine, Downton Abbey, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning in January 2013. Credit: Carnival Film & Television Limited 2012 for MASTERPIECE
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson , mother of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern) on 'Downton Abbey.' Nick Briggs
Joss Barratt
Jim Carter as Mr. Carson in 'Downton Abbey.'
Brendan Coyle as John Bates in 'Downton Abbey Joss Barratt
Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) got closer and closer during season 2 of 'Downton Abbey,' which ended with a proposal. Nick Briggs/ITV
Siobhan Finneran (center) as Miss O'Brien in 'Downton Abbey' Nick Briggs
Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley on 'Downton Abbey.' Nick Briggs
Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith Crawley and Robert Bathurst as Sir Anthony Strallan on 'Downton Abbey.' Nick Briggs
Phyliis Logan as Mrs. Hughes and Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore on 'Downton Abbey.' Joss Barratt
Courtesy of Lord and Lady Carnarvon
Highclere Castle, home to the Carnarvon family for the past 300 years, is the home used in 'Downton Abbey.'

Pour yourself a flute of sherry or a short tumbler of scotch and settle down by the electronic hearth.

Season three of “Downton Abbey” returns to the airwaves at 9 p.m. Sunday on WQED-TV and other PBS stations as a presentation of Masterpiece Classic.

The series will air over seven Sundays, beginning with the two-hour premiere episode and concluding with a 90-minute finale Feb. 17.

For those joining the show in progress, it may be helpful to know “Downton Abbey” is an upstairs-downstairs tale that focuses on intrigues, dramas, joys and woes of the high-born Crawley family and the below-stairs servants who keep the elegantly appointed house running.

Set in a large, historic English country house, the first two seasons took both households through the changes, challenges and more pleasurable moments during the decades of the late Edwardian period to the end of World War I.

The stories are multilayered, and the characters complex and interesting.

Julian Fellowes, the creator, writer and executive producer of “Downton Abbey” embraces the melodramatic, soap-opera aspects of this multipart saga, though he reportedly prefers the phrase “emotional narrative.”

The show has won numerous Emmys for its costumes and cinematography.

More than 17 million people watched it during the second season, making it the most-watched Masterpiece presentation in the series' history.

It's hard to say exactly what makes the show so popular.

It could be the compelling stories of people from both classes struggling with change. Or, maybe, it's that they all do so against such beautiful backgrounds in beautifully tailored clothes — check out the cut and fit of the male servants' jackets.

If you're one of the 5.4 million viewers who watched the finale of Season 2 last February, you're probably eager to reunite with the show's familiar characters and its elegant settings of a recent but bygone English era.

The Great War (not yet named World War I) is over.

Matthew has finally proposed to, and been accepted by, Lady Mary.

Mary's sister, Sybil, has eloped to Ireland with the Crawley's now-former chauffer, Branson.

Bates, Lord Grantham's valet, is in jail.

Lady's maid O'Brien and footman Thomas continue their glowering and troublemaking on both levels of the house.

Mrs. Patmore, the cook, still turns out an A1 treacle tart, and the dowager countess hasn't lost her talent for edgy, stinging observations.

So, what more can possibly happen to the denizens of Downton Abbey?

Quite a lot, really, if the advance publicity can be believed.

Waiting in the wings are catastrophic financial reversals, romantic intrigues and the arrival of new characters who include actress Shirley MacLaine, who plays the unashamedly American mother of Lady Crawley.

Events beyond the Abbey's walls — the Irish Civil War and women's struggle for suffrage among them — promise to bring changes and challenges to people at all levels.

A fourth season of “Downton Abbey” is already in the works.

Downton parodies

Fans of “Downton Abbey” have created an assortment of homage videos. Some were created by celebrities such as Steven Colbert and Jimmy Fallon. Others are more home-grown. All are available on, unless otherwise noted:

• “The Boyfriend's Guide to Downton Abbey”: An irreverent overview of Season 1 in six fast-paced minutes

• “Uptown Downstairs Abbey,” parts one and two, Created in 2011 for BBC's Red Nose Day, these two videos feature Kim Cattrall as Lady Crawley and Simon Callow as creator Julian Fellowes, while Michael Gambon narrates the story of “a house divided by stairs.”

• “Downton Sixbey Episodes,” three episodes: Rockefeller Center studio transforms into Downton Abbey with show host Jimmy Fallon ruling over his upstairs studio world as a pompous Lord Crawley and the show's writers toiling downstairs with the other servants. Look for Brooke Shields as Lady Crawley.

• “Mean Girls Trailer/Downton Abbey Style”: Scenes from “Downton Abbey” play while the trailer for “Mean Girls” provides the soundtrack. It's a surprisingly funny take on both shows with the Crawley sisters portrayed as Mean Girls and those downstairs villains Thomas and O'Brien labeled as the Burnouts.

• Downton Arby's: The drama and meaningful glances and backstairs scheming of the series overlaid on a story about passing on an Arby's restaurant franchise to a new heir.

• Top 10 Maggie Moments: Is it a spoof or homage to Maggie Smith and her character? Who cares? For those who appreciate her, these excerpts of some of the dowager countess's best lines are laugh-out-loud funny.

• Downton Abbey Gingerbread House: In December, Curtis Jensen spent two weeks constructing his own Downton Abbey replica with a gingerbread facade, butterscotch candy windows and royal icing cement.

• Breaking Abbey: Stephen Colbert's show merges characters from “Breaking Bad” and “Downton Abbey” in this spoof that has Lord Grantham cooking and selling meth in an attempt to fund his stately home. Warning: contains distinctly contemporary profanity.

Period drama

To learn more about the people, places and times depicted in “Downton Abbey” here are a few books to get you started:

• “The Chronicles of Downton Abbey” (2012) by Jessica Fellowes: This latest book focuses on the cast members, their characters and the house and the era depicted.

• “The World of Downton Abbey” (2011) by Jessica Fellowes: Chronicles the backstage saga of creating the series.

• “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle” (2011) by the Countess of Carnarvon. The current Lady Carnarvon draws on diaries, letters and photographs in the Highclere Castle archives for this story about Lady Almina, the fifth countess of Carnarvon who was the model for “Downton Abbey's” Lady Cora Crawley.

• “The American Heiress,” (2011) by Daisy Goodwin: Follows another American heiress, also named Cora, who meets and marries an impoverished aristocrat and has to adjust to the rigid, hypocritical rules of 1890s upper-class British society.

• “The Remains of the Day,” (1990) by Kazuo Ishiguro: Told from the perspective of a British butler at the end of his 30-year service to an English lord. Also available on DVD as a 1993 movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson

• “The Fall of Giants,” (2010) by Ken Follett: In more than 1,000 pages, Follett follows five families through the mines, the battlefields and the ballrooms of the years during and surrounding World War I.

• “To Marry an English Lord” (1989, reissued 2012) by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace: A gossipy, detailed account of American heiresses who went husband- and title-hunting in England in the mid- to late-1800s.

• “Below Stairs: The Classic Kitchen Maid's Memoir That Inspired ‘Upstairs, Downstairs' and ‘Downton Abbey' ” (1968, reissued 2012) by Margaret Powell: Powell recounts her life in the below-stairs world of a great house. She chronicles her story from her beginning in the 1920s as a kitchen maid and tells the stories of her fellow servants.

• “Rose, My Life in Service to Lady Astor,” (1975, reissued 2012) by Rosina Harrison: Harrison was hired as personal maid for the exacting, demanding Lady Astor, a position she held for 35 years. She traveled the world, gathering stories about the wealthy upstairs and the endless work downstairs.

• “Edwardian Cooking: 80 Recipes Inspired by Downton Abbey's Elegant Meals” (2012) by Larry Edwards: From tea sandwiches to raspberries in sabayon sauce, you can dine like a Crawley.

Visit the Past

Got a craving to immerse yourself in the world of Lord and Lady Grantham but lack a valet, lady's maid or personal assistant to make the necessary arrangements?

Sterling Silver Tours, a Seattle-based travel company, has the details well in hand.

The group of travel- and history-loving teachers and journalists who created the company has planned a seven-day adventure that goes beyond the usual tour of stately homes and historic sites by offering entry into the closets and comforts of “Downton Abbey.”

Included in the inaugural tour planned for May 25 to June 2 are activities such as a crash course in how to be a butler, a private tour of the “Downton Abbey” costume shop, lessons in British etiquette and whiskey sipping and, of course, a day-long visit to Highclere Castle, where the series is set.

Cost is $2,695, which includes London hotel accommodations and some meals, but airfare is not included.

Already booked for that week? The company will happily arrange private tours for groups of eight or more.

Details: or 206-905-1498

Warm-up act

Recognizing that Highclere Castle has its own stories to tell, PBS and Pittsburgh affiliate WQED-TV will air ”Secrets of Highclere Castle” at 8 p.m. Sunday, right before the 9 p.m. start of Season 3 of “Downton Abbey.”

In addition to celebrating its Edwardian-era role as an epicenter of that era's aristocratic social scene, the show will examine how the current Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, maintain and live in their historic home and how they raise the millions needed each year for its upkeep.

‘Downton' trivia

• NBC was offered the opportunity to include “Downton Abbey” in its lineup. But the company's executives turned down the offer because they believed American audiences wouldn't be interested in a British drama set in an Edwardian period country house.

• Highclere Castle, where the show is set, is a 1,000 acre estate in Hampshire, England, which is open to the public during the summer. The owners, the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon live part-time in the castle and in another home nearby. The castle was designed by Sir Charles Berry, who designed the Houses of Parliament in London.

• When the butler leaves Downton's drawing room to fetch a fresh pot of tea from the downstairs kitchen, he has quite a journey ahead of him. Interior scenes in the kitchen and other servant-related rooms are filmed not at Highclere Castle but 63 miles away at a film studio in Ealing.

Fellowes resume

Julian Fellowes, the creator, writer and executive producer of “Downton Abbey,” also wrote:

• “Snobs” (2005), a contemporary comedy of manners novel about British upper classes.

• “Past Imperfect” (2008). A nobel. Forty years after an embarrassing incident tore apart a group of friends, a dying man asks a former rival to find out if one of the women in the group gave birth to the dying man's child.

• ”Gosford Park” (2001). Fellowes won an Oscar for his original screenplay about intrigue and secrets that swirl upstairs and downstairs during a weekend hunting party at a historic English country house.

Fellowes wrote the script for the stage musical “Mary Poppins,” as well.

Also among his screenplay credits are “From Time to Time” (2009) and “The Young Victoria” (2009), and he was the co-writer of the screenplay for “The Tourist” (2010).

He recently wrote a screen adaptation for “Romeo and Juliet,” which is scheduled for release in the United Kingdom this fall.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or

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