Class — or crass — act? 'Downton Abbey' enters merchandise fray
By Jill Lawless
Published: Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Forget “Mad Men” modernism. This season's style is all about “Downton Abbey's” Edwardian opulence.
Millions around the world have been seduced by the straight-laced but stylish world of the British historical drama. Soon, they'll be able to take some of that style home, getting lips as soft as Lady Mary's, wine inspired by Lord Grantham's favorite tipple — and even walls as gray as Mrs. Patmore's kitchen.
From its premier in 2010, the series about the family and servants of a grand English house in the 1910s and 1920s has become a television juggernaut, sold to 220 territories around the world.
The program's makers have arguably been slow to exploit the commercial potential of that popularity through merchandising, selling little more than DVD sets, wall calendars and desk diaries. But that is about to change. Along with the fourth season starting on British TV next month, and on PBS in January, comes a range of merchandise that includes a board game, homewares, clothes, beauty products and even “Downton” wine.
All in the best possible taste, of course.
“We haven't rushed into it,” executive producer Gareth Neame said. “We don't want to carpet bomb the retail sector.”
In keeping with the program's posh-frothy image, the products being rolled out aim to be quirky rather than kitschy.
This fall, British retail chain Marks & Spencer will be selling a “Downton Abbey” beauty line, including soap, nail polish, lip gloss, lotion and scented candles. The items are whimsically packaged and adorned with quotations from the series, including the advice offered by Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess of Grantham in the first episode: “No one wants to kiss a girl in black.”
“Downton” merchandising in the United States and Canada is handled by Knockout Licensing, which has struck deals for a jewelry range from Danbury Mint and “Downton”-themed Christmas ornaments from Kurt Adler — both going on sale later this year.
It also has a licensing agreement with figurine manufacturer Bradford Exchange, raising fans' hopes for a range of “Downton” dolls — Scheming Thomas and Admirable Bates, perhaps.
North American fans also can soon drink “Downton Abbey” wine, marketed by Wines That Rock, the California company behind Rolling Stones' 40 Licks Merlot and Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon Cabernet Sauvignon. The “Downton” red is a genteel departure for the firm, a French claret reminiscent of those favored by the early 20th-century British aristocracy.
Cele Otnes, a professor of marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says the richly detailed world of “Downton Abbey” is key to viewers' intense bond with the show.
She likens it to “Mad Men” — “It's not just a television program, it's really an aesthetic” — and cites reported rises in sales of cravats, waistcoats and sherry as evidence of a “Downton”-driven appetite for Edwardian elegance.
“It's that whole thing about presenting a lifestyle,” she said. “We get in the house; we get inside these characters' lives. We see inside their bedrooms, their bathrooms, their kitchens. We can absorb ourselves not only in the story, which is compelling, but in the details of their lives.”
No detail is too small for emulation — down to the paint on the abbey walls.
Mylands, the London-based paint company that supplies the show with historically accurate pigments, recently began marketing two of its “Downton” tones to the public — Amber Gray, the color of the downstairs kitchen overseen by cook Mrs. Patmore, and Empire Gray, which adorns Mr. Carson's butler's pantry.
These are not just any grays. They are “Downton” grays.
“On the sets, they look quite dark because they use them below stairs,” said Mylands spokeswoman Simone Barker. But in real life, “they do look extremely chic.”
Otnes hopes “Downton's” makers keep the products tasteful rather than tacky. As a fan, she urges producers to “take a page from Lord and Lady Grantham's pool of reserve” and limit the range of merchandise,
“I hope they don't over-market the show,” she said.
Neame — who heads ‘Downton' production company Carnival Films, owned by NBC Universal — isn't worried.
“I don't have a nervous attitude about the idea of merchandising,” said Neame, who personally approves every item of merchandise. “When a show is this global and this loved, I don't see any problem with offering products to hardened fans who want to extend their relationship with the show that they love.
“We are businesspeople. We are running a business, which is to create intellectual property and to monetize it. We sell as many DVDs as we can, and we sell the show in as many countries as we can, and you know what, by doing that we get the money on the screen and it allows me to finance other shows that we want to make and employ people. So, I'm not coy about the merchandising and its purpose.”
Jill Lawless is a staff writer for the Associated Press.
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