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Confessions of a 'Downton Abbey' fan

| Thursday, Jan. 31, 2013, 8:56 p.m.

OK, I admit it: I am a guy who is a fan of the PBS series “Downton Abbey.”

One point of view is that men wouldn't be all that interested in the series, set in the early 1900s in the castle-like manor house of an English earl, his family and a house full of servants, because it is a soap opera.

Soap opera is used here to demean the work, and that is not accurate. But one can see how the criticism might come about, and I would argue that it would have to seem somewhat in that genre because the creators needed to condense the lives of complex characters living under one roof (a big roof) into a TV series?

The real valuable aspect of the stories are that they reflect well — thanks to superb acting, direction and photography — the changing times. During the course of the series we see the Earl of Grantham struggle to fund the running of Downton as he contends with the ongoing move to modernity as evident in his three daughters and his American-born wife.

Today , the real site of the filming, Highclere Castle, is still owned by an earl, but with a much smaller staff and supported in part by tourists visits.

If I were a writer or producer of such entertainments, I think a series could be created that would highlight the changes we have experienced here in the U.S. in the later years of the 1900s.

As a boy I most certainly did not grow up in anything approaching a manor house or castle, but yet in a fairly well-off middle class family.

Our home was two stories with a finished third floor. It had no “back stairs” but for 10 steps from the landing in the living room down into what we called the “breakfast room” just off the kitchen.

My mother's father Walter and mother Delrose moved to the Pittsburgh area house from Cambria County. Walter, who died before my birth, opened a drug store on East Ohio Street on Pittsburgh's North Side. My mother told me that he earned enough in the profession to have hardwood floors put in the house during the Depression. In the basement, in what we called the paint cellar when I was a kid, were wooden shelves along one wall where grandfather had kept his pharmaceuticals.

More to the point of reflecting change, these grandparents moved to the area with six children, my mother being the eldest. In the ensuing years, mother and dad lived in the home with my widowed grandmother and me. One aunt and her husband lived next door on the uphill side, another and her husband lived next door on the other side with her husband and two sons, a third aunt lived two doors away with her husband and two sons. Only one of the six moved elsewhere in the area and he was a milkman who stopped at the house each weekday morning for coffee. My sister married when I was 4 and eventually moved to just a block from the family homestead.

We had no drama akin to those of the Grantham family, but there were daily conversations in the breakfast room as each daughter visited for coffee. Often the talk centered on the one daughter who was not visiting.

Families living in such tight circles was not uncommon in those days. I have recalled in this column before about having written stories about the state's taking of homes for construction of the East Street Valley Expressway (Route 279) in the city's North Side and how often the result was to split about families.

Today the change in our culture is especially evident as in so many families the sons and daughters must live in other states or even countries, most often because of work obligations.

The family unit, which holds center stage in “Downton Abbey” has been ever-eroding.

We haven't witnessed the final episodes of “Downton” yet, however one wonders if some of the house staff might be forced to head to the U.S. to make use of their talents. That certainly happened in many Irish families during and after the Great Famine.

So, if you are a young talent thinking of entering the arts of writing, producing, directing or acting, there is a ready-made theme.

A thin local connection

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham in “Downton” also played the real-life Evelyn Nesbit in the 1981 film “Ragtime.” Nesbit, a chorus girl and artists' model, was a native of Tarentum and became the wife of Harry K. Thaw, son of coal and railroad baron William Thaw. The young Thaw, whose mother was from Armstrong County, donated the bell in Appleby Manor Church. Thaw rose to infamy when in a fit of jealousy he fatally shot the renowned architect Stanford White in New York City in 1906.

As I say, the connection is thin.

Meandering appears Fridays. To share your thoughts on this column (or on most anything) with News Editor Mike O'Hare, write to the Leader Times, P.O. Box 978, Kittanning, PA 16201 or via e-mail to

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