We have all watched those sumptuous dinner scenes in Downton Abbey, but how many of you have wondered what it would be like to step through the looking glass and join them at the dinner table? And which character specifically would you want to join? I’d bet a lot of you would choose Mr. Bates. Even Daisy has said she’s always thought him to be a ‘romantic figure’. So what would it be like if he had the night off from his duties at the Big House, and could spend it relaxing, with someone else (i.e. you) waiting on him for a change? Well, one New York fan recently got that chance! You may have read that the Origin Theatre Company had a charity auction where people could bid on a special dinner date with Brendan Coyle, the actor who plays Mr. Bates. But you haven’t read the real story, until now…
First, let’s find out something about The Origin Theatre Company, which created this opportunity for one lucky New Yorker. I asked a few questions of George Heslin, its founder and creative director:
E20Launderette: Tell me a little bit about the Origin Theatre.
George Heslin: I founded The Origin Theatre Company in 2002. We looked at award winning playwrights all across Europe and we discovered that they have difficulty gaining access to the American market. Our mission became to launch award winning playwrights here in the United States. In ten years we have launched forty European playwrights. Ten years ago, we were the first company to produce the work of Enda Walsh, who just won eight Tony Awards for ‘Once’. His career began at Origin. And there are many other stories like that. Also, five years ago I started the Irish Theatre Festival here in the city. Held in September, it’s called First Irish and it’s a festival dedicated to Irish playwrights. In the last four years we have presented plays by 64 Irish playwrights in fifteen venues across the city.
E20: How did Brendan Coyle get involved with the Origin Theatre?
GH: My background is acting as well as directing, and twenty years ago Brendan and I worked together in the West End of London. We did two projects together. One was called ‘Philadelphia, Here I Come’ by Irish playwright Brian Friel. And we did a play called ‘Eligies For Angels, Punks and Raging Queens’, by Billy Russell, an American playwright. Brendan and I became friends and we have remained in contact.
E20: Whose idea was the auction?
GH: It came up as a suggestion from a board member at a recent meeting, and somebody said, ‘don’t you know Brendan Coyle?’ I said yes, and I have to be honest, I didn’t realize how well known he was. (laughs) So we reached out to Brendan, and we had an auction prize of dinner at Claridge’s in London. Then we asked him if he would come to our fund raiser here so he did. And while he was here he announced that he was becoming our honorary patron so he’s very much a part of the family now.
E20: And the winning fan was supposed to wait on him?
GH: Yes. The idea was, you spend an evening with Mr. Bates, read him your favorite poems, you get to take him to dinner, you get to drop him home in a taxi, that kind of idea.
E20: Are there any plans for him to appear in any productions here?
GH: We’re definitely in talks at the moment. We’re probably going to do some readings later in the year, and then we’re looking at doing a production with Brendan, but nothing is confirmed yet.
The current production at the Origin Theatre Company is ‘Tiny Dynamite’, by Abi Morgan. If you’d like to find out more about the company or any or their productions, please check out their website.
OK, that sounds promising! But of course Mr. Heslin can’t confirm if Brendan will be jumping the pond any time soon: We all know that Bates has to get out of jail first! And if you’re keeping score, that’s now two Downton actors with plans to possibly tread the boards here in NYC. I say, keep them coming!
And now, let’s meet Long Islander Sandra Doshner, who participated in the auction and put in the winning bid of $20,000 for that dinner date with Bates:
E20Launderette: How did you hear about the auction?
Sandra Doshner: There was a piece in the Daily Mail in London that got posted on one of the fan Facebook pages the week before. At first it was supposed to be a meet and greet event, but then they added the dinner auction.
E20: What made you decide to bid?
SD: Placing a bid and deciding to go for the win were new experiences, but it was time to jump into the deep end of the pool. I wanted to meet the creative artist who had nailed the pivotal scene of Downton Abbey Season 2 with two words of dialogue and two tears. Everyone else in that scene were reacting to his anguished tone, expression and demeanor. It was fantastic.
E20: What scene was that?
SD: That was the courtroom (verdict) scene.
E20: Have you ever done anything like this before?
SD: This was my first time at an auction of any kind, but the time was right for risk taking and new adventures. And since it was for charity, and the prize was so special, I thought, why not take a chance?
E20: Is Bates your favorite Downton Abbey character?
SD: Yes, Mr. Bates is my favorite character. Julian Fellowes wrote the role with Mr. Coyle in mind, giving the show its lynchpin and conscience, with a stoicism taken to a degree just shy of emotional repression. Mr. Bates is the everyman in this social class study that is a microcosm of history and society. I always feel that Lord Grantham is the heart of the house while Mr. Carson is the rudder that keeps it true to its set course. But I really think that Mr. Bates is the moral compass. I am a fan, and student, of Downton Abbey. I say this to address the media labeling me Downton‘s #1 and biggest fan.
E20: Can you tell me a bit about your experience with the tabloids after this event? Did the media label you Downton’s #1 fan in a disparaging way?
SD: I took it that way. But I don’t think you can classify me as that. We don’t know, there could be people who are really into it…
E20: And dressing in costumes.
SD: Exactly. Or have more memorabilia than can fit in their house. I think I’m more of a student of the show than just a fan. I never expected the feeding frenzy that accompanied the initial release of my story. I had one phone interview and I gave my answers, but I told them what questions I wouldn’t answer. They made up answers anyway and we were off. The story went worldwide. Both the press coverage, and the public response, turned the whole thing mean, nasty and personal. It was bad enough that it almost soured a rather wonderful experience for me.
E20: Is there any other Downton Abbey actor you’d like to bid on for a similar date like this?
SD: They are all wonderfully talented actors, and I would love to meet each one and spend days chatting with them all. But once you’ve done something like this once, doing it again couldn’t be nearly as special. All the spontaneity and excitement would be gone.
E20: What did you two talk about on your dinner date?
SD: Anything and everything. It was a wide array of subjects and there was no lull in the conversation.
E20: Did you ask him any questions about the show?
SD: Just a little bit about Downton Abbey. Just general things. I didn’t think I should ask him specifics about the show because, first, I know they’re not supposed to talk about it – not that he was ever going to reveal any secrets about the show. He knows better. And second, I like to be surprised by the show, so I wouldn’t want to spoil any secrets for myself!
E20: Was the dinner date all that you hoped it would be?
SD: Absolutely. I entered the event with no pre-conceptions about how it would play out. The photos, the carriage ride with my reading poetry, drinks and a magnificent dinner at Per Se, all took on a surreal quality. Mr. Coyle is very charming, and a great dinner companion. He put me totally at ease. So aside from the evening flying by at what seemed like warp speed, it was more than I could have imagined it to be.
E20: You read him poetry? Did he read any to you?
SD: That was part of the set-up for the date: You had to read him poetry while taking a carriage ride through Central Park.
E20: Oh, so they told you to read him poetry?
SD: Yes, that wasn’t my idea. (laughs) But hey, I can do it. Why not? I mean it would have been nicer if he was doing the reading, but it was role reversal.
E20: Yes, it would have been nicer hearing that Irish lilt reading the poetry.
SD: Yes. But no, it was my Brooklyn accent reading the poetry. (laughs)
E20: I’m glad we could get that clear because the press mentioned you reading him poetry and I thought, that’s weird. They never explained that that was to be part of the date set-up. That’s a very important part of the story!
SD: Yes, it is! That’s why I said it was taking a risk. If you let your mind think, ‘this is an award winning stage actor and I’m reading him poetry’, you wouldn’t do it. But you just had to wing it.
E20: What other British shows do you watch?
SD: My history with Masterpiece and the British period dramas goes back to Poldark. I couldn’t really pick one favorite. The Jewel in the Crown, Brideshead, I Claudius, and A Piece of Cake are right up there. And, of course, I love the comedies. My favorite will always be As Time Goes By. Even though I know all the dialogue, I still love to visit with Jean and Lionel. Other favorites include The Vicar of Dibley, Fawlty Towers, Mr. Bean and Monty Python.
E20: Are you a supporter of THIRTEEN and WLIW?
SD: Yes, I’m a member. It sounds like one of the commercials, but I don’t watch television much. I’m a sports nut, I’ll watch sports, but for television, I’m not interested in Snooki, the Kardashians, Housewives. I’m not going to waste my precious time with those shows. No, no, no, no, no. Give me The Jewel in the Crown, please. Give me Brideshead again.
E20: Is there anything else you’d like to say about this experience?
SD: I want to thank you for this opportunity to tell the story in my own terms and be sure that it won’t be turned into something that is wasn’t. It’s really been a great experience and I now highly recommend taking a chance like this to do something you really want to do. Go for it!
E20: Thank you for taking the time with us!
So Downtonians, if you could spend an evening in Sandra’s shoes and have dinner with one of the characters (or actors) from Downton Abbey, which one would it be? Please tell us below.
And stay tuned for my next Dispatch, which will be a veritable jumble sale of Downton Abbey news as well as a preview of some new British programs that those THIRTEEN truffle hounds have dug up for us! See you then. TA!