Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for Inside THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and an Eastenders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.
Yes Downtonians, I flew to London and back and lived to tell the tale! I went there with a list of things I wanted to see and do and I got to everything on my list, but one.
As I mentioned before, I was terrified of getting on the plane. Pretty much everyone had told me that I should just get a prescription from my doctor for the flight, but I had mixed feelings about doing that: Part of me felt that I should be awake and alert on the flight to concentrate on keeping the plane in the air (as well as keep an eye out for possible terrorists). But I also did not want to be one of those crazies you hear about who freak out and try to open the emergency door mid-flight. So I called the doctor and told her of my dilemma and said that if the plane crashed I wanted to sleep through it. She prescribed me a low dose of Ativan for the flights there and back. She said to take one after I’d gone through security, and then take another once I get on the plane. I wasn’t sure if I was going to take it, but was glad I had it just in case. And because I never use any kind of drug (I don’t drink either), she also gave me a couple extra to try out in advance and make sure I didn’t have a bad reaction to it and try to take my pants off over my head or something like that. Better to find that out at home. So the weekend before my trip I took one and had a great sleep. Nothing crazy to report. Just lights out. Perfect because I was taking the red-eye, flying out Saturday night to (hopefully) arrive 8AM Sunday morning.
In prepping for my flight, I did everything I could to eliminate as much stress as possible from the ordeal. I dialed 7 for a car and had it come extra early to leave time to get stuck in traffic as well as to get stuck in the long security screening lines I always hear about. But as it turned out, we sailed through to the airport with no traffic and there were no lines at security either. Starting with the cab driver, I basically blurted out to everyone I came in contact with that I was terrified of flying and hadn’t been on a plane in over 20 years. At security I was fumbling with the screening bins and I turned to apologize to the person behind me, saying “Sorry, if I’m delaying you. I have no idea what I’m doing here, I haven’t been on a plane in over 20 years” and as I was speaking I recognized it was Ben Vereen. He said, “That’s alright, you’re doing fine, My Queen.” Startled, I said, “Oh, I saw you in Pippin!” and he replied, “Make sure you see the new one”. I said, “I hope that running into you is a good sign”, and he said, “And I you my Queen”. And I thought how appropriate is this? Tomorrow I’ll be at Buckingham Palace and already I’m being addressed as “My Queen.”
Anyway, with no long lines or traffic, I got to the gate about four and a half hours before my flight and could do nothing but sit and think — and tell random strangers that I was afraid to get on the plane. After a while a man in wearing a uniform I didn’t recognize sat down next to me. I asked him if he was a flight attendant, and he said no, that he was a pilot. I said, ‘then what are you sitting here for?’ and he explained that he wasn’t flying; he’d already flown and was waiting to hitch a ride. He wasn’t a British Airways pilot but he asked me where I was going and I told him and, of course, said I was afraid of flying. He asked me what I was afraid of and I said, “Crashing.” (What else?) He said he’d been flying since he was a teenager and felt it was safer in the air than on the ground (that argument never makes me feel any better). He also said not to worry because there are air marshals on all the planes. That did make me feel a little better. Then he gave me a tip about how to relax; something he said he utilizes whenever he gets stressed out. He said, ‘”Just breathe deeply; inhale and exhale and put your hands on your stomach and keep repeating the phrase, ‘every day in every way I’m getting better and better…’” OK, seriously? This just made me more nervous.
When I finally saw some activity from British Airways behind the gate desk I went up to them and asked, “OK, what happens now?” I also asked for reassurance that there would be marshals on the plane. That’s when a man, (who turned out to be the captain), said, “No, I don’t allow any guns on my plane.” I said, “S#@&! Can I switch to a flight with marshalls?” In that instant I thought of canceling altogether. They could obviously see what, I am assuming, was a look of total terror (and nausea) on my face, and the captain turned to the supervisor and said, “Please bring this woman on the plane first, I’d like to give her a tour.” They asked me what I was afraid of (why do people ask that?) and I said “Crashing!” (Hello!) The flight attendant supervisor brought me on the plane with her when she got on and introduced me around. Everyone was very nice; they offered me champagne, they said not to worry, the flight attendants in my section introduced themselves, etc. I had the feeling they were used to giving this tour to 5 year olds, rather than grownups my age, but there I was. Then the captain took me on the tour of the plane (it was a 747 so there was an upstairs). He asked the flight attendant to bump me up to club class but I said it wasn’t necessary (yes, I’m an idiot).
He showed me the cockpit and introduced me to the co-pilot. And when I asked them what prevents terrorists from getting into the cockpit, they demonstrated how the terrorists, even if they could get onto the plane, wouldn’t be able to get through the door. The captain went outside and pretended to be a terrorist trying to get in while the co-pilot showed me the security to keep him out.
Can I just say that British Airways has THE BEST customer service anywhere? Seriously, ANYWHERE!
I don’t know if it was the Ativan or the tour, but when I sat down in my seat, I was feeling a little better, and then the rest of the passengers started arriving. There were two very fidgety kids in front of me (their father was sitting next to me) who kept jumping around and reaching through the seats and I was regretting turning down the bump up to club (it turns out there weren’t any available anyway). I thought about offering him some Ativan for his kids but I decided against it (a Girl Scout is kind to animals) and just took the second one myself (as the doctor ordered). The last thing I remember was putting on the headphones, turning on the seat back video screen and settling in to watch Frankie & Johnny. Next thing I know the video was off, so I thought I’d just nodded off and the screen went blank. When I asked the flight attendant walking down the aisle when we’d be having dinner and she said, “We already did. We’ve been trying to wake you for three and a half hours. Did you take something?” Well, that sure worked! We were now just about two hours away from landing and I was too woozy to worry about it.
When booking my flight, I paid $53 extra to be able to choose my seats so that I could guarantee a window seat because I wanted to see the view on approach. I wanted to see a view of the Thames twisting through the city. I thought it would look like this:
But it actually looked like this:
There was heavy cloud cover so we didn’t break through them until we got pretty close to the ground. Before I got off the plane I thanked everyone and exclaimed, “We made it!” The supervising flight attendant took my return details and said she would notify the crew of my returning flight to take care of me. They really go above and beyond at British Airways! My first real view of the city came while riding the tube from Heathrow to my hotel in Russell Square. During the parts of the trip that were above ground I first caught sight of the brown brick terrace houses with the big, wide white window and door mouldings that are in Walford and so many other British locales we see on TV. Like so many of the other simple sights I saw all week, it just made me smile. Wow, I’m here in England! After checking into my hotel, I popped back out and jumped on the tube to Green Park for a stroll up The Mall to Buckingham Palace (The Mall is closed to vehicles on Sundays so I figured that would be the best day to do it). It felt surreal to be standing in London! Even though it is (obviously) foreign, it felt familiar somehow, like I’d been there before – and of course I had in so many movies, TV shows, books and photographs. London has all the bustle of New York, but a lot more charm (though I have to say, as the Easter bank holiday weekend approached and the city filled up with tourists, some of that charm wore off a bit…but luckily London has plenty to spare.) What never wore off was the charm of being able to look down those ancient streets and see vistas full of graceful, old buildings — no modern architecture in sight. I absolutely loved that!
And speaking of the tube, even though Dan Stevens was recently quoted in an interview, saying he loves our New York subways, I have to say that I love the London Underground — it puts our subway system to shame! The London Underground is cleaner, faster, quieter, more attractive and the trains run more often. All of the stations and platforms have terrazzo floors (as opposed to the raw concrete floors we have) which obviously makes them easier to clean (and there are no sidewalk grates dripping down from above!) In every station, by the turnstiles, are friendly staff available for questions and every platform has digital signs informing you how long until the next three trains will arrive (even though they are running every two or three minutes). And in my last Dispatch I was wrong about the cost: You swipe your Oyster card on the way in and on the way out, and the cost is based on how far you go. If you ride from end to end it is £4.90, but within the most common zones the cost is actually not much more than what the MTA charges. I have no idea why we cannot have a first class subway system here in New York like they have in London. It can only be a lack of will on the part of the MTA and local politicians. (Pictured here is the Marble Arch tube station; the stop closest to Selfridge’s.)
Monday morning I was off to the house Mr. Selfridge built. Selfridge’s is a store designed to make fashionistas drool! It’s divided up into mini-designer boutiques and any designer who is anyone is represented. The store itself is gorgeous. And there is a tribute to the man himself: At the entrance of the downstairs food court, Mr. Selfridge stands as a sculpture made from jellybeans.
There are also a lot of chocolate coins on display which made me wonder, did he invent Chanukah gelt? I went to the food court with a mission to check out the gluten free section and boy did I find a surprise there: In the refrigerated case, what did I see but little Victoria Sponge cakes! How many times have we heard Dot Branning, or other British TV characters mention Victoria Sponge cakes over the years? More than we can count! But we don’t have them here in the States so I’ve always wondered what they were. Naturally, I had to try one (in the name of research, of course!) Delicious! What I found out was that these cakes were named after Queen Victoria who liked to have cake with her tea. There are a number of variations but the one I had, seemed to be the more common: A layer of sponge cake with a thin layer of strawberry or raspberry jam on top; onto that is schmeared with a nice thick layer of vanilla custard cream (or buttercream), topped with another layer of sponge cake and sprinkled with powdered sugar on top. Yummy!
And by the way, while I was away in London I missed the premiere of Masterpiece Classic’s Mr. Selfridge (Sundays at 9pm), as well as the season two premier of Call the Midwife (Sunday’s at 8pm) – but not to worry: If you miss an episode you can always catch up by watching them online, which is what I did when I got back.
My first visit to Selfridge’s was brief because I had a special appointment that afternoon: A private tour of the set of EastEnders, the UK’s most popular, long-running drama! The EastEnders lot is a closed set and they do not have any tours, but because I have had a long-standing relationship with the show [I edit E20 Chronicles, a weekly Eastenders e-newsletter, and The E20 Chronicles magazine that some PBS stations use to support the show,] so I had an invitation to visit in an official capacity — and what a thrill that was! The BBC Elstree Centre houses historic sound stages where all sorts of productions have been filmed, from Raiders of the Lost Ark to The King’s Speech and The Muppet Show. It has also been the home of EastEnders for the last 28 years. The lot looks like any industrial site, and then you turn the corner and suddenly you see this: The Queen Vic!
Holy cow, I’m standing in Albert Square! The first thing that surprised me about the Albert Square set is how small it is. The gardens in the center of the Square are tiny. It looks much bigger on TV. The set and all of the buildings were built to 75% of life size so that the actors look bigger. I got to see all of the outdoor lot, except I couldn’t walk down Bridge Street because they were filming a scene there in front of the Launderette. And I got to see all the indoor sets (except the inside of the Queen Vic because they were filming there as well).
I had my picture taken by the Albert Square sign (it looks like I’m doing jazz-hands here, but I’m not. I’m just always uncomfortable getting my picture taken). But the thing to notice here is not the jazz-hands; it’s the leaves on the trees. Those are fake leaves attached to the trees! The episodes they were filming are to be broadcast in early May, but where we were in the last week of March there was still snow on the ground and it was freezing! They had to clear it all off before the outdoor scenes were filmed. And the actors had to be dressed for coatless, warm May weather as well. Instead of director’s chairs, They all have big black down coats with their names on the back and between takes they get back into them. (Yes, I froze to take my coat off for the picture!)
It felt truly surreal standing there in the Square and walking around Walford. After my visit, one of the staff said they hoped it didn’t spoil the magic for me. It did not. Not at all! I’ve been on sets before and I know that a set is really just an empty shell; it’s the people, the writers, actors and crew who make the magic. But regardless, it was SO COOL to be standing there in Albert Square! I’m sure I sounded like a blathering idiot to my tour guide because I was just so overwhelmed being there (I’m such a geek!). It felt like I’d been there for just a few minutes, but when I left I looked at my watch and discovered I’d been there for two hours! I was incredibly grateful for the opportunity! It was a real thrill!
Also on on my London to-do list was going to see A Chorus Line, my second most favorite Broadway show (#1 is West Side Story). After I booked my trip, I was happy to discover it would be up on the boards while I was there. I stopped by the theatre box office about an hour before show time on Monday and was able to get a ticket in the stalls (the stalls are what we call the orchestra), second row, center for £19.50. Yes, 19 quid (about $30) for an orchestra seat! Perfect! (And by the way, the designer Valentino was sitting behind me.) The show is still One Singular Sensation. I saw the original production three times on Broadway and I went in thinking it would be fun to see it with a British accent, but it turns out they performed with American accents. It was a surprise but when I thought about it, it actually makes sense because of the time and place. It is still the original book, choreography and music and it is still absolutely brilliant. The cast is great, and it was an added bonus that the actor playing Zach is John Partridge (who played Christian Clarke on EastEnders). I knew he had a background in ballet and was in the original cast of Cats as well as numerous other West End shows, but I’d only ever seen him in EastEnders. So when I saw him, in the opening number, move across the stage in three great dance leaps it was an eye-opener. Funny how you see people in different (sometimes limited) ways and then they surprise you! And by the way, I got to meet John twice during my trip; the first time was after the show Monday night, and the second was when I was at the box office on Saturday afternoon buying a ticket to see the show (again!) and he walked up to buy tickets for his friends for that evening’s performance and both times he could not have been nicer. He was simply lovely. After the show Monday night I’d gone to check out what it was like outside the stage door and it was just like it used to be, years ago, on Broadway: Just a small handful of people really into the theater, mostly students and actors. We had a great chat about the show even though, at one point when I mentioned I’d seen the original cast on Broadway, one of the younger ones exclaimed, “Wow! I’m so jealous, that was before I was born!” (Oh, thanks a lot!) I considered slapping him but I must have still had some Ativan in my system from the flight and I let it go. Anyway, the show is brilliant. It just makes you want to get up and dance (I ended up going back to see it three times while I was there.) If you’ll be in London go see it!
I thought I was going to have the budget for just one show while I was in London, but the tickets turned out to be so affordable, I got to see four shows for what it would have cost me to see one on Broadway. Why can’t Broadway shows be as affordable as West End shows? I also saw The Audience starring Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth. That was truly great as well. I lucked out with a last minute ticket for 12th row, center, upgrading from a standing room day-ticket (funnily enough, Valentino was sitting in front of me). It is about the weekly audience the Queen has with her Prime Ministers, and there are three young actresses sharing the role of the young Princess Elizabeth, really playing her inner voice. The one who played her the night I was there, Maya Gerber, was brilliant and held her own with Helen Mirren (no small feat!). Go see it!
To be continued…no visit to Britain would be complete without a visit to Highclere Castle (AKA Downton Abbey), but you’ll have to wait til next time Downtonians…