Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for 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.
Summertime has come and gone. Have you enjoyed watching the reruns of Seasons 1 & 2 of Upstairs Downstairs? I have, and it’s made me wish the BBC had ordered a Season 3 as well. I want to know what happened to everyone at 165 Eaton Place during the war! Now their fates will be left to our imaginations. Ah well, with summer over it’s time to relish the last of the Jersey tomatoes and look forward to everything autumn has to offer (and there’s a lot on offer this autumn on Thirteen and WLIW!) But first…
Alfie Takes Manhattan: It is always fun to have a British actor in our midst and a couple of weeks ago, some EastEnders fans were treated to a fun and fabulous evening as EastEnders star Shane Richie (AKA Alfie Moon) was in town for a little business/holiday, and decided to have a meet & greet with fans while here. There were about thirty two fans in attendance upstairs at Churchill’s Tavern in Murray Hill and we all had a grand old time. People often say that you shouldn’t meet people you are a fan of as they are bound to disappoint, but that could not be farther from the truth with Shane. I cannot say enough about what a lovely guy he is (I don’t know if blokes like to be described as ‘lovely’, but he is!) If you are a fan of EastEnders, he is everything you would want him to be: Funny, gracious, cheeky, flirty and kind are the words that immediately come to mind to describe him. As well as very patient with our New York brand of American enthusiasm (and there was quite a lot of that enthusiasm on display!) For over three hours he posed for pictures and chatted away with us as we all hung around by the bar. After a while, I pointed out to him a woman who was sitting across the room by herself because she walks with a cane and couldn’t stand around with everyone. He immediately walked over, sat down next to her to have a chat. Like I said, a lovely guy!
At one point in the conversation, Shane was trying to explain that American fans are different than British ones, in their view of EastEnders and enthusiasm for it (it is interesting to note that we have heard the same thing from the actors from Downton Abbey.) He couldn’t quite articulate that difference, but I thought about it afterwards and I think the difference might be this: Expectation. For us in America, England has really always been a kind-of fairy tale place. Afterall, they do have kings and queens and knights and castles. To us, England is a place where fables breathe real air. We have all grown up on Peter Pan and Mary Poppins, Robin Hood and King Arthur, before moving on to Jane Austen and Shakespeare and Charles Dickens and too many others to count. So many of the legends of our imaginations come from English literature it is no stretch for us to think of EastEnders (or Downton Abbey) as just one more in that long, glorious line of British stories. And because of that we come to it with no baggage, no expectation that the characters should represent us or reflect our lives or identities (though ironically, especially in the early days of EastEnders, when it was a grittier show, it was much more realistic than its American nightime drama counterparts). But because we meet the show without that weight of expectation, we don’t ask questions of it (aside from silly ones like, why are all the refrigerators so tiny?). We are free to simply enjoy it for what it is. We have no need for it to be anything else. We are free to see Mr. Darcy as a posh antecedent to Alfie Moon if we want too (and some of us do!)We are hoping that Shane will be able to return to NYC next year for a knees up with WLIW (keep your fingers crossed!) but til then, I know I speak for everyone in attendance when I say we are very grateful for his generosity of spirit and we sincerely thank him for his time! You can catch EastEnders Wednesday nights at 10PM on WLIW.
And now for something completely different: OK, now having said that we don’t need or expect our British telly to be anything but a treat, along comes a yummy little slice of life drama called Last Tango in Halifax. I just finished watching the first episode (premiering Sunday, September 8 at 8PM) and it is absolutely brilliant (in the British sense of the word). Right from the start this series will capture the imagination of anyone who has ever harbored a secret longing for a childhood sweetheart and wondered what would have happened if… woulda, shoulda, coulda. Have you ever wondered, did I hesitate at the wrong moment and miss my fate? I know that at times I wondered that, and tried for a similar reconnection after my 20th class reunion (though that reconnection only confirmed that I could stop wondering; I had made the right choice!) But while my reunion was not exactly the ‘See ya Hubbell’ moment I was hoping for, Alan and Celia seem to be a bit more lucky when they reconnect after over 50 years.
Can it be that it was all so simple then? It was. Or was it? The friend who may have plotted to keep you apart can pale in comparison to the whirlwind a collection of dysfunctional adult children and grandchildren can create and the tsuris causes us wonder, can they recapture that innocent simplicity of youth and start over? I suppose we’ll watch the answers to these questions (and more) unfold over the course of this six episode series.
For British telly fans this show is made even more fun by the who’s who cast, starting with Derek Jacobi (as Alan) and Anne Reid (as Celia). Even before I recognized Celia’s face I recognized that voice: It is Mrs. Thackery from the recent Upstairs Downstairs series. And Sir Derek Jacobi has been everywhere forever. Between them and the rest of the cast, who play their families, you have seen these actors just about everywhere; from MI5 to Larkrise to Candleford to New Tricks to Dr. Who and more (even Benny Hill!)
The series is based on a true story and is beautifully written and acted. It so neatly lingers on small, subtle moments in the lives of these characters you don’t feel like you are watching them on TV; you feel like you are sitting across the table from them. Reid and Jacobi give performances of such an elegant economy you can see the thoughts and emotions wash across their faces. And you immediately start rooting for this couple to make it against the odds and give hope to us all.
What a joy it is to watch brilliance at work, and Last Tango in Halifax is a sweet little joy that will go down a treat! This is appointment TV. It runs Sunday nights from September 8 to October 13 on Thirteen (and Monday nights on WLIW). You will absolutely LOVE it!
The Rain in Spain Falls Mainly in the Plain: Michelle Dockery may talk posh, and she does the cool imperiousness of Lady Mary so well, you’d never know her family is from the East End of London - and she grew up in Essex, and had to lose her Essex (ie; Cockney) accent to work as an actress. She talks about it in this article. We knew there was summink about her we liked!
Fellowes’ Faves: When you think back over season 3 of Downton Abbey, what moments stand out as the most unforgettable? There were so many moments both big and small it’s hard to choose. The one that seems to stand out the most (simply because of the outcry) had to be Matthew’s ‘death’ (I say ‘death’ because I know there are a few holdouts who are still hoping it’s an elaborate ruse). But when I sit and think about it, I’d say Sybil’s death was more shocking and brutal, though even her death itself wasn’t the most memorable moment for me. To me the most memorable moment would be Cora sitting with her body, talking to her, saying goodbye and reassuring her that everything would be OK. I still get chocked up just thinking about it now. Similarly, Ethel saying goodbye to baby Charlie was gut-wrentching as well. But enough sadness; for pure hilarity you couldn’t beat Lady Edith being left at the alter. What are your choices? Do yours match up with those of Downton creator Julian Fellowes? If you’d like to compare, just check here.
Downton Abbey Season 4 will be coming soon with (I’m sure) even more memorable moments. But until Lord and Lady Grantham return, let’s spend Sunday nights getting acquainted with Alan and Celia of Last Tango in Halifax (and that’s just the start of what’s in store for us this autumn!)
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