Downton Abbey Dish #40

Deborah Gilbert | October 29, 2015

Recently I had ten days off from work and had a decision to make: Should I have a staycation here in New York City, or should I take a trip to London? London won. A trip like this is really extravagant for someone like me, and I’m sure Suze Orman would have told me I’m too old to spend the shekels, but I justified it to myself by telling myself it was only the second real vacation I’d taken in my entire adult life, so what the hell. You’ve got to live a little! I was hoping to visit Highclere Castle (whose allegedly fictional inhabitants, the Crawleys, don’t listen to Suze either), but the week I was there they were closed to the public so no dice. But that’s OK, I had an absolutely fabulous time anyway!

If you’ve been reading my Downton Abbey Dish blog a while, you know that I’m absolutely terrified of flying. [Catch up on my previous trans-Atlantic Brit TV adventure here and here.] Unfortunately, you cannot drive to London, but thanks to British Airways, who could not be nicer or more encouraging – and to my doctor for the Ativan for the trip – I made it! My goal for the trip was to see theater every night, and just have a nice, relaxing vacation.

When we landed on Saturday morning I had no time to spare before heading off to Waterloo Station to get the train to Hampton Court Palace, the happy home of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn (about a half hour outside London) to get to The Radio Times Festival. The Radio Times is the TV magazine of the BBC and the Festival included three days of events and panel discussions featuring actors, producers, etc. from many of Britain’s top shows. I had a ticket for the EastEnders panel. I wished I’d had time to stay for more of them because there were panels on Call the Midwife, Wolf Hall, Sherlock, The Great British Baking Show and plenty more.

radio_times_panelThe EastEnders panel was LOTS of fun! It was producer Dominic Treadwell-Collins, Natalie Cassidy (Sonia Fowler) and Danny Dyer (who PBS viewers haven’t met yet). Dominic is a life-long fan of EastEnders and that love of EE is evident in the show. Since he came on board as Executive Producer two years ago, EastEnders has gone from strength to strength and is dominating all the TV awards shows – and the recent 30th Anniversary whodunit storyline riveted the whole of the UK.

Before I left for London, I sent in a question for the panel in response to a request I read in a Radio Times article. I mentioned that I was flying over from the US and hoped to be there to ask it in person, so when the moderator got to the questions part of the program she said, “Is there someone named Debbie Gilbert here?” What??!!?? All flustered I stood up and promptly forgot my question and started babbling. Of course.

Many interesting tidbits came out of that panel but one of the most intriguing came when someone asked Dominic if he had a dream casting for EastEnders and he answered, “Yes, Benedict Cumberbatch”. Everyone laughed, but he went on to explain that it wasn’t as far-fetched as it might sound (even though he said that while Benedict hasn’t said no to it, he is a bit busy). It turns out he went to school with Benedict. Dominic shared a story about how the two were in a school play together. After he got off stage, Dominic went up to his mum to ask how he’d done, and she answered that he did fine, but then motioned to Benedict and said, “But THAT is an actor!”

GypsySignAfter the panel off to see Gypsy starring Imelda Staunton. I would never have thought of Imelda as Mama Rose but after seeing her I have to say she was born to play that part! She was practically other worldly – and the entire cast was fantastic! This was the best production of Gypsy I’ve ever seen. I’d almost say it was worth the airfare to London just to see it. It was so good, I saw it a second time two nights later – and I was humming the songs for a full two weeks. And it turns out there’s a Downton Abbey connection to it: I found out that Imelda Staunton is the real life wife of Jim Carter, our own Mr. Carson, Butler extraordinaire! Gypsy is up on the boards at the Savoy Theatre till the end of November. Run to see it! Then again, you might not have too: It was reported in The Daily Mail (that newspaper that Last Tango in Halifax‘s Celia Buttershaw reads, much to the horror of her husband Alan) that a few days after I saw it, the production was filmed for TV, and that might include American TV. I don’t know if that means PBS, but I can’t think of another network that would broadcast a musical recorded on the London stage, can you? Let’s all think good thoughts!

Sunday morning began with a visit to the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace. They don’t let you take pictures inside the Palace (I assume because all the flashes would be bad for the artwork), so I took this shot outside on The Mall.
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When the doors opened, as everyone else went to get headphones for the audio tour I walked on ahead. I didn’t need the audio tour because I already knew what all the rooms were from seeing them on THIRTEEN! Because of this I stayed ahead of the crowds the whole way through which allowed me to get a real feel for the place, rather than being stuck in a mob of tourists. It was rather splendid (and a little odd) to experience such an iconic space in that way.

Having had that dose of posh, I followed with a trip to the East End, to the Guild Hall to see the Pearly Festival. If you’re unfamiliar with Pearlies, they are an iconic part of the culture of the old Cockney East End; a unique charitable organization founded in the 19th century by Henry Croft, an orphaned street sweeper who made good. (You’ve also seen animated versions of them in Mary Poppins singing Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.) But the real ones are divided into various groups with each group having their own ‘royal family’.

Truthfully I was hoping to find out where I could get one of those Pearly coats, but there is no shop you can walk into and buy one. They all make their own and the Pearly titles are inherited – just like regular royal titles. I don’t know why this man is holding a big zucchini, but here’s a Pearly King with him. The other picture is of a Pearly King, Queen and Prince (that’s a lot of royalty in one picture!)
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That afternoon I ventured out to a place called Balham, to the N16 ‘fringe’ Theatre to see a one-woman play called Private Peaceful, starring Shana Swash (Demi Miller on EastEnders). It’s about a soldier in WWI and was originally written for a male actor but Shana was given special permission from the playwright to perform it. Between Downton Abbey, The Crimson Field and other shows, it seems like stories from WWI are in the forefront right now – and this was a tour de force! Afterwards I asked Shana why she chose this play that was written for a man, and she said it was because of her boisterous personality. Shana belongs on a much bigger stage. She is simply fantastic. If you ever see her performing any play, anywhere, go see it!

gypsy_selfieAfter my super-packed schedule for the first two days I was glad to have an unscheduled Monday to just walk around. That night I went to see McQueen The Play, which featured Tracy Ann Oberman (from EastEnders and New Tricks) as Alexander McQueen’s friend and muse Isabella Blow. The play is unusual, as was Alexander McQueen. It depicts his struggle with creativity and the pressure of being a genius and is somewhat reminiscent of All That Jazz in the way it explores the artist’s mind. It has amazing dancers who dance through McQueen’s dreams/nightmares and Tracy Ann is funny and poignant as Isabella. I was able to get same day (rush) seats for just 18 quid (a bargain!) It was a limited run and I was lucky to see it before it closed, but if we are all lucky it will jump the pond and end up on Broadway, (There have been a few hints that it might.) where I think it would be a huge hit. Afterwards I waited to say hi to Tracy Ann and she suggested we take a selfie. I don’t do selfies but what was I going to say? So here she is looking fabulous, with me looking like Mrs. Potatohead (as usual).

VanGoghSunflowersNatGal_cropWednesday I stopped off at the National Gallery to commune with Vinnie (i.e.: visit my favorite Van Gogh painting, one of his sunflower canvases). No visit to London would be complete without it. As you can see, everyone else was excited to see it too! It looks as if there is a light shining on it, but that it just the inner light of Van Gogh’s masterpiece. Later I met up with one of EastEnders’ writers at the private BAFTA lounge on Piccadilly for a fun chat.

Another stop was Fortnum & Mason which I’d heard all about on By Royal Appointment, a program on PBS about Royal Warrant holders. On the ground floor of the store is all the food, and I was able to pick up great gifts (including for myself) of Strawberry and Blueberry Preserves and Lemon Curd. Truth be told, I don’t quite know what Lemon Curd is or what I’m supposed to do with it, but I’d heard about it on The Great British Baking Show (as well as Martha Stewart Baking) and so I figured I’d get some and figure out what to do with it later.

liz_bagUpstairs I looked at the handbags and saw this familiar sight: It’s the bag Queen Elizabeth carries. This is where she gets hers, though I was told she has her handbag custom made with a strap that’s a bit longer. Being a New Yorker, when the sales lady walked away I looked inside to see the price: £1495. But one supposes Her Madge is good for it.

Another Royal Warrant holder I visited was Prestat Chocolatier (They invented truffles.) where I got a box for me mum where the Queen mum used to get hers. In By Royal Appointment, the show that introduced me to Prestat, the owners were mum themselves when asked which particular chocolate was the Queen mum’s favorite. That was for TV. When you go into the shop, if you ask they’ll tell you.

Another thing I had to do while in London was look for 221B Baker Street, home of the allegedly fictitious Sherlock. (How could I not?) It turns out there is a little Sherlock Holmes museum there. I just wanted to photograph the door (I didn’t have time to go through the museum), but when the museum is open the door is propped open and there’s a guard there who won’t allow you to photograph it. Harumph. I had to come back the next day, early, before they opened to take this picture. As you can see, the door is actually a bit different in the show. When they shoot on location they must replace it with their own door. Maybe that guard won’t let the production photograph the door either, or maybe they just want a slightly different look with the numbers more prominent, or maybe someone took it and sold it on eBay. I’m not sure, but anyway, mission accomplished.
221B_Baker_Street
And I didn’t mind having to go back to take the picture because I had another fun reason to be in the neighborhood: I’d been tweeting some of my London snaps when I got a private Twitter message from an old New York Eastie friend who’d noticed my tweets and asked if I was in town (as he was) and said we should meet up. So where was the perfect place to meet? The mock Arthur’s Bench at BBC Headquarters! Unlike the real Albert Square set (which is a real working set pumping out an exhausting two hours of drama every week, and is off-limits to the public), the BBC Broadcast House on Portland Place does daily tours. But you don’t even have to take the tour to see this. It’s right in the lobby cafe.

arthur_benchAnd nearby, for Dr. Who fans, is a Tardis. There is also a big glass wall that allows you to look down into the high-tech beehive that is the BBC News newsroom. You’re not allowed to photograph the newsroom but this Arthur’s Bench is set up just for pictures so we had to take one looking appropriately upset (in case you don’t watch EastEnders on WLIW21, whenever there is a scene set at Arthur’s Bench, the characters are fretting about their problems so we had to join in the fun).

By Thursday I was running low on cash (and couldn’t remember the pin numbers for my credit cards) but then I had another stroke of luck: I checked on the lottery ticket I’d bought on Monday and turned out it hit the night before! I won £25! That was enough to get me through my last day and back to Heathrow – which is where my lucky streak ran out: Airport security confiscated all the Strawberry and Blueberry Preserves and Lemon Curd from Fortnum & Mason! Sigh. And so the mysteries of lemon curd elude me still. I pictured those airport security people sitting down to a lovely tea with my goodies!

Anyway, there was lots more – but I’ve gone on long enough here. I packed A LOT into 6 days. In between all the events mentioned here I had an absolutely grand old time just walking around absorbing the culture amidst all that stunning London architecture. London is simply beautiful! According to the pedometer on my iPhone I averaged over 12 miles walked a day and over 18 stair flights a day climbed while I was there – and lost over three pounds (I couldn’t have done better at a spa!) I (sort of) joked about the extravagance above but other than the hotel and airfare, London is actually very affordable. Theater tickets are cheap and all the museums are free. I was sad to leave London behind and I hope to go back again someday. Till then, I’ll have to settle for all the fabulous British telly on THIRTEEN! And as for Highclere Castle, even if it had been open I’m not sure how I would have fit it in (though I sure would have tried!) But we’ll all be seeing it soon, on Sunday, January 3 when the 6th (and final) season of Downton Abbey begins! Can. Not. Wait!