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PBS
Jim Carter plays Mr. Carson on PBS’ popular show “Downton Abbey.”
Commentary

Dissecting the ‘Downton Abbey’ allure

– Happy Holidays, Anglophiliacs!

Because they’ve come early, here to Washington in all their Masterpieced, alabastered, glory. Lady-Grantham-I-mean-Elizabeth-McGovern. You have the most beautiful skin in the universe. I want to eat your face.

It’s a Thursday night in mid-December at the British ambassador’s residence. Sir Peter Westmacott has loosed among his several hundred ecstatic party guests six cultural imports: the cast of “Downton Abbey.”

You know. That show about class and culture and Maggie Smith’s pruny, pickled, Englishy Englishness. (“What is a week-end?” she asks her working-class grandson-in-law. PBS sells tote bags bearing the phrase).

Important matters first, because what you really want to know is what everyone looks like when not rolled up in poplin: Joanne Froggatt (ladies’ maid Anna) is wearing a dress featuring cutouts of cats. Sophia McShera (kitchen maid Daisy) has on a fun skirt and booties. Rob James-Collier (evil footman Thomas) is stubbly. Jim Carter (butler Mr. Carson) is 11 feet tall with the best eyebrows. Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) looks exactly the same as he does on-screen. He is in tweed.

The ostensible purpose of the event is to fete Season 3, which, having aired in the U.K., will finally wing its way to the United States tonight. The United States is excited about this. Evidence: Michelle Obama reportedly requested a sneak preview be delivered to the White House.

“I’ve got a wife and a child, but I’m willing to get rid of them for the first lady,” James-Collier roguishly jokes with a crowd of admirers.

“Excuuuuse me, Rob.” Carter, in boom-boom baritone, elbows his way into the throng. “Haven’t you got enough of the ladies around?”

He has many ladies. These ladies include, at this moment, “Washington Week’s” Gwen Ifill. She is a “D.A.” fan. Perhaps now is a good time to try to explore the lure of “Downton Abbey.”

It is about a big, giant house filled with attractive rich people and the servants who work for them. They change their clothes six times a day. They are always about to lose the family fortune, the aristocracy is always withering, the second footman is always trying to become the first footman. Critics and pundits have tried to wrap grand meaning around the show’s success: It’s because we love/hate/long for the past. It’s because we love/admire/are the English.

It’s really just a soap opera with accents.

These critics and pundits are simply not giving enough credit to how much women love Mr. Bates.

Also men:

“I like Mr. Bates,” says CBS’ Bob Schieffer, a guest who stood in the first row for a brief cast Q&A. “It’s such a great show.”

In the U.K., where the show is filmed, the cast is lauded. But, they say, they are lauded in a reserved, puckish way – praise given with the intent of not being too praiseful, of not letting anybody’s head get too big. This is not a concern in America, where we adore big heads and do what we can to inflate them.

“It’s like this,” Carter says. “I met a woman in Los Angeles, and she told me that my character in ‘Downton Abbey’ made her want to live a better life.” He met a fan back home, in England, and the man told him, “Oh. The wife watches that program.”

In England, Carter says, “that was the compliment.”

Here on the American tour, the response has been overwhelming, the cast says. At their last stop, in New York, a reservation mix-up caused McShera and Froggatt to be placed in the presidential suite of their hotel.

“It had a kitchen!” Froggatt exclaims.

“But there was nothing in the kitchen. No kettle, nothin’,” McShera says.

“Well, there was a toaster.”

And the women are very appreciative of their fans. They know what it’s like to be fans of something.

“I love ‘Girls,’ ” confesses McShera, a 20-something who falls right in Lena Dunham’s demographic. “I would die if I met (that cast). I would just die.”

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