My word, a bloody good upper-crust soap

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Readers are politely advised that the following column is best read with a nice cup of tea and perhaps a buttered scone or crumpet. Ring the bell for the butler before proceeding.

I say, are you ready now? Frightfully good. As you may have surmised, today's subject is "Downton Abbey," which has just completed its second season on the PBS "Masterpiece Classic" series, leaving large numbers of American viewers wishing they had a footman.

Sorry, I can't help them there. I was always a leg man myself. Indeed, as with many fads in popular culture, I was rather slow to appreciate the virtues of "Downton Abbey."

It was the name that put me off. If you live in the Pittsburgh area, it's hard to read Downton without seeing it as Downtown, famously pronounced "Dahntahn" hereabouts in a rush of tortured vowels, sometimes coupled with a dangling "and that," rendered "n'at."

Why, we could be watching something about Dahntahn Abbey n'at, perhaps set in one of Pittsburgh's superior suburbs such as Fox Chapel. In this show, the valet would inquire: "My lord, would you like your Steelers jersey set out now or after church?"

But lacking such appeal, my own interest in "Downton Abbey" slumbered on -- that is, until my own lady of the house became interested in the tale of post-Edwardian England. Jolly interested, actually.

It was Freud who asked: What do women want? I always thought that it was back rubs, but it seems that they also want to imagine living in a grand house and having a willing staff to wait on them hand and foot.

Instead, they must often settle for an inert husband occupying a sofa. Apparently, a resident leg man who occasionally rises on those legs to take out the trash is no substitute for a footman and all the rest -- and so they dream. Dashed puzzling, if you ask me.

So, moved by mysterious yearnings, my lady ordered the DVD of the first season of "Downton Abbey" and we were soon vicarious residents of Lord Grantham's mansion while simultaneously watching on TV the second season, which ended Sunday night.

It turned out to be a splendid show, not only sumptuous visually but also rich in character. The English occupy a small damp island, and it would seem that characters rise up like mushrooms in that environment, with some poisonous toadstools thrown in for dramatic effect.

Unforgettable characters include the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith) who moves her stately head like a superior and disapproving iguana. For his part, the butler Carson (Jim Carter) has the head of a formidable and very proper bison, a beast not usually associated with England but well-adapted to survive in notoriously drafty English houses. Next season, Shirley MacLaine joins the cast as Lady Grantham's American mother.

Into the mouths of the many characters, the screenwriter Julian Fellowes puts many a witticism and telling phrase. To those who like a few bon mots -- and, as I always say, if you are going to say a mot it's best to make it bon -- "Downton Abbey" is the show for you.

What is amazing is how much goes on in the abbey. You would think that the most that would happen is the odd argument about place settings.

But the plot is propelled by the sinking of the Titanic, and what follows is the search for a new heir, the First World War, ill-advised courtships, the appearance of a disfigured character who may be the old heir, the Spanish flu epidemic, deaths, the kissing of maids, an unwed mother, black market activity, a valet charged with murder, a shocking secret scandal involving a Turkish visitor found dead in a lady's bed, a lady eloping, a dog disappearing, an engagement with suitor on bended knee and anything else you can think of. Why, my own dear lady's book club doesn't trade in this much gossip and intrigue.

Which brings me reluctantly to the terrible truth: "Downton Abbey" is really a soap opera. Oh, yes, it is fancy English lavender soap in dainty packaging, and the opera may be Gilbert and Sullivan, but soap opera nonetheless.

It's quite vulgar of me to point this out, but it is true. The breathless characters of The Young and the Restlessly Bosomy, or whatever daytime network soaps pander to those stuck at home, are the close American cousins of Lord and Lady Grantham. As Kipling wrote, the colonel's lady and Judy O'Grady are sisters under their skins.

Oh dear, this has quite worn me out. I shall ring for more tea. Wait! I forgot: I am writing this Downtown.


Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668. Read his blog "Reg on Wry" at www.post-gazette.com/regonwry .


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