‘Downton Abbey’s’ Stiff Upper Lips Get Loose for a Night

Jul 24, 2012

It was beginning to look like a scene out of "Magic Mike." At the end of a raucous and well-received presentation by the creator and cast of "Downton Abbey,” Emmy lead actor nominee Hugh Bonneville got up, turned around and started taking off some clothing.

Triumphantly, Bonneville, a.k.a. Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, revealed a T-shirt that read "Free Bates," the jailed manservant on the highly acclaimed PBS “Masterpiece” series, now heading into its third season.

It was a fitting conclusion to a dinner panel Saturday, July 21, before the Television Critics Association at the Beverly Hilton, which had begun with a spoof reel that featured, among other parodies, the one on “Saturday Night Live” that called the Crawley daughters “hot," "hotter" and "the other one" and referred to actress Maggie Smith as "an old lady who looks like a chicken."

It proved that even though stiff upper lips grace many of the show’s British characters, they can still laugh at themselves. And they’re laughing themselves all the way to the Emmy Awards, with the giddiness of 16 noms pervading the proceedings that gave the gathered their first sneak peek of Season 3, set to debut in January.

Series executive producer Rebecca Eaton started things off by noting that ATAS’ awards guru John Leverence told her that between last year — when the program was in the miniseries category — and this year as a drama series, “Downton” is the most nominated non-American drama in Emmy history.

Creator and writer Julian Fellows, executive producer Gareth Neame and cast members Bonneville, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt and Elizabeth McGovern appeared with the newest member of the family, Shirley MacLaine.

If you thought Lady Mary created drama and caused trouble, wait until you see MacLaine arrive from across the pond at the Abbey as Cora Crawley’s American Jewish mother, Martha Levinson. Just her first encounter with Maggie Smith is priceless.

“She and I were lovers in another life," MacLaine joked when asked whether she had previously known Smith — before relating a somewhat ribald story about their initial meeting at the catering table at the Oscars 40 years ago.

MacLaine’s candor led to several instances of the audience whooping with laughter at her remarks, including her admission that she wasn’t a fan of the show before being offered the role. She hadn’t seen it, but had heard about it from her hairdresser. Clearly, that’s all changed and she is just the newest admirer of Julian Fellowes, “Downton’s” creator, writer and executive producer.

MacLaine’s presence is also giving new depth to McGovern’s character, a backstory come to life. "She’s given Cora great humor, strength and flexibility," said McGovern of their American lineage. "Cora is an icon who has gone out of fashion. She’s more old-fashioned with her idea of women’s strength. She’s quieter and more self-effacing. It’s nice to resurrect the idea of that kind of female strength.” Added Fellowes, “Cora is less afraid of the future than Robert," referring to her on-screen husband played by Bonneville.

Asked if she shares any characteristics with her character, McGovern replied, "No, I’m a raging lunatic." MacLaine rapidly agreed, again, to more peals of laughter from a crowd not normally known for exuberance.

A huge spoiler for the upcoming season was revealed in the preview trailer, one that will inform most of the proceedings. We have decided to keep it under our corset, but can liberally quote Fellowes.

"This season is about recovery from the war [World War I]. The war brought a tremendous disruption to England. There are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters, some laughs and some tears," he said. "The liberation is going back to issues like women’s rights that you wouldn’t find in a period novel, but we’re careful to give people reactions of the time."

Dissecting the show further, he said the decision had made to make it more like American television. “There are both big and little plots and that’s right for the energy of now," Fellowes said. "It looks like a period piece, but the energy is much more modern."

MacLaine agreed. “What [Fellowes] has done so brilliantly is make 15 characters with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits with the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge," she said.

The Oscar-winning writer, who has had an illustrious career chronicling the class system of his native England, also addressed criticisms that have been leveled at the show, mainly concerning the historical accuracy of songs that were released at the time or turns of phrase that weren’t yet being used in the World War I era.

"The critics were wrong," he said in defending his work, citing specific examples of first usages of colloquial language such as the word "boyfriend," which had first been used decades previously.

And then it was on to a discussion of costume, and how class dictated what was worn and how easy it was to dress, and to disrobe. For the upper class, especially the women, the buttons were so small and poorly located — as MacLaine experienced — that another person was absolutely necessary to assist in getting dressed. By the same token, it might be presumed that a woman who came home with said buttons slightly askew had been with a man who was not as familiar with the procedure. Ahem.

But in the end, the lord of the manor seemed to have no trouble unbuttoning his dress shirt to reveal his true sentiment about a loyal member of his household. Stay tuned. More will be shed when “Abbey” comes to light on Jan. 6, 2013.

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