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Hillary Atkin

PBS Hopes to Fill the ‘Downton Abbey’ Void by Giving Fans the Royal Treatment

Aug 5, 2016

When the ornate doors of “Downton Abbey” closed earlier this year — despite the fact that creator Julian Fellowes gave nearly all of the beloved characters a happy series-ending sendoff — millions of viewers around the world were left with a gaping hole in their hearts.

And for PBS, where “Downton” appeared on “Masterpiece” for six seasons and engendered huge ratings for the public broadcaster, that’s a huge hole to fill.

Thus, at the first TCA summer press tour since then sans the “Abbey” dwellers, PBS highlighted what it hopes will be similarly addictive programming with the miniseries “Victoria.”

For those who need a quick history lesson on the British monarchy — and many at TCA did — Victoria became Queen of England in 1837 when she was just 18 years old, and reigned over the British Empire for 63 years, a period of time known as the Victorian era. Married to Prince Albert, with whom she had nine children, the queen was famous for her candor and spirit and seemed to have it all, a passionate marriage and control over the world’s then-biggest superpower, which was in major expansion mode.

It’s heady stuff to chronicle in the eight-part series that premieres in January 2017, with actress Jenna Coleman portraying Victoria, Rufus Sewell as Lord Melbourne, her first prime minister and a close friend, and Tom Hughes as Prince Albert.

The first season of the program was shot in a re-created Buckingham Palace in Yorkshire.

Coleman drew inspiration for her role by reading the Queen’s diaries, which were illustrated with her own artwork. “You can see her passionate nature, and her sketch work was interesting. You can see what drew her eye and can also see the world through her eyes,” said Coleman, who also noted that the Queen’s original name was Alexandria and that she changed it to Victoria upon taking the throne.

“They were really into each other,” said creator and executive producer Daisy Goodwin about Victoria’s relationship with Albert. “He even designed a bedroom for them on the Isle of Wight where he could lock the door from the bed, which was quite fanciful and presumably how they had nine children.”

Other dramatic elements that will be depicted and were revealed by Goodwin include an assassination attempt on Victoria when she was pregnant with her first child, the fact that she and Albert were first cousins and that many in the British public didn’t want her to marry him because he was German and wasn’t “grand” enough or higher up on the social ladder. Many even considered him a fortune hunter.

British royals are also front and center when “The Hollow Crown” returns for a second cycle with “The Wars of the Roses,” a Shakespearean three-parter which premieres Dec. 11 on “Great Performances.” Tom Sturridge stars as King Henry VI and Sophie Okonedo portrays Queen Margaret. Esteemed British actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Judi Dench and Hugh Bonneville also have roles in the drama, which unfolds as bitter rivalries erupt within the English court after a young Henry marries Margaret. As the actors bottom-lined it in a Q&A after clips were played, he didn’t want to be King, but she wanted to be Queen.

Unusually for a British actor, Sturridge had never done Shakespeare before, admitting it was an extraordinarily steep learning curve, while for Okonedo, the production felt like theater.

“Filming at every castle in England with the actors was a bit like repertory theater, even though we were filming,” she said. “Being really there at amazing castles in heavy costumes made everything real and visceral. We did rehearse for six weeks, which is unusual for film.”

Anglophiles will also be able to dip into history with another upcoming program that was showcased, Season 2 of “Poldark,” in which a love triangle is set against the cinematic backdrop of 18th century Cornwall. The romantic saga is based on the novels of Winston Graham and premieres Sept. 25 on “Masterpiece.”

“Mercy Street” gained a large following in its first season and its second installment continues to explore the chaos at a hospital in Alexandria, Va., and the interpersonal relationships of its staff as the Civil War intensifies in 1862. A new character, Charlotte Jenkins — portrayed by Patina Miller — is an abolitionist from the North who becomes enmeshed in educating the city’s burgeoning black population.

No PBS TCA presentation would be complete without the participation of acclaimed documentarian Ken Burns. He was there as co-director and executive producer with Artemis Joukowsky of “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” which premieres Sept. 20.

The documentary explores the saga of Martha and Waitstill Sharp, a Unitarian couple from Massachusetts who leave their children behind and go to Europe on missions to save hundreds of Jews and other refugees fleeing the Nazi occupation. The story is told through letters and journals of the couple and features firsthand accounts of those they rescued. Tom Hanks voices those written by Waitstill Sharp.

Joukowsky is the grandson of the Sharps. He brought the story to Burns, who called it “a story firing on all cylinders,” as the couple puts the well-being of strangers over a two-year period above that of their own family.

An in-depth look at the most compelling presidential races in modern history is the focus of “The Contenders: 16 for ’16,” executive produced and hosted by Carlos Watson. The eight-part series revisits the past 50 years of presidential election history and looks at how past campaigns — including those of Howard Dean, Michael Dukakis, Geraldine Ferraro, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Ralph Nader — still influence politics leading up to the present-day presidential election.

“Frontline’s” series “The Choice” returns this fall with a two-hour film investigating what has shaped the two current presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Veteran filmmaker Michael Kirk looks at formative experiences in both candidates’ lives through interviews with those who know them best.

“If I do my job right, haters might not hate as much, but will understand more,” Kirk said. “The film will give viewers an opportunity to understand them in a very divisive and complicated time. There’s plenty of information that will be new to you.”

PBS’s “Great Performances” will bring viewers front-row seats to the Tony Award-winning musical “Hamilton” and take them behind the scenes in “Hamilton’s America.”

While the story of Alexander Hamilton is remembered for its dramatic conclusion in which he was killed in a duel by Vice President Aaron Burr, Hamilton’s contributions to society had been largely forgotten until the hit musical took Broadway by storm last year.

Doing the narrative in hip-hop shows the genius of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who has redefined how audiences learn about history and engage with timeless issues.

Cast member Daveed Diggs, who recently left the Broadway production and will soon be seen on Season 3 of ABC’s “black-ish,” appeared on a panel about the documentary with filmmaker Alex Horwitz and executive producer David Horn.

“There weren’t a lot of warts to be shown. This wasn’t ‘Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’ or the making of ‘Company’ where there was lots of acrimony,” said Horwitz, a longtime friend of Miranda’s who had unfettered access to the cast during production of his documentary.

Music fans across diverse genres will enjoy “Soundbreaking: Stories From the Cutting Edge of Recorded Music,” an eight-part series premiering Nov. 14. It was the last project of legendary Beatles producer Sir George Martin and looks at pivotal innovations, from the Beatles’ groundbreaking use of multi-track technology to the synthesized stylings of Stevie Wonder to the modern art of sampling. Among those interviewed are Elton John, B.B. King, Annie Lennox, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr.

“You have a sense of the continuum of decades of record making,” said music producer Don Was, who participated in the panel discussion and Q&A with series producer Jeff Dupre and music producers Peter Asher, Linda Perry and Hank Shocklee. Amongst them, they have produced seminal works with artists including James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt, Adele, Christina Aguilera, Public Enemy, LL Cool J, Bonnie Raitt, Garth Brooks, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones.

PBS traditionally ends each day of its two-day TCA sessions with memorable performances. This year the audience was treated to a private concert featuring celebrated soprano Renée Fleming the first night and a virtuoso mini-concert by violinist Joshua Bell to close out the confab. Both artists will be featured in upcoming televised performances.

One Comment

  1. What about “Call The Midwife”? Will it return?

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