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The 1920s Downton Abbey Television Series Scores as a Touring Exhibit

I was not a Downton Abbey fanatic, like so many Americans who watched the PBS-TV series about the British upper crust society from 1912 to the 1930s under King George V every week without fail for seven years. No, I was just a semi-fanatic. I watched two years of the hit show then stopped for some reason which I cannot remember.

The series is back, full force, in Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, a three-story exhibit of the show’s main characters, sets, manor house, cook books, memorabilia, cars and scrumptious clothing, now on display in New York City. It is loaded with hundreds of scrumptious videos from the seven years of filming and has something for everyone. No matter which character you liked, or despised, cheered or pitied, they are there on screens somewhere, popping out at you. To make fans of the show truly happy, the Dowager Countess, irascible old Violet herself, is criticizing somebody somewhere on every floor.

The extremely well-organized and marvelously presented Downton Exhibition, at 218 W. 57th Street in Manhattan on the first stop on a national tour, is a veritable Disneyworld of both historical and entertainment treasures all crammed into just several floors and jammed full of nostalgia and joy for its millions of American fans. If you never saw the show you can still have a lot of fun at the exhibit because of its charm and attention to British history, which is plentiful.

What is there in this titillating exhibit? Just about everything. Lady Mary’s complete bedroom is there, including the bed in which one of her lovers, oh my God! a Turkish diplomat, died after a nocturnal romp in the hay. There is the spacious, elegant upstairs dining hall, where the Crawley family gathered along with its wealthy guests and devoured seven course dinners, emptied dozens of bottles of fine wine and gossiped about everybody. There is the busy and noisy downstairs kitchen, that, thanks to tapes, sounds just like it did on the show. The infamous call board, with telephones for each of the staff connected to each room upstairs, is there. There is the telegram informing the family of the death of its head in the sinking of the Titanic, old telephones, dinner table place settings, exquisite gowns, tables full of jewelry, splendid tuxedoes and numerous videos of 1920s cars racing about the countrywide.

The Downton Abbey series, produced by Carnival Films and American Masterpiece, started on PBS in the U.S. on January 9, 2011. It was an instant success and over its seven years averaged around six million viewers per week in the U.S., making it one of the most successful shows in television history. The story is set in the Yorkshire country manor of the Earl and Countess of Grantham and follows the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family, that has a few snobs in its branches. It was anchored on history, starting with the Titanic sinking and then wound its storylines through the 1918 flu epidemic, World War I, the women’s suffrage movement and the jazz age. The producers used gorgeous Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, and its mammoth estate grounds, as their Abbey and the village of Brampton, nearby, for local village scenes.

The plot of the show was both simple and complex. The death of the heir to the family fortune in the sinking of the Titanic meant that eldest daughter Lady Mary had to married off to some nobleman, but that didn’t quite go right and from week to week the family either floundered or soared. The main plotlines followed the lives of the Crawleys, led by sharp tongued Dowager Countess Violet, played by the beloved Maggie Smith, and the service staff downstairs, led by the butler, Mr. Carson (he greets visitors to the exhibition in a video). Family members marry, fight and die. There are romances, break-ups, feuds and weekly spats of some kind. Commoners race in and court noble ladies to the chagrin of many. People are tossed into jail and hauled out of it. There are people you love to love and those you love to hate. There is jealousy and verbal sniping everywhere you turn. In short, it has all the elements we love in television dramas.

Life was busy at Downton Abbey. In one season’s single Christmas show, servant Mr. Bates was convicted of murdering his ex-wife, Matthey Crawley proposed to Lady Mary as snow fell on the manor’s grounds in a most lovely way and Lady Sybil became pregnant. Whew!

Much of the show’s success was due to the rich characters and highly skilled actors and actresses who portrayed them. There was the haughty Dowager Countess, the always betwixt and between Mr. Crawley, lovely Anna the service girl, the besieged and bewildered Lady Mary, her plain Jane sister Lady Edith, chief cook Mrs. Patmore, Thomas the servant, the independent Matthew Crawley and, of course, Mr. Carson, the imperious butler.

The three-level exhibit is set up nicely. You walk through two huge doors and are in the downstairs kitchen and are greeted by Mr. Carson. You walk through the downstairs, learning all about the lives of the servants on the way, and then go upstairs, via an escalator, to the Crawley home on the main floor, with its dining room, library and bedrooms. Then it is up yet further to the third floor, where an ocean of costumes from the series intrigues all. The exhibit is full of large video monitors, some set up as picture framed monitors. They display hours of footage from the show. Wall boards tell you all you need to know about the characters and the England in which they resided from 1912 to 1930.

The centerpiece of the three floors is the library on the second floor. When you walk in, it just seems like the elegant, recreated library from the show, but suddenly scenes from the seven years of the series and many of the characters appear on its three walls, completely surrounding you. Characters pop out of the walls and begin to talk to you. Parties are staged, cars roar down the country roadways and wars are waged. It is a multi-dimensional theater of both history and Downton life and the surround sound system in it is superb. During the scenes set in World War I, you will think a bomb just exploded under your seat. Very impressive.

Speaking of World War I and history, the exhibit is full of it. What I liked was that the producers did not just explain how the Crawley family was affected by events of the day, such as the loss of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I, but how those events, and more, affected all the residents of Great Britain. The television series included a lot of real history and so does the exhibit. As an example, there is a corner of the second floor dedicated to World War I in which you 1) learn of the Crawley family involvement in the World War I and 2) the real history of the British involvement, and all the other nations, and the horrible death toll of the war. There are segments on crime and British prisons, a history of the telephone (England did not have national phone service until 1912 and when it started there were only 500,000 users out of some 30 million people). You learn all about education for both rich and poor in that era, architecture, law, the army, jobs and women’s liberation. It is noted, as an example, that after the war fewer women went into the servant service because women’s lib made it possible for them to work in other professions. There are areas of the mansion where you learn what the lives of servants in the show were like and what they were like in the real England in those years (pretty dismal). There are numerous videos of the Downton servants in action. There are wall boards that explain how the real servants were hired and trained and how many spent their entire lives working downstairs, considered worthy employment before World War I. Others picked up so much experience at running a large household that they later found jobs as managers of resorts and boarding houses.

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The most fun in the exhibit was a test you can take to see if you qualified for a job in the Abbey. I took the test, tried hard, did my best and was pretty certain they’d put me in charge. The result: I was only taken on as a lowly valet. Oh well, better luck next time.

The exhibition runs through April 1 and then will move to another city, undisclosed at this time.