KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Americans like their Brits to be snobs, rich and veddy, veddy proper — or at least they like their PBS British costume dramas that way.
“Downton Abbey” has been delivering the goods for two seasons.
Ardent fans of the highly popular, Emmy Award-winning drama must wait until darkest winter for Season 3 to begin — Jan. 6 to be exact.
The new season has been airing in the U.K. since September, so desperate American fans can find spoilers on the Internet. But who wants to sacrifice the fun of watching Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith face off? Or to forgo the magic of Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley’s wedding set against the backdrop of the biggest character in the show, Downton Abbey itself, also known as Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England?
Like the last huge PBS success teeming with great rooms and the vagaries of the British class system — “Brideshead Revisited” in 1982 — “Downton Abbey” features a magnificent house that influences the destinies of every character. Their roles, aristocrat or servant, are played out in the rooms where they live — “upstairs” boudoirs and opulent sitting rooms or “downstairs” scullery, pantries and starkly furnished bedrooms. Habitation determines the clothes they wear as well: velvet evening gown and serious diamonds or crisp white shirt and simple black uniform.
As viewers, it is hard not to want a bit of the glamour of the aristocrats and the drama of the servants to rub off on us. While waiting to feed our addiction for “Downton,” we may hanker for a change from the relentlessly casual style of America, where entertaining often means little more than a flaming fire pit on the patio and plenty of craft beer on hand (not that that isn’t fun, too).
American fans will be able to imitate this marvelously styled fantasy of British life when a company called Knockout Licensing launches multiple brands that seek to replicate to look of “Downton” in North America: bedding and bath, home furnishings and decor, housewares, kitchenware and apparel.
Who knows what Knockout will offer? Perhaps replicas of hunting prints, worn Oriental rugs, faded cabbage-rose chintzes, Staffordshire dogs, Blue Willow china and leather-bound books — the tried-and-true elements of English country house design. These details can be lovely, even in an American house with a two-door garage and the total square footage of the drawing room and dining room of a real country house in the British Isles.
PARTY LIKE IT’S 1920
Meanwhile, why not incorporate a touch of “Downton’s” elegance into your 21st century life? Plan a dinner party that takes the formality quotient up a notch. If nothing else, the preparations can help pass the time until the show returns. If you have a DVR, you could have people over on the Sunday night that Season 3 begins and have a leisurely “Downton-esque” dinner before you watch.
The key to realistically adding a little “Downton” to your life is to keep the focus on the dining room, where so much of the delicious action takes place. Don’t take any of this too seriously: No footmen are required and finger bowls are definitely passe. But there is a way to have fun getting dressed up and putting together a well-appointed table.
Your “Downton” theme can best be executed using what is called “tabletop” in interior design parlance: all the china, crystal, chargers, napkins, tablecloths, candles, centerpieces, demitasse cups and place cards that make a dining-room table look like the most delicious eye candy. Many venues offer this merchandise, from Target to furniture purveyors to linen stores.
For a style that borrows from the spare black-and-white and rich brown of “Downton’s” downstairs where the servants hang out (a look that really is the most modern and comfortable in the 21st century), look at the curated collection of CuriousSofa.com.
Whether channeling an “upstairs” feel or a “downstairs” look, your table will be crisp, clean and proper, and everybody who sits down for dinner will be inspired to try their hardest to be good company.
What effect are you after? If you are pretending to be “toffs,” you are aiming for an elegant presentation but not a table dripping with gold vermeil, elaborate china, cut crystal wineglasses and ornate silver.
You are striving more for classic style: perhaps a printed invitation sent ahead to your guests, followed by a properly set table with everything in its place, white place cards, of course, and crisp pale linens with a special napkin fold and a monogram. Don’t forget lots of candlelight, and be sure to keep spouses and couples separated to encourage conversation.
Most important: Present several courses. (Sorry. This isn’t the 30-minute meal promoted in “Good Housekeeping.”) The idea isn’t to let down one’s hair and relax but to make an effort to be one’s best self over a dinner that shows the hosts have made an effort as well.
Carol Wallace, author of “To Marry an English Lord,” a book that “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes admits inspired him to make Lady Cora a rich American married to a British peer, said the English of the early 20th century believed in “keeping up standards, even if fashions in food changed. The whole formality of the evening was something you would stick to if you possibly could,” even if bank accounts shrank and new customs like the pre-dinner cocktail started to become popular in the 1920s (Season 3 covers the 1920s, so prepare to see martinis shaken, not stirred, in the drawing room).
The actual formal dinner tables at upper-class soirees in early 20th-century England were more likely to feature a somewhat pared-down look: a snowy white tablecloth, a couple of show-stopping candelabra holding fresh white candles, bone china with a simple rim of gold, and then a multitude of forks, knives and spoons laid on the table in the correct order, complemented with several stemmed wine glasses or champagne flutes.
The mood was more important than the objects, although high-class Brits were as materialistic as they come. The “tabletop” was there to encourage people to make good conversation and observe the best etiquette, all in a setting that was easy on the eyes.
Wallace even suggests a menu that would evoke the cuisine of “Downton” without being too slavish to food tastes of almost 100 years ago: a first course of vichyssoise, the cold cream and potato soup that has been a classic for many decades, followed by a main course of Cornish game hens (not quite as complex as pheasant but evocative of the same), with roasted root vegetables (must fit in Brussels sprouts somewhere) followed by a dessert such as the British stalwart trifle or the apple charlotte referenced on “Downton.” Recipes are as close as your computer. Check out epicurious.com.
An oddity of the British table in the early decades of the 20th century was the custom of women leaving to have coffee or tea in the living room while the men stayed for port, a savory bite after dessert and conversation about money, politics and other forbidden topics. Although this habit flies in the face of everything American and modern, it might be fun if approached in a lighthearted way.
And if you opt for the “downstairs” aesthetic of black clothes, white china and fine polished wood, know that you will be undeniably chic and ready for whatever drama transpires at your party.
In the dark days of winter, a little fantasy never hurt anybody, especially if a PBS miniseries is involved. Quite right, as they say in England.