When the Crawley family throws a party, they rely on their retinue of butlers, cooks, valets and housemaids to handle the heavy lifting.
But you don’t need a full staff to host a party with the aristocratic ambience of life at “Downton Abbey.” All you need are some early 20th-century English nosh, costumes inspired by either the staff or the family, and a bit of formal flair.
The perfect time to host such a gathering would be at 9 p.m. Sunday, when season three of the critically acclaimed and wildly popular PBS series premieres locally on MPBN.
“It doesn’t have to be expensive,” said Sean Morin of Portland, who’s attended “Downton Abbey”-themed parties at friends’ homes. “It’s not so much in the lavishness of the meal as it is in dressing up. Make sure everyone knows it’s formal. The night is entirely about conversation.”
Because conversation — punctuated by stinging one-liners and dramatic revelations — is what propels “Downton Abbey” forward.
If you haven’t yet caught Downton fever, here’s a quick primer: “Downton Abbey” is a costume drama set in the fictional British country estate of Downton Abbey during the reign of King George V, who is the grandfather of the United Kingdom’s current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II.
The show follows the aristocratic Crawley family, headed by the Earl and Countess of Grantham, and their servants against the backdrop of historically important events, such as the sinking of the Titanic, the outbreak of the World War I and the Spanish influenza pandemic. The new season takes the characters into the Roaring ’20s.
The excitement exuded by “Downton Abbey” fans in anticipation of Sunday’s season premiere is easy to understand given the fact that this is the most-watched PBS “Masterpiece” series ever produced.
According to PBS, season two of “Downton Abbey” racked up more than 17 million viewers, with an additional 7 million viewers streaming it online. An average 7 million viewers tuned in to each individual episode.
While “Monday Night Football,” the top-rated show in 2012 according to the Nielsen Co., averaged around 20 million viewers per game and “The Big Bang Theory,” the most-watch scripted sitcom of 2012, pulled in about 16 million viewers per episode, the “Downton Abbey” viewership numbers are more than respectable for a period drama airing on public television.
And season two has been nominated for Golden Globes, including one for best television series — drama.
So when it comes to having an excuse to party, “Downton Abbey” fans have them aplenty.
In mid-December, the Maine Public Broadcasting Network hosted a “Downton Abbey” party for top donors at the Portland Museum of Art.
“I was really surprised by the level of interest and people getting into it and getting really dressed up,” said Cory Morrissey, MPBN’s director of marketing and public relations.
More than 170 people attended the party, and about 70 percent of them were in costume, Morrissey said. Costume choices ran the gamut from evening clothes and riding outfits to nurse attire.
Aurora Provisions catered the party, and its staff dressed in period costumes inspired by the Downton Abbey servants. Hors d’oeuvres included cottage pies, bangers en croute with English hot mustard, and cheddar ale bisque shooters with buttered mini brioche.
Of course, the big attraction of the party at the PMA was the chance to get a sneak preview of the third season’s first episode.
“As soon as the show started, the entire audience erupted in applause and cheered like crazy,” Morrissey said.
“And when (the episode) ended, they all stood up and were clapping like crazy. People were beyond excited.”
Morin, who works as the program director at The Frontier in Brunswick, also has experience planning a “Downton Abbey” party. The restaurant and cinema is hosting a nearly sold-out premiere party and dinner on Sunday that includes a three-course meal. Guests are encouraged to come in costume.
The Frontier staff (mostly in their 20s and all of whom are fans of the show) plan to wear dark jackets, white shirts and bow ties.
“We’ll make sure the service is fantastic and everything comes out at the perfect time and that we’re treating guests as if they were upstairs,” Morin said.
The menu begins with a watercress and English cucumber salad, then moves to a choice of roasted vegetable Napoleon with creamy sage polenta or crispy duck breast with blackberry sauce, and finishes with a traditional English sherry trifle and a brandy.
“Our kitchen manager is a bit of an Anglophile,” Morin said. “This gave him the opportunity to do something a little bit more fancy.”
THRILLS AND SWILLS
In addition to new characters and new plot twists for old standbys, this season of “Downton Abbey” introduces another novelty: The cocktail.
“In the first episode, they talk about cocktails for the first time,” said Morin. “Before, they were talking about wine and brandy. This is the first one where there’s a little soiree going on and they have cocktails, but they don’t talk about what they are.”
This meant Frontier had a to do a bit of historical sleuthing to devise a cocktail menu that will be served prior to dinner.
“Cocktails in the late Edwardian era were simple,” Morin said. “They were one part liquor, a bittering agent and some sort of sweetener. That’s just what a cocktail was back then.”
The show is known for interweaving historical events and period household details into the narrative.
“It is a soap opera, but the reason why guys like it and why older people like it is they do such a good job of identifying that period,” Morin said. “It’s not just a soap opera. It’s like watching the History Channel. They talk about how they strain their wine, how they cook their food, and the footman talks about how he puts the jacket on the lord.”
To bring some of that same historical charm to your own party, Morin suggests asking “one of your friends to take everyone’s coats at the door and make sure everyone’s drinks are full at all times.”
As for entertainment, the cast of “Downton Abbey” will provide that for you.
Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at: