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‘Downton Abbey’ returns to the countryside

Elizabeth McGovern (center with Maggie Smith Hugh Bonneville) one few Americans cast insists thpeople like series “DowntAbbey” because it’s “peaceful

Elizabeth McGovern (center, with Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville), one of the few Americans in the cast, insists that people like the series “Downton Abbey” because it’s “a peaceful escape but not boring.”

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Updated: February 7, 2012 8:11AM

Praise the lord of the manor and pass the smelling salts: “Downton Abbey” is on its way back to PBS.

Season one of the critically acclaimed “Masterpiece Classic” period drama attracted 5 million viewers to each new episode, big for PBS and the highest for “Masterpiece” in years. It won six Emmys last year and is nominated for four Golden Globes this year.

And for the next seven weeks (8 p.m. Sundays on WTTW-Channel 11), American Anglophiles again will obsess over the aristocrats and servants of a grand English castle, and the ups and downs of a culture about to be blown apart by World War I.

So what if America never had a ruling class of titled lords? Who cares if domestic servants in America never much resembled their British counterparts?

“What makes it popular is we treat all the characters the same. We don’t suggest that the ‘upstairs’ people are more important than the ‘downstairs’ people,” says show creator Julian Fellowes (who won an Oscar for his “Gosford Park” screenplay in 2001). “That was a decision that turned out to be right for the zeitgeist now.”

Critics on both sides of the Atlantic agree that “Abbey” is a pleasure without guilt. The show, with a narrative as addictive as any soap opera, is produced for British commercial channel ITV by Carnival Film & Television (a division of NBC Universal), with PBS’ “Masterpiece” as co-producer. Its production values are rich, its settings authentic, its period costumes sumptuous and acting sterling.

But what keeps viewers coming back are the plot points, as season two begins two years into World War I:

Will reluctant heir Matthew Crawley wed Lady Mary and save the estate? Will American-born Cora, Countess of Grantham (glowing Elizabeth McGovern), go to war with her mother-in-law, arrogantly clueless dowager countess Violet (glowering Maggie Smith)? Will the Earl of Grantham’s valet Mr. Bates find a way to be with head housemaid Anna? Will Carson the butler survive the looming changes he fears even more than his master? Will the upstairs men and the downstairs men survive the trenches of war-torn France, even as centuries-old class distinctions are blurred or erased?

Naturally, the English themselves adore “Abbey,” which attracted 9 million viewers the night the second season premiered in the U.K. in September.

McGovern, one of a handful of American actors who live and work in the U.K. (she moved there nearly 20 years ago after marrying British producer Simon Curtis), understands the British and American responses to the series.

“People like it in similar ways. They get really caught up in it. It’s a peaceful escape but not boring,” she says. “In America, there’s an added frisson because the people who know about it feel like they’ve discovered it. There’s an added passion that you have when you feel you own something that’s only yours. [In London], ‘Downton Abbey’ is in the papers all the time. People refer to something as ‘very Downton Abbey’ and everyone knows what you’re talking about.”

Abbey will be back for a third season, thanks to the popularity and acclaim. With about about 1 million more watching online, mostly younger women, over all it has become the third-most-viewed “Masterpiece” since 1990. (No. 1 was “The Buccaneers” in 1995; No. 2, “Prime Suspect II” in 1993.) Its Emmys include best miniseries, supporting actress (Smith) and writing (Fellowes).

Fellowes says English country estates are a valuable part of the British national heritage, a conviction that underlies “Abbey.”

“The English country house was an interdependent community, for many centuries the hub of provincial life,” he says. “You can still find it, much changed now. Everyone [who works or lives there] calls each other by first names. But you’ll find representatives of every level of British society all pulling together to make the thing work.”

As viewers of the first season know, Downton Abbey is “entailed” to a male heir only, to ensure that the estate remains intact over generations. If the Earl of Grantham has no son, the closest male relative gets everything: land, title and castle.

That is a concept alien to Americans, and increasingly even to the British, who have changed their laws so that a first-born female child will be able to inherit the British throne even if her parents later have a boy.

But the entail is the series’ necessary plot driver. Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the current earl, married a rich American, Cora, to help fund the running of the estate (not uncommon in the 19th and early 20th centuries), but they have only three daughters.

So everything, including Cora’s money, will go to the new heir (the first one having died on the Titanic), middle-class lawyer Matthew (Dan Stevens), who is so distant a relative that he is a stranger to the family.

Amazingly, Cora doesn’t seem very angry about it, and McGovern says she’s sometimes a little annoyed for her. She “gave up her country, her past, her fortune, and at some point she has to look at her husband and wonder, was it worth it?”

Gannett News Service

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