Coping with Down Time After 'Downton'

Another season of Downton Abbey has come and gone, and we the fans are coping with our withdrawal symptoms again. In the spirit of public morale, here are my tips for surviving the aftereffects of Downton.

Downton_Abbey[Editor’s note: Spoiler alert! If you’re waiting for the next season on Amazon Prime like me, skip the next paragraph!]


First, watch the film Gosford Park. Yes, I realize I made the same suggestion last time, but it’s worth another look, especially if you get the DVD with Julian Fellowes’ commentary track.

A few things to consider:

  • Compare Fellowes’ treatment of Downton’s American character (Harold Levinson) with Gosford’s Morris Weissman.
  • Gosford has a secret pregnancy subplot too – can you spot it? (Hint: it helps to listen to Fellowes’ commentary track.)
  • At the end of Gosford, the lady’s maid (Mary MacEachran) comes to terms with the murder of Gosford’s owner, Sir William. Likewise, in this season’s final Downton episode, Lady Mary also comes to terms with the likelihood that trusted servant John Bates has murdered the man who raped his wife. However, it’s notable that each Mary arrives at her own conclusion in very different ways.

Speaking of John Bates, Downton fans know that Fellowes wrote the part of Bates specifically for actor Brendan Coyle. Coyle is one of those overnight sensations who has been a working actor since 1992. For years, he had various one-off roles in British television, but his breakout moment came in the 2004 mini-series North and South. In it, he played Nicholas Higgins, a 19th century cotton mill worker, who possesses a great deal of compassion and common sense.

In addition to his work at the mill, Higgins also cares for his adult daughter, a former mill worker who is dying of a lung condition caused by inhaling the mill’s cotton dust. He gives his daughter’s friend (a middle-class young woman, who had lived an idyllic life in rural southern England) some insights into the realities of surviving in the industrialized north. Coyle’s role is memorable, but his appearances are so infrequent that I don’t recommend watching the series just to see him (but the series is very well done, and presents an interesting view into how England was undergoing radical change in the mid-19th century).

I think what brought Coyle to Fellowes’ attention was his role in the series Lark Rise to Candleford (2008-2010).  Coyle played the role of stonemason Robert Timmons for the first three seasons, but his activity in the third season was minimal, and by the fourth and final season he had left the series completely to work on Downton Abbey.

The premise of the series is the story of teenager Laura Timmons (eldest daughter of Robert and Emma), who has to move out of her small childhood home in a agricultural laborers village (Lark Rise) when Emma has yet another baby.  Laura moves to the middle-class market town of Candleford, where she works in a post office run by Emma’s cousin.

In the original novel of Lark Rise to Candleford, the character of Robert Timmons was quite dark, frequently being depressed and frustrated by his social and financial situation. Fortunately, the Lark Rise scriptwriters used a lighter touch for their version of Timmons.

Coyle’s Timmons is a highly skilled, complex, and intelligent man, with deep-set passions about the inequities of the English class system. His backstory is that he was born in raised in the city of Oxford and came to Lark Rise to do stone work on local churches. But by the time his work was done, he had fallen in love with Lark Rise girl Emma, married her, and they had a baby (Laura). So instead of returning to his city home, he settles in tiny Lark Rise, where is he is (usually) more prosperous than his agricultural laborer-neighbors.

Interestingly, Timmon’s political convictions are not so deep-set as to cause him to refuse a stone-carving job at the local manor house. He is a loving father to his wife and children, but has s sharp temper, too. His main concern about Laura is that her life in Candleford will transform her into a snob – tempting her to discard her humble Lark Rise roots.

To see Coyle at his best, and to get a sense of why Fellowes fashioned the role of John Bates for him, I suggest you view Lark Rise’s season one/episodes 3, 6, 7, 9, 10 and season two/episodes 2, 3, 7. If I had to choose just one episode, it would be number 3 from season one – where Timmons has a dispute with the local vicar, who happens to be a rock-solid Tory, and, boy, do the sparks fly!

My last recommendation is to watch the 2012 film Quartet – it’s Dustin Hoffman’s debut film as a director. It stars Maggie Smith, who retains some of her Dowager Duchess attitude, but her character (a former opera star) has more depth and dimensions here than in Downton. The acting and music is first-rate. Some faces will be familiar to fans of British films and period pieces. These include Billy Connolly (who co-starred with Judi Dench in the 1997 film Mrs. Brown); Tom Courtenay (who starred in the 2008 BBC mini-series Little Dorrit); Pauline Collins (star of the 1989 film Shirley Valentine); and Michael Gambon (who played the nasty Sir William in Gosford Park).

That sums up my recommendations for this year. So now after you’ve watched Downton’s season four episodes for the umpteenth time, you’ll have something to help you through your Downton withdrawal symptoms. Enjoy!

Fans will also enjoy seeing the costumes of Downton Abbey on display at Winterthur through January 2015. For ticket information, visit www.winterthur.org.

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