You may get good and sick of hearing all of those British accents by the end of the Summer Olympics in mid-August, but I won't. In fact, I can't get enough of them. And apparently, I'm not alone.
When the major networks announced their 2012-13 seasons to advertisers last week, there were plenty of English actors — cast both as Americans and Brits — in the line-ups. Jonny Lee Miller will be playing a modern day version of Sherlock Holmes in Manhattan in Elementary on CBS (which sounds a lot like the BBC’s Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, which currently is popular with viewers stateside on PBS); James Purefoy will portray an escaped serial killer who’s being tracked by a veteran FBI agent (Kevin Bacon) in The Following on Fox; and Hugh Dancy will play an FBI profiler who has yet to figure out that his mentor, Hannibal Lecter, is a serial killer in Hannibal on NBC.
But nowhere on the dial do the English and England really swing as often and enthusiastically as on PBS. Forget just casting English actors; PBS brings over entire British series and did long before English accents on the American telly became a trend. The big one now, as I'm sure you know, is Downton Abbey, the Emmy-winning British period drama that boasted network-worthy ratings this past winter when its second season aired. Downton, which began in the Edwardian era and is now up to 1920, follows the fortunes of an aristocratic family and its servants in an English countryside manor. It’s soap opera, but with classy accents and long dresses.
“What would the Dowager Countess do?” has become the mantra of fervid fans, a reference to the wasp-tongued but loveable character played with high style by Dame Maggie Smith in the series. The show’s popularity has even manifested itself in dozens of tributes and parody videos, which have gone viral on YouTube.
Downton Abbey won’t be returning for its third season on American TV until next winter but the Union Jack will be flying high this summer on TV with two major events (to say nothing of the annual Wimbledon fortnight at the end of June): the aforementioned Olympics held in London, which kicks off at the end of July, and the celebration of Queen Elizabeth's Diamond Jubilee, marking her 60th year on the throne, in June.
PBS is certainly doing its part. On July 1, it will air Queen & Country, an hourlong special that takes an up-close look at all of the customs, ceremonies and palaces that are part and parcel of being the monarch. Trevor McDonald, a well-known British journalist who was the first black anchorman in England, will serve as host of the show, which is chockfull of evocative archival footage.
Just in time for America’s Independence Day, on July 3, and then July 10-17, PBS will show Michael Wood’s Story of England, a four-part series. In it, Wood, a noted historian, will chronicle his nation’s long history through the prism of a single small town: Kibworth, Leicestershire.
Come fall, PBS trots out the British costume dramas so beloved by its viewers. Up first is Call the Midwife, a show that, like Downton, has already proved a runaway hit in England where it aired on BBC last winter. “It is the biggest new drama for more than a decade,” enthused The Guardian at the time.
The six-part series is based on three memoirs written by the late Jennifer Worth. A retired nurse, she recalled in the books her experiences tending to the poor in London’s East End slums in the 1950s. The series, which focuses on a group of midwives and their patients, stars Vanessa Redgrave, Jessica Raine and Miranda Hart. It begins airing Sept. 30.
PBS will pair Midwife alongside the second season of BBC’s revived version of Upstairs, Downstairs, the period drama that first helped establish public television back in the mid-1970s. The rebooted Upstairs, Downstairs, like Downton, follows the sometimes scandalous doings of a titled family upstairs and the servants toiling down below. It is set in a London townhouse in 1936 and features Ed Stoppard (son of playwright Tom Stoppard), Keeley Hawes, Jean Marsh (who co-created the original Upstairs, Downstairs) and, new in Season 2, former ER star Alex Kingston.
This will be the new Upstairs, Downstairs’ final season. The show failed to generate Downton-sized ratings when it aired this past winter in England and, subsequently, BBC pulled the plug.
But fans of British period dramas need not despair. If there’s one certainty, it’s that British stars, and British dramas, will continue to show up on PBS and other American networks almost as often as Big Ben chimes. The appeal of British period dramas is easy to explain: in a world that now seems hopelessly complex and confusing, these shows offer an era, whether the 1700s, 1800s or first half of the 20th century, when it was easier to understand society's rules, even if you objected to them or sought to flout them. A viewer gets to travel back in time, wondering as you watch just where you would have fit in and what role you would have had.
The sad truth, of course, is that most of us would have been peasants and servants, wearing rough homespun cotton, gazing enviously from the muddy ditch beside the dirt road as the sumptuously clad, wealthy aristocrats rode by ensconced inside their fancy carriages. Just don't ask me to bow or curtsy as they pass.
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