A peek behind the curtains of ‘Downton Abbey’ at Delaware Antiques Show

 (Photo courtesy of Winterthur)

(Photo courtesy of Winterthur)

Not getting enough of your Downton Abbey fix? Then get ready to take advantage of a unique opportunity surrounding the Emmy Award-winning PBS series.

With the fifth season premiere set for January 2015, Downton devotees can get a peek behind the curtains of Britain’s most beloved series at the Delaware Antiques Show at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. The 51st edition spotlights author Jessica Fellowes as the honorary chair and keynote speaker on Friday, November 7, at 10 a.m. A book signing will follow the event.

Millions of American viewers have been enthralled by the world of Downton Abbey, the mesmerizing melodrama about the aristocratic Crawley family and their meddling, but loyal servants set on a circa-World War I English country estate.

Jessica Fellowes’ books will take you there.

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An author, journalist and historian, Fellowes’ latest book “A Year in the Life of Downton Abbey” (St. Martin’s Press), hit bookstores on October 28.  Her third book to accompany the show, it provides arguably the most comprehensive look at what it was really like to live within the Downton Abbey world 365 days a year. She is the niece of Julian Fellowes, the show’s creator and script writer. He writes an enchanting forward to her book.

At her special lecture on Friday participants will gain behind-the-scenes insights from Fellowes. She will discuss the socio-historical context of the era, particularly as it relates to the changing role of women, the rise of technology and the crumbling of class hierarchy in post-WWI Britain. Fellowes also draws keen parallels between the world of Downton Abbey and the world of today. Her Riverfront appearance provides a nice complement to the blockbuster exhibition “Costumes of Downton Abbey,” now on view at Winterthur.

Fervent fans

A former deputy director of Country Life magazine, Fellowes’ articles have also appeared in the New York Times and the Globe and Mail among other publications.  She was brought up in London, with long summer holidays in the wilds of Kerry, Ireland. In a phone interview from London on Tuesday Fellowes shared how during her talks throughout the U. S. the audiences are very much engaged.

“They watch the show, but they really want to be in the show,” said Fellowes with a chuckle. “They turn up in 1920s clothing styles and want to know details on how to throw the perfect Downton party. They want to know how these grand estates operated, but also learn all about the social and historical aspects of that time period.

“I have an amazingly privileged position these days thanks to Downton. The success of these talks was totally unexpected. They’ve taken on a life of their own.”

A resident of Oxfordshire and Nottingham Hill, England, Fellowes is widely known as the author of the best-selling book “The World of Downton Abbey”(2011) and its follow-up “Chronicles of Downton Abbey” (2012). Through these books she invites readers to peer through the glass of the ancestral home of the Crawleys, taking them deeper into the story of every member of the Downton ensemble.

Spotlighting the series’ current fifth season, “A Year in the Life” is a dozen years down the road since the Crawleys and their servants welcomed television viewers into their exquisite but troubled-filled world. Interviews with the cast, and countless high-quality photographs of the characters and the set, truly transport the reader into that world of 1924.

Fascinated with the past

The most watched drama ever on PBS, Downton is now Britain’s most successful TV export and is a big hit in Australia, China, Russia, Europe, and is watched across the globe. Fellowes believes what appeals most to people about “Downton Abbey” is their fascination with the past.

“That is why Lady Violet is such an important character, because she’s the great witness to all this change,” Fellowes explained. “She grew up in a Victorian era of horse-drawn carriages and candle-lit rooms. But, by 1924 the world around her was altering at an extraordinary and often bewildering rate–  dealing with electricity and driving motorcars, flappers and the jazz age, women voting, and a socialist government.

 “The characters live a life that would seem not related to ours with their huge houses and servants. And yet, I think the world of “Downton” and the world today share a great deal. Both now and 100 years ago there have been huge, sudden advances in technology that have impacted society at large. Over the past decade we have experienced a similar rate of change ourselves with the growth of mobile phones, social media, genetic science. A lot of people these days understand how Lady Violet feels because we often feel it ourselves.

“You wonder how those characters were able to cope with all of it. Then again, I’ve had talks with my son about what life was like before the Internet and mobile phones and I feel I’m 150 years old.”

Divided into calendar months

The lavishly designed book is divided into calendar months where Fellowes investigates different themes or subjects. From the moment when the servants light the fires against the chill of January, through the last family game of charades and the servants’ Christmas ball, the book invites readers to take part in twelve months in the life of Downton Abbey.

In this book, Fellowes explains how real people in the shoes of Lady Mary or Mr. Carson would have engaged in popular traditions of the time, whether it be holidays, special dinners, or strictly seasonal activities– including house parties, debutante balls, the London ‘Season,’ yearly trips to Scotland, fox hunting, and, of course, the cherished rituals of Christmas.  There are also a few behind-the-scenes look at how the elaborate production is stitched together.

The filming schedule typically runs from February until the end of summer at the Highclere Castle, a 5,000-acre estate in Hampshire, England.

“It’s a real privilege to go and see Highclere, it’s so impressive, but I really like going to Ealing Studios (where the servants’ rooms are filmed),” Fellowes noted. “There’s something amazing about the fact that they’ve built it all completely from scratch. They had to imagine, think and source every tiny bit that’s on there, and it’s so beautifully done, like Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen.

“In “A Year in the Life” I’ve woven together what has happened in episodes that chime with the seasons with research on great houses in 1924 and detail on how the production operates over the year,” Fellowes related. “More than the other two, this book is much more interactive with the parlor games that were played and an array of traditional British recipes adapted for modern kitchens. “

So how did “Downton Abbey” come to be? A London producer suggested that Julian Fellowes revisit the world he had written about his Academy Award-winning script for “Gosford Park.” A number of the show’s characters– as diverse as Lady Violet and the lady’s maid O’Brien, (played by Siobhan Finneran)– were inspired by people in the Fellowes family.

“O’Brien is based on the lady’s maid of one of Julian’s cousins,” Fellowes related. “She was described as being polite as a courtier but with a black heart. She managed to drive away all her mistress’ family and friends, so that she ruled the house.”

Fellowes’ books have been recognized as some of the best companions of the highly acclaimed show. In “A Year in the Life” readers will learn much more about the lives of their favorite characters, the actors who play them, and those who bring this exquisite world to real life.                                                                                                                                                                       

Coming to Delaware                                                                                               

Fellowes’ special lecture requires a separate ticket, which includes admission to all three days of the show. $30 per member; $35 per nonmember.

The Delaware Antiques Show has long been recognized as one of the nation’s most highly acclaimed antique events in the United States. This November, the show begins a second half–century, promising a continued spectacular showcase of art, antiques, and design.

For information on the show and tickets, www.Winterthur.org/das or call 800.448.3883.

Terry Conway is a Delaware Arts and Culture writer.  You can view more of his work: www.terryconway.net. You can write him: tconway@terryconway.net



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