By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
I watch Gareth Neame sip water from his glass, and I can’t stand the suspense.
Where will the executive producer of Downton Abbey, the award-winning PBS period-piece about life on a great English estate “on the cusp of a vanishing way of life,” set down the glass?
Neame had been listening all morning to press questions about how the show was put together over six seasons. How they tried to get everything right on the Masterpiece epic – from the exquisite, handmade costumes, to the handwritten letters, to the way napkins were folded just right on the dining room table.
He finishes his sip and starts to set the glass down on an Edwardian-era side table beside him at Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, at CityPlace in West Palm Beach. It’s a meticulously recreated Downtown Abbey experience – an interactive feast for fans, complete with a holographic Mr. Carson, exquisite, handmade costumes, handwritten letters and napkins folded just right – on view through April.
And I’m watching to see if Gareth Neame will set down his glass on a period side table … without a coaster.
I couldn’t imagine that happening at Downton Abbey.
Couldn’t imagine that would set well with Lord Grantham or Lady Mary or, heavens, the Dowager Countess herself. (Or my mother, for that matter.)
I could see the redoubtable Mr. Carson preserving the Old Ways by deftly intercepting the descending glass with a coaster or doily or, possibly, himself, bodily, before glass ever touched wood. Everyone would emerge unscathed – and unringed – from the near miss, decorum intact.
“Good show, Carson!” I could imagine Lord Grantham saying, rewarding his faithful butler. “Please bring Mr. Neame a proper coaster for his glass.”
“Very good, my Lord.”
We South Floridians can imagine such moments for ourselves now because, as Neame explains, the traveling show has been so faithful to the Edwardian era they chose to winter in Palm Beach – just like the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers and, presumably, the Granthams, had they possessed the means to make it across the pond on a lark in December. (Those crazy rich Anglos.)
Something special always seemed to happen around Christmas on the show (think Matthew Crawley proposing to Lady Mary in soft snowfall at the end of Season Two); and having Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is something special for us, too. It’s good to have the family in town, especially for the holidays.
“It’s a very optimistic show,” says Neame, after a short video at the exhibition featuring Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. “There were some real tear-jerking moments, just as there were laugh-out-loud, funny moments. And we put in that little clip at the end where Carson says to Mrs. Hughes, ‘What are you laughing about?’ and she says, ‘Just life, Mr. Carson. Just life.’ And I think that’s what defined the show. That all of our lives are a mixture.
“We laugh every day, I think. We cry sometimes. We go through the best of days, the worst of days,” he says. “That’s what makes a life.”
He sets the glass down, finally, on the side table.
No coaster. No doily. No Carson.
And that’s what finally brings us back to reality, tears down the fourth wall between audience and actors, what separates life at Downtown Abbey from real life. (I mean, there were about 60 household staff members, by some estimates, working to prevent glasses from setting down on side tables without coasters at many great estates of the era in Great Britain.)
“Would a glass ever be placed on a side table without a coaster?” I ask Neame on the way out.
“No,” he says. “Never at Downton.”
PHOTO What would Lord Grantham, Lady Mary and the Dowager Countess make of a glass without a coaster at Downton Abbey? Courtesy Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, through April at CityPlace in West Palm Beach, https://www.downtonexhibition.com/