A Brit period saga featuring cut-glass English accents and a rigid class structure is poised to become one of the most successful and surprising U.K. TV exports of modern times.
Season two of “Downton Abbey” is due to launch in Blighty on commercial net ITV1 next month, but the show already is, by any criteria, a TV phenomenon, having sold to more than 200 territories and nabbed 11 Emmy noms, including one for star Maggie Smith.
At a press gathering to hype the second season, held at stately Highclere Castle in Newbery, 50 miles west of London, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed, executive producer Gareth Neame forecast “five, six or seven” seasons for the show, created by scribe Julian Fellowes, which has redefined the scope of British period drama.
Season one was set in Edwardian England before World War I ended the co-existence between the upper classes and their deferential armies of servants.
The new series starts as the conflict takes hold. Downton is now a convalescent home for wounded troops from the front.
Season three takes up the story of the Earl of Grantham’s brood as the action moves to the Jazz Age of the 1920s.
Fellowes is no stranger to the world of the English country house set, having scripted 1930s murder mystery “Gosford Park.” He has already written the third season of “Downton Abbey,” which is expected to get a greenlight.
Long-running period dramas have been uncommon in recent years, not least because of the economics — each episode of “Downton Abbey” costs upwards of $1.6 million. This is partly why the season featured just seven hourlong episodes, running as four episodes in the U.S.
The skein is deficit-financed by NBCUniversal, owners of the U.K.’s Carnival Films, which makes “Downton Abbey” along with WGBH Boston. It airs on the “Masterpiece” strand on PBS channels Stateside.
If the show maintains its momentum, NBCU’s deficit is likely to turn into profit before long.
One of the many unusual aspects of “Downton Abbey” is that it has as much appeal in Madrid as it has in Manchester.
In the U.K., it was the most successful drama launched on any channel since 2003; audiences grew week-by-week from 7.7 million to 13 million for the concluding episode.
When the show bowed in Spain in March, it delivered 3.2 million viewers (a 17 share) for Antena 3.
In the U.S, 6.8 million viewers tuned in for the first episode, and it attracted 12.6 million unique viewers over its run.
So why did “Downtown Abbey” go global?
According to Neame and Laura Mackie, ITV’s head of drama who commissioned the show, its international appeal is attributable directly to Fellowes.
The show is scripted entirely by him, based on an idea by Neame. Fellowes approached the show like a soap opera, and came armed with long-term plotlines.
“When he pitched the idea to me in 2008, Julian had a very clear idea of the characters and the world they inhabited,” recalls Mackie. “Very quickly he told me what he wanted to do in seasons one, two and three.”
In unpicking the secrets of the show’s popularity, Neame draws attention to the “intertwining narrative of the 20 main characters” where soap-style stories can continue to “cross-fertilize” indefinitely.
It is also significant that “Downton Abbey” is based on an original idea, rather than a novel by, say, Jane Austen or Charles Dickens — the usual sources for period pieces championed by British TV producers.
” ‘Downton Abbey’ is a world apart from most period dramas you see on TV,” Neame says. “Most are book adaptations where you follow the literary narrative laid out by 18th or 19th century novelists. Those adaptations are based on a closed story, rather than a modern style of storytelling.
“The narrative style of ‘Downton Abbey’ is much closer to AMC’s ‘Mad Men’ — which also has a period setting — than it is to ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ ”
That it was ITV that commissioned the show, and not the BBC, was unusual.
Costume drama is written into the pubcaster’s DNA. ITV is better known for soaps, entertainment shows and crime sagas.
Until the fictional Earl of Grantham showed up on its schedules, ITV hadn’t scored with a costume saga since the 1980s, when two iconic shows, “Brideshead Revisited” and “Jewel in the Crown,” both made by Granada, beat the BBC at its own game.
“On the BBC, ‘Downton’ would have been just another period drama,” says Neame, who used to commission such work for the pubcaster. “Being on ITV alongside big-hitting entertainment shows like ‘The X Factor’ helped ‘Downton’ make the amazing impact it did last autumn.”
Mackie adds, “It brought back people to ITV who had stopped watching, and helped change the perception of the channel.”
Despite Carnival’s ties to NBCU, Neame was cautious over how the show would go down overseas, where schedules are usually sewn up by U.S. drama.
“It’s a myth that British costume dramas are big sellers overseas,” he points out. “They do well in certain territories, such as Scandinavia, Benelux and Australia, but that’s usually the extent of their appeal.”
Despite its worldwide sales success, the series has been snubbed by awards juries at both the British Academy of Film & Television Arts and the Royal Television Society. Emmy voters may change that at the Sept. 18 kudocast.
“I’d be lying if said I wasn’t disappointed that a series this exciting hasn’t been rewarded with more silverware,” Mackie says, “but I’d much rather we achieved the kind of audiences we’ve had.”