Incorporating elements of PBS series 'Downton Abbey'

By Laura K. Lloyd, The Kansas City StarNovember 23, 2012 

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Americans like their Brits to be snobs, rich and veddy, veddy proper -- or at least they like their PBS British costume dramas that way.

Downton Abbey has been delivering the goods for two seasons.

Ardent fans of the highly popular, Emmy Award-winning drama must wait until darkest winter for Season 3 to be on Jan. 6, to be exact.

The new season has been airing in the U.K. since September, so desperate American fans can find spoilers on the internet. But who wants to sacrifice the fun of watching Shirley MacLaine and Maggie Smith face off? Or to forgo the magic of Matthew and Lady Mary Crawley's wedding set against the backdrop of the biggest character in the show, Downton Abbey itself, also known as Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England?

Like the last huge PBS success teeming with great rooms and the vagaries of the British class system -- Brideshead Revisited in 1982 -- Downton Abbey features a magnificent house that influences the destinies of every character. Their roles, aristocrat or servant, are played out in the rooms where they live -- "upstairs" boudoirs and opulent sitting rooms or "downstairs" scullery, pantries and starkly furnished bedrooms. Habitation determines the clothes they wear as well: velvet evening gown and serious diamonds or crisp white shirt and simple black uniform.

American fans will be able to imitate this marvelously styled fantasy of British life when a company called Knockout Licensing launches multiple brands that seek to replicate to look of Downton in North America: bedding and bath, home furnishings and decor, housewares, kitchenware and apparel.

Meanwhile, why not incorporate a touch of Downton's elegance into your 21st century life? Plan a dinner party that takes the formality quotient up a notch. If nothing else, the preparations can help pass the time until the show returns.

The key to realistically adding a little Downton to your life is to keep the focus on the dining room, where so much of the delicious action takes place. Don't take any of this too seriously: No footmen are required and finger bowls are definitely passe. But there is a way to have fun getting dressed up and putting together a well-appointed table.

Your Downton theme can best be executed using what is called "tabletop" in interior design parlance: all the china, crystal, chargers, napkins, tablecloths, candles, centerpieces, demitasse cups and place cards that make a dining-room table look like the most delicious eye candy. Many venues offer this merchandise, from Target to furniture purveyors to linen stores.

For a style that borrows from the spare black-and-white and rich brown of Downton's downstairs where the servants hang out (a look that really is the most modern and comfortable in the 21st century), look at the curated collection of CuriousSofa.com.

Whether channeling an "upstairs" feel or a "downstairs" look, your table will be crisp, clean and proper, and everybody who sits down for dinner will be inspired to try their hardest to be good company.

What effect are you after? If you are pretending to be "toffs," you are aiming for an elegant presentation but not a table dripping with gold vermeil, elaborate china, cut crystal wineglasses and ornate silver.

You are striving more for classic style: perhaps a printed invitation sent ahead to your guests, followed by a properly set table with everything in its place, white place cards, of course, and crisp pale linens with a special napkin fold and a monogram. Don't forget lots of candlelight, and be sure to keep spouses and couples separated to encourage conversation.

Most important: present several courses. The idea isn't to let down one's hair and relax but to make an effort to be one's best self over a dinner that shows the hosts have made an effort as well.

Carol Wallace, author of To Marry an English Lord, a book that Downton creator Julian Fellowes admits inspired him to make Lady Cora a rich American married to a British peer, said the English of the early 20th century believed in "keeping up standards, even if fashions in food changed. The whole formality of the evening was something you would stick to if you possibly could," even if bank accounts shrank and new customs like the pre-dinner cocktail started to become popular in the 1920s

*Season 3 covers the 1920s, so prepare to see martinis shaken, not stirred, in the drawing room.

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