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Tracy Briggs, Published January 02 2013

VIDEO: Fans of popular PBS show ‘Downton Abbey’ prepare for the Sunday season premiere

FARGO - With Christmas over and the New Year’s ball packed away for another year, Americans are settling in for the doldrums of winter.

We’ll pull on the fuzzy socks for those long, cold, dark nights. We’ll look forward to the Super Bowl, and maybe even take a trip somewhere (anywhere) warm. But for the most part, January just feels like one very long month.

But for the millions of Americans drawn into the world of the Crawley family and their servants in early 20th century England, relief from modern day winter blues is just a few days away. This Sunday, the third season of the BBC drama “Downton Abbey” premieres on PBS. Cue the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

Season three has already aired in the United Kingdom with an estimated audience of 10 to 12 million viewers each week. That’s one in six Brits. We won’t go into why our overseas friends get the show a full four months earlier than we Yanks. (Probably, a passive aggressive way to punish us for that whole Revolution thing.) But if absence makes the heart grow fonder, expect the American premiere to get even bigger ratings. An estimated 17 million Americans watched season two last year, and the show is only gaining in popularity. First Lady Michelle Obama is such a big fan she couldn’t wait for the premiere on Sunday. Last month, she requested an early DVD copy from the producers and they obliged. Talk about the perks of power.

Non-viewers might not understand all of the hub-bub. But ask any Downtonite and they’ll tell you, this is more than a television show. It’s escapism to the Edwardian degree.

“It’s fun and clever. There’s scandal and sophistication. We see the reality of life back then, but you also feel like you’re transported back to some kind of fantastical world,” says Ashley Thornberg of Prairie Public Television, which airs the program here in Fargo.

Recently, Thornberg and Prairie Public threw a “Downton Abbey” viewing party where fans were able to get a sneak peek at the season premiere all the while sipping tea, eating British food and wearing costumes of the era. Not just loving Downton, but living it. About 75 people attended, up from about 30 at last year’s party.

“It’s just exploding!” says Thornberg.

‘PART OF MY HERITAGE’

Three people paying particularly close attention to “Downton Abbey” mania are Kathryn Leonard, Ann Riley and Joy Query. They are members of Fargo-Moorhead’s British club which is made up of about 20 U.K. natives who now live here.

Leonard grew up just an hour from Highclere Castle, the real-life “Downton Abbey,” so for her it’s not just an escape to another time, it’s a throwback to her childhood.

“I really get that warm, fuzzy feeling when I watch the show. That’s where I grew up. It’s part of my heritage. It’s England, and I’m right there in it the whole time,” she says.

Leonard, who came to the United States in 1976, says she loves the pomp and circumstance of the era and the way the show uses costumes and settings to paint a picture of upper crust life in the early 1900s.

The show also reveals what happens downstairs in the servants’ quarters.

“I’d love to live in that era. But only, of course, if I could be upstairs,” she says with a laugh.

FORMAL DRESS

Joyce Yexley, who has a Master’s degree in historical women’s clothing, says while the storylines keep viewers coming back, the wardrobe also intrigues fans.

It’s all about the elegance and formality, she says. From the Edwardian high-necked, tightly corseted dresses of the first season to the looser fitting Art Deco-inspired fashions of season two. Both Lord and Lady Grantham, the masters of the Downton Abbey estate, have servants to help them dress, changing clothes as much as five times a day. Back then, what you wore, even for family, was of the utmost importance. It’s an intriguing idea for today’s pajama-pants-in-public society.

“It was such a different time. They always dressed for dinner. Every night. Men always wore tails, and young women, like the Crawley daughters, would spend hours getting ready for the evening. They really did nothing else,” Yexley says.

ELEGANT DINING

But for other viewers, it’s not just life upstairs that makes Downton so fascinating.

Loretta Wickey owns and operates The Golden Spoon Traveling Tea Room, a business in which clients hire Wickey to throw tea parties in their own home. Wickey says she loves that “Downton Abbey” shows life from the servant’s point of view as well – how dinners go from point A in the cramped and crowded basement kitchen to point B in the finery of the upstairs formal dining room.

“I see the labor of love they go through to give these people an enjoyable life,” Wickey says.

Careful attention was paid to the nuances of each meal. Dining was the highpoint of the day. An average meal consisted of at least six courses of soups, seafood, beef and puddings. And if that weren’t enough to make today’s harried mom envious, back then it was the norm for the lady of the home to have breakfast served to her in bed – EVERYDAY.

If you’re not content just watching the Crawleys lifestyle, you can try to replicate it yourself. There are unofficial Downton cookbooks and Pinterest boards dedicated to dressing like the three Crawley daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil. Many dedicated fans will take what they’ve learned and use it for viewing parties this Sunday. (Think a Super Bowl party where you substitute chips, dips and a Manning brother for tea, scones and a Crawley sister.)

Fargo-Moorhead’s British club will try to recreate a little 1920’s England in 2012 North Dakota, says Leonard.

“We’ll do tea, salmon sandwiches and maybe a trifle. But I think we’ll leave the hats at home,” she says.

Throw a ‘Downton Abbey’ party

If you’d like to throw your own “Downton Abbey” viewing party, Mosaic Foods and The Golden Spoon Traveling Tea Room have come up with a special menu inspired by this question: If the “Downton Abbey” characters were food, what foods would they be? Find out and see three British ladies give Tracy Briggs a lesson in being British on our video blog “The Great Indoors” at shesaystv.areavoices.com.

Coming Sunday in Parade

How Downton Abbey became a big hit on this side of the pond—and what’s in store for season 3. Grab a copy of Sunday's Forum.


Tracy Briggs works for Forum Communications and hosts “The Great Indoors,” an InForum.com web show.