TRAVERSE CITY — Rob and Peg Turney grew up in North Hamptonshire, England, a different part of the country from where “Downton Abbey” is filmed.
But the Maple City couple will be among scores of northern Michiganders who tune in tonight for the season premiere of the international hit series. Since it premiered in 2010, the series about the family and servants of a grand English house in the 1910s and 1920s has become the highest-rated PBS drama.
“I thoroughly enjoy it,” said Peg Turney, whose daughter in Ann Arbor is hosting a “Downton Abbey” viewing party for friends. “One thing that’s interesting is seeing all the costumes. And it’s reminiscent of some of the books you read from that period. The acting is tremendous. I don’t think you can go wrong with Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine.”
Peter Makin, owner of Brilliant Books, plans to record tonight’s episode to watch later. Makin, whose grandfather and grandmother were chauffer and maid at a large house in London similar to “Downton Abbey’s” real-life Highclere Castle, said the show reflects a time when British society was on the verge of change.
“It’s part of my history,” he said. “World War I and then World War II changed the aristocracy. Now most of those places have been turned into sort of posh hotels where you can spend the weekend.”
A Dec. 26 talk featuring Susanne Simpson, senior series producer of Masterpiece programs on PBS, drew 130 people to the Empire Township Hall. The presentation was hastily put together by the Friends of Glen Lake Community Library when the group learned Simpson was in town for a few days to visit her sister, Sharon O’Brien of Empire.
“She was only in town for a few days, so the only day we could do it was the day after Christmas,” said Ann Davey, president of the Friends group. “We had no idea how many would attend. Every seat in the town hall was filled.”
Simpson said she was surprised at the turnout but not at the show’s popularity with viewers of all ages and genders.
“We get fan letters from kids as young as nine or 10,” she said. “I think there’s a strong feeling that this is family viewing and I got a sense of that in Empire. Here 130 people came together and everybody was watching the same thing, sometimes for the same reason and sometimes for different reasons. I know why I watch it: the characters are each struggling to do what’s right in the face of obstacles and losses, and I think that makes for great viewing.”
Simpson also attributes the show’s following to its strong writing and production values, its beautiful costumes and setting and its large and well-developed cast of characters.
“The show itself is so well done,” she said. “Every single word is written by Julian Fellowes. It’s very unusual for one writer to write every single word. Most series have a writers room with a dozen writers.
“It’s genuine because he has family members he’s based characters on. The character of ... Maggie Smith is based on his great aunt, one of the few people he knew who lived through World War I. And there are 22 characters, so there’s always a story you can get interested in. He cares that the downstairs characters are as well developed as the upstairs characters. He set it in a period that isn’t as familiar to people, but he does a lot of research.”
DVDs of seasons one through three rented well over the holidays as viewers sought to catch up in time for season four beginning at 9 p.m. on PBS, said Ann Marie Niemi, manager of Family Video on Eighth Street.
At least one Traverse City viewer is planning an Edwardian dinner party featuring period food and dress.
“The wonderful thing about ‘Downton Abbey’ is that there are a lot of books about it,” said Makin, whose store features a front display table with titles like “The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook,” “Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey” and the Downton Abbey engagement calendar. “There is an awful lot of interest in that period: ‘What was it like to be a maid in Edwardian England?’ and that sort of thing.”
Books aren’t the only things being marketed on the series’ coattails. Along with the fourth season, which started on British TV last month, comes a range of merchandise that includes a board game, housewares, fashions, beauty products, a “Downton”-themed Christmas ornament and even “Downton” wine — a French Bordeaux Claret, the wine of choice among the British aristocracy in Edwardian England.
And if you don’t want to wait for the full season to be aired, you can always rent the complete fourth season on DVD beginning Jan. 28.