So it's the end of a British TV era: after six seasons, the uber-popular drama Downton Abbey has ended.
Wanna hear a little secret? I was never a really big fan, and didn't really watch the show past the first few episodes.** This is very odd for me, as I am a confirmed Anglophile and a terrible British TV addict. So I'm going to try and make up for my snobbishness by listing a few similar programs any fans of Downton Abbey might enjoy.
Well, first, of course, there's the classic London Weekend Television/BBC series Upstairs, Downstairs. I've never actually seen it--sacrilegious, I know, but it's on my to-do list for the year (sure I'll have to cross off some other things, like "spring clean this filthy house," but hey, we all make sacrifices)--but I do know it's about a large London house and focuses on the lives of the servants downstairs and their employers upstairs. It covers almost the same time period as Downton--1903 to 1930--and there's a lot of it: it ran in 68 episodes (split into five series) from 1971 to 1975.
Now I'm the first to admit that sometimes early BBC and Brit TV productions look a bit "homespun" to our demanding modern and Hollywood-conditioned eyes. If that series is just too early (or too long) for you, they also did a remake of the program that ran from 2010 to 2012. That was actually a continuation of the first series, picking up the story of the families from 1936 onward, but you didn't really need to see the original to understand the continuation.
Here's a fun fact: Downton's creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, has also done some acting***, as when he was a recurring character on the BBC series Monarch of the Glen. You can't go far wrong with watching Monarch of the Glen; in addition to seeing Fellowes overact as Lord Kilwillie, a neighbor to the primary family, there's plenty of drama in this show's five seasons too. When prodigal son Archie MacDonald returns to the Scottish Highlands because his father is dying, he finds out that Glenbogle, his family's estate, is debt-ridden and in trouble. To complicate matters further: his father isn't really dying, but both his parents want him to stay and face his duties as the eventual laird of Glenbogle. There's a bit of upstairs/downstairs intrigue here, too; Archie continually has to deal with the highly individual members of his family's staff (who have been there long enough to really count as just family) and the feisty local schoolteacher to whom he is immediately attracted. Love! Class issues! The Highlands! Archie is played by the super-cute Alistair Mackenzie!
Class issues are also a main thread in the fabulous BBC miniseries North and South, based on the novel by Elizabeth Gaskell. If you haven't yet seen this one you don't deserve to call yourself an Anglophile--it is, bar none, one of the best movies ever adapted by the Beebs (in my opinion). Set in the Victorian era, as the film opens, we see gentlewoman Margaret Hale being moved away from all she knows in the rural, conservative, and stately South of England, to face a much harsher life in the industrial North of England, in the mill town of Milltown (that was based on Manchester). Once there she is simultaneously appalled by and attracted to one of the mill owners, John Thornton, who, for his part, seems like a decent guy working in a tough system. (He does try to improve conditions for his workers of his own volition, for which other mill owners mock him). This one launched the career of actor Richard Armitage, and with good reason. It's four episodes and roughly four hours long; don't start it shortly before bedtime, like I did, and then not be able to stop watching until the wee hours of the morning.
Downton Abbey was often referred to as a soap opera, and I say, if you're going to watch a British soap opera, just WATCH a British soap opera. Might I suggest Coronation Street? It's only been running since 1960 (and one of the original characters is still on it). As a soap opera, of course, it focuses on multiple storylines of the characters who live along the title street and run into one another at work, in the shops, and in the street's pub. Some sadist who never wants me to get any work done regularly posts recent episodes at YouTube, and if you want to lose years of your life, search "Coronation Street 1960" and you can see the very first episode and many more.
If you're looking for a new series to fall in love with, you also don't even have to change your channel or viewing time. Starting on Easter night (March 27), PBS will air season two of Grantchester. This is a great series, featuring a young vicar with a disapproving (but hilarious) housekeeper, an unrequited love interest, and an uncanny ability to talk with people and help his police inspector friend solve crimes. The first series was so good--and not all that long--so you could totally binge-watch it between now and then and be ready for the second season.
And don't forget PBS's documentary The 1900 House--in which people willingly signed up to live in a house together as though it were 1900. That might have been okay for the "family," but for the servants? Those used to living in 1999 did not adjust easily to 1900.
*Yes, of course, the New York Times has already made their suggestions. But I didn't look at their article before I wrote mine! There's another list, a good one, over at Vulture--I totally agree with their pick of The Forsyte Saga. I forgot that one!
**Every now and then I would just tune in briefly, because, you know, British television. I can't turn it off. But it always seemed someone was getting blackmailed or raped or other general unpleasantness was going on at the exact moment I tuned in, and I just didn't have the energy for that.
***Fellowes keeps busy. He's also known as the "The Right Honourable Lord Fellowes of West Stafford," and is a Conservative member of the House of Lords.