Washington High Society Flips for the Cast of “Downton Abbey”

Congressmen, ambassadors, and media figures turned out to meet the cast of the hit PBS show at the British ambassador’s residence.

By: Garrett M. Graff

Washington’s own royalty turned out last night to glimpse the fictional visiting British nobility of Downton Abbey, the hit highbrow soap opera on PBS. From financial leaders such as Carlyle’s Bill Conway and Alan Greenspan to congressmen, ambassadors, and media figures like Bob Schieffer, Gwen Ifill, and former Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli, the room was packed.

The show’s actors—represented last night at a reception at the British ambassador’s residence by those who play the characters kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera), lady’s maid Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), Lady Cora Crawley (Elizabeth McGovern), Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), butler Carson (Jim Carter), and evil footman Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier)—have been on a coast-to-coast US publicity tour. Last night, coincidentally, they were celebrating yesterday’s announcement that Downton had secured three Golden Globe nominations (including for Best Drama, up against Showtime’s DC-set hit, Homeland). The cast joked that they felt right at home in the British ambassador’s sprawling Massachusetts Avenue residence, which was decked top to bottom for Christmas.

A sassy Ambassador Westmacott, for his part, joked that he felt just like Lord Grantham: “I live in this beautiful house, I have a wonderful staff to help me run it, and I married a beautiful American woman.” (He quickly added diplomatically that unlike Lord Grantham, his house and privileges come only at the pleasure of Her Majesty and not for life.)

While liveried catering and house staff passed snacks like miniature fish and chips, and guests sipped Champagne and single-malt Scotch meant to make Lord Grantham feel at home, the rowdy crowd showed the depth of fandom behind the show by lapping up every moment in the cast’s presence—so much so that in their remarks, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger, WETA head Sharon Percy Rockefeller, and Ambassador Westmacott teased that it was one of the least decorous crowds ever to be entertained in the house. When the cast appeared on a low stage at the front of the room with producer Gareth Neame, a multitude of camera phones rose above the crowd’s heads like fans at a Justin Bieber concert. As the cast circulated the room, gaggles of fans lined up for personal photos.

The evening included a trailer from season three—and the cast confirmed that season four is underway. Although the actors said they were prohibited from discussing any spoilers, they dropped a few hints: The opening scene of the third season will take place in a church (which may or may not be a reference to Lady Mary and heir Matthew Crawley’s wedding), that Anna Bates stays true to her imprisoned valet husband, and—perhaps most amusingly—Sophie McShera joked of her character, “Season three sees Daisy be a total bitch.” The appreciative crowd roared with laughter.

Taking questions from the audience, Hugh Bonneville confessed his support for Liverpool football (his past favorite Portsmouth has been “rubbish” recently, he said, drawing jeers), and was then topped by Jim Carter, who cracked that only cricket and rugby were real sports.

After being asked whether his character, Thomas, or maid Mrs. Sarah O’Brien was more evil, Rob James-Collier tried to convince the dubious crowd that his character wasn’t actually evil (“He cries—evil people don’t have the capacity to cry”), but was instead resentful of an Edwardian society that punished his homosexuality. The crowd had none of it—booing and jeering the answer good-naturedly. For their part, the cast roundly picked Thomas, not “Miss OB.”