Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Dear Lord Grantham... How Have You Missed the Gossip About Your Daughter Mary?

Do you want to chat with Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey? Who doesn't want to chat with Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey?

Masterpiece is inviting interested parties to join "Downton Abbey" star Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, for an online chat on Monday, Jan. 30, 2012, at 1 pm Eastern/noon Central time. Bonneville will be available to take questions about his character, Season 2 of "Downton Abbey," and presumably anything else people want to ask him that isn't rude or annoying.

As played by Hugh Bonneville, Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, is rich and powerful and a member of the social elite in early 20th Century Britain. He has a lovely wife he is also in love with, and together they have three beautiful daughters. He seems like a decent sort of fellow, doing what is right more than what is convenient, always defaulting to compassion and integrity and all that good stuff. And he lives at the impossibly gorgeous Downton Abbey, with servants attending to his every need.

But there is one big catch in Lord Grantham's power. He needs a son. He holds his estate in fee tail, with only male heirs able to inherit Downton Abbey. And Lord Grantham has only daughters.

Nice, stable people with absolute power and everything they ever wanted are not very interesting in drama, as it happens. So giving Lord Grantham the inheritance problem is key to making him interesting. Well, that and the fact that the charming life he and his family have been leading is already being changed mightily by World War I and the pressures of the new century, with cars and planes and telephones and movies and penicillin and indoor plumbing and electricity and all the other modern conveniences, some happening already, some coming soon, smashing the old ways to smithereens. (Hint: The British Empire is also going to take a beating in the 20th Century.)

Which is exactly why Lord Grantham is fascinating. Hugh Bonneville does a dandy job with the character, in what is a bit of a departure from the other roles I've seen him do. He's been in tons of things, but I admit I've only noticed him in sort of sweet but awkward roles before this, like Elizabeth Bennet's father in "Lost in Austen," Bernie, the kind friend of the hero in "Notting Hill," and most notably, as the young half of John Bayley opposite Kate Winslet as the young Iris Murdoch in "Iris."

Some critics have commented that Lord Grantham is much too nice, that he represents creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes' romanticized view of the aristocracy, or perhaps an apologia for them, all sweetness and light, treating servants like people and being all, well, noble, in a way real British toffs would never have done. My feeling is that there had to be at least one cool member of the nobility in England in the 1910s and 20s. So he's it. He may not be representative, but he's fun to watch, appealing in all the right ways, and he makes us care about the Crawley family in a way we wouldn't if the Earl was a jerk or a crazy person.

But if you side with the "too good to be true" folks, this is your chance to ask Hugh Bonneville himself. Is Lord Grantham nicer than he should be? Is he realistic? Should he be more strict with his daughters? How has he possibly missed all the gossip about Mary (which provides all kinds of plot points involving his manservant Bates, his middle daughter Edith, Mary herself, and the Turkish Embassy)? Does he have a clue what's going on with youngest daughter Sybil and the chauffeur? How is the war changing him? Would he rather be fighting at the front or at home with the fam? How can someone with a mother and sister like he has be such a nice guy? Has Bonneville created a backstory for the character including what his father was like and who, if anyone, he loved when he was young (since we know he only fell in love with his wife after they were married, and her dowry was the big attraction before that) and anything else that has shaped his psyche?

See, I have lots of questions. I better show up for that online chat and get my typing fingers ready.

Masterpiece promises more chats later with other cast members, including Allen Leach, who plays Branson, the Irish chauffeur with a rebellious spirit and an eye for a lady above his station. For this one, visit the Masterpiece site here. You can also sign up for the Masterpiece e-newsletter to get advance notice of chats and other information.

Thanks, Sarah, for the heads-up!

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