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A spokesperson for Viking Cruises, which is sponsoring it, says the hope is to bring the show north of the border, subject to finding the right venue.
But that could take a while. In New York, where it premiered in November, the exhibit has been extended to April 2 by popular demand. It’s expected to tour other American cities, but there has been no word on when or which ones.
If you’re the impatient type, Manhattan is but a short plane ride away. The exhibit’s organizers aren’t releasing attendance figures, but anecdotally they say they have had “a fair few Canadian visitors.”
No surprise there. When Downton Abbey aired (between 2011 and 2016 in North America, earlier in the U.K.) it had a global audience estimated at 120 million and roughly 13 million people a week watched it on this side of the pond at its peak, according to online reports. So it’s no wonder there have been recent online anecdotes about lineups and overcrowding at the exhibit (neither of which I experienced on a Monday morning in early January).
It’s described by Viking as the “first ever fully immersive experience set inside the world of the multi award-winning global television phenomenon.” The series was set on an English country estate between 1912 (the year the Titanic sank) and 1926, and followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants.
When you first walk through the exhibit doors, it’s the face and distinctive baritone of butler Mr. Carson that greets you, or rather actor Jim Carter on video.
The exhibition was created by NBCUniversal International Studios and they clearly know their audience. Carson — distinguished on the TV show by his staunch defence of tradition and unceasing loyalty to the Crawley family — expresses his skepticism over visitors wanting to view the servants’ quarters, tuts over what those visitors are wearing, reminds us that he’ll be counting the family’s treasures after we leave and then, remembering his manners, hopes that we’ll find everything of interest.
If you loved the show, you probably will.
The exhibit covers details small (a historically accurate prop telegram announcing the start of the First World War) to large (recreations of several of the show’s sets); and from the ridiculous (see box and paper bag, above) to the sublime (over 50 costumes, both period originals and careful reproductions).
You can peek into Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen; imagine yourself swanning into the dining room for dinner; picture having a laugh with the rest of the help in the servants’ hall; or gaze upon Lady Mary’s bedroom and let your mind wander to liaisons both sacred (first husband Matthew Crawley) and profane (Mr. Pamuk).
Besides props and video from the series (the screen playing the quips of the Dowager Countess of Grantham, a.k.a. Maggie Smith, seemed a particular favourite), there is much written information, not just about the fictional characters but the lives of real servants and aristocrats of that era, their customs, their technology, plus a display devoted to the First World War.
There are also behind-the-scenes tidbits from cast and crew, such as why they stopped making fish dishes for those long days spent filming in the dining room (you can likely guess).
You can even apply for employment at Downton. (I was considered suitable for a position as a lady’s maid, although I’d likely get fired quickly because I doubt I could resist trying on the clothes.)
I effortlessly whiled away about three hours, but I confess to feeling slightly bereft when I was done. Where would I get my next Downton Abbey fix?
Well, it sounds like a promised movie spinoff of the TV series might actually happen. The U.K. Express reported in December that Highclere Castle in Hampshire (where much of Downton Abbey was shot) has been booked to shoot the film this summer, although rounding up the whole cast is said to be an ongoing chore.
And if the exhibit comes to Toronto I can always visit again.
As Mr. Carson said in the video in which he, housekeeper Mrs. Hughes and the Earl and Countess of Grantham bid farewell to the exhibit’s visitors, “We may meet again someday.”
Go to downtonexhibition.com for information about Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, now on at 218 W. 57th St. in Manhattan.
Debra Yeo is a Toronto Star deputy entertainment editor.