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Arts and Culture

Heaven forfend!

KRIPTOKIN - Alfred A. Yuson - The Philippine Star
Heaven forfend!
Only 52 episodes of Downton Abbey to binge? Heaven forfend!

The unfamiliar word “forfend” means to avert, forestall, preclude, prevent, rule out, or nip in the bud. The phrase is archaic and humorous, “used to express dismay or horror at the thought of something happening.” As in: “Invite him back? Heaven forfend!” Contemporarily, Americans would say, “Heaven forbid!”

Learning the Brit phrase was one of many reasons I recently got to enjoy a month of binge-watching all 52 episodes of Downton Abbey. I knew I was late in the game, that it was a relatively old, completed series, and that it’s the 40-episode docu-drama The Crown that just won big in the latest Emmy awards.

Well, watched and enjoyed that too, but not as much as the extended fiction that swirled around the lives of over three dozen principal and ancillary characters across the Upstairs/Downstairs divide in courtly British life a century ago.

Writer-friend Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo recalled watching the series as DVDs during a trying time:

“I got lost in their lives, in their beautiful vanished world. There was something reassuring about the family. Despite their flaws, they were a good sort. They were funny. And sometimes they were absurd. But they were bright. And they were loyal to each other, and generous and kind to other people. Anyway they saw me through a really terrible time. Much later I watched the movie too.”

“Yes,” I replied. “One gets drawn in, and becomes part of both families — Upstairs and Downstairs. And gets to enjoy or condemn the ups and downs of human vanity, self-regard, pomp and ceremony, strength of tradition, the challenge of change, charity, empathy, kindness, even the conflicts born of deviousness or principles. Was happy to be served a fitting finale with the movie last night.”

That last referred to the Downton Abbey movie, which came out in 2019. Another writer-friend, Alma Cruz Miclat, provided the streaming link right after I announced that I had finally completed the series, and would be looking for a movie — any movie — to help in the decompression.

That’s the tough part of concluding an extended series that has sucked one in: saying goodbye to characters one has been engaged with nightly. And with Downton Abbey, it’s such a large ensemble variously endowed with individual levels of fascination, thanks to the brilliant writing by series creator Julian Fellowes. (Compadre writer Sarge Lacuesta says I should check out Robert Altman’s film Gosford Park, early script by Fellowes.)

I wouldn’t say it’s the series I’ve enjoyed best. That distinction still belongs to Breaking Bad, closely followed by its prequel Better Call Saul. Then there were the commoners’ stock-in-trade for entertainment that were GOT and CLOY. Hey, I’m not snobbish with escapist fare. So count in Designated Survivor and Homeland.

For compact quality, of course there were Queen’s Gambit, Ratched and Sherlock. And I’m still waiting (ho-hum) for the season enders for The Blacklist and Peaky Blinders. Some series I tired of and will likely not return to include Ozark, Money Heist, Borgen, Bridgerton, Bodyguard and The Defeated.

Among the series I favored, the strong suits were particularly riveting characters and performances: Bryan Cranston as Walter White, Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut, Giancarlo Esposito as Gus Fring and Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Breaking/Saul, Anya Taylor-Joy as Gambit’s Beth Harmon, Sarah Paulson as Nurse Ratched, Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes, Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby in Blinders, and James Spader as Raymond Reddington in Blacklist.

Oh, yes, Suits was also inescapably enjoyable, chiefly for its snappy dialogue.

That’s what Downton Abbey has in spades, apart from all the character epiphanies. Not exactly snappy, but as the epitome of Brit wit, whether served by a royal or toff, or one of the serving class.

In fact, the most remarkable insights came courtesy of the curmudgeonly butler Mr. Carson: “The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end that’s all there is.” Or this one: “You’re nervous because you’re intelligent; only stupid people are foolhardy.”

Maggie Smith as the most popular central character, the Dowager Countess Violet, had the most number of sterling quotes, some reportedly written in by the actor herself. As the quintessential royal bound to aristocratic tradition, she casts the most withering lines, ironically appreciated for their self-serving wisdom.

“Don’t be defeatist, dear, it’s very middle-class.” “Hope is a tease, designed to prevent us from accepting reality.” “Principles are like prayers; noble, of course, but awkward at a party.” “At my age, one must ration one’s excitement.” “No life appears rewarding if you think too much about it.” “A lack of compassion can be as vulgar as an excess of tears.” “There’s nothing simpler than avoiding people you don’t like. Avoiding one’s friends, that’s the real test.”

And her most classic nugget that flaunts her class is “What is a ‘weekend’?”

The feisty but lovable cook Mrs. Patmore often gets her licks in. As with: “If you must pay money, better to a doctor than an undertaker.”

Anna, a lady’s maid, quips: “Good men… They’re not like buses. There won’t be another one around in 10 minutes.”

And Mrs. Hughes, the head housekeeper, says with slight sarcasm: “And heaven forfend we lowly folk should do anything to contradict the blessed Lady Mary.”

Much as it delivered happy endings for all the characters, without the collateral crisis as in every episode, the movie also comes up with quaint observations from the royals. Robert Crawley: “A shy royal? Is that an oxymoron?” Lady Mary Crawley (on grouse shooting): “I never know which is worse. The sorrow when you hit the bird. Or the shame when you miss it.”

The steady march of the changing times is milestoned by the arrival of technology that is initially resisted: electricity, the gramophone, telephones, the wireless (or radio), the refrigerator, and the hair dryer.

A second movie is in the works, Downton Abbey: A New Era, due out in March next year. Since the first movie was set in 1927, I assume that a bit of a leap in time for the next will include the threatening rise of Adolf Hitler in the country the Brits had to do battle with only a decade earlier.

Such has been the series’ popularity that the location setting, Highclere Castle, which isn't in Yorkshire but closer to London, began to offer day tours and overnight stays at 50 Airbnb rooms out of its 300 rooms.

Publisher-friend Andrea Pasion-Flores has also alerted us to Amazon availability of The Official Downton Abbey Cookbook (Downtown Abbey Cookery) — one of four books, the rest having to do with teatime, Christmas meals, and cocktails. There are also links to Over 100 Recipes Inspired by Downton Abbey, From Mrs. Patmore's Kitchen, Downton Abbey Food Index, et al.

DOWNTON ABBEY

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