Downton Abbey: An Inspiration for Learning History

If you love history, you may have been a fan of Downton Abbey. This British historical drama was created by Julian Fellowes and written by Fellowes, Shelagh Stephenson, and Tina Pepler. The show debuted on television in 2010 in England and in the United States in 2011.

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As the show begins, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Earl of Grantham, has married American heiress Cora Levinson (Elizabeth McGovern). We learn that the Crawley family has had financial difficulties and the marriage is a way to save the family and their property. Robert and Cora have three daughters and no son.


The oldest daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), agrees to marry her cousin Patrick. As the show begins, the family learns that both Patrick and his father James have died in the Titanic disaster. The new family heir is now Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a distant cousin who is the son of an upper-middle-class doctor. Eventually, Mary and Matthew become close. Matthew proposes and Mary wants to accept but when her mother becomes pregnant, she delays her answer knowing that a brother would take Matthew’s place as family heir. When her mother has a miscarriage, she accepts the proposal, but Matthew rescinds the proposal assuming she is not as interested in him as he hoped. The first season ends with the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the start of WWI. The youngest Crawley daughter Isobel is played by Penelope Wilton.

In season two Matthew and Mary are reunited. They plan to be married during season three. Robert realizes that his entire fortune including his wife’s dowry is now gone after he invested it in the Grand Trunk Railway. Robert and Matthew agree to run the estate together, although later Robert will resist any efforts on Matthew’s part to make the estate more modern and more profitable. Mary becomes pregnant and returns to her home to give birth and while she is there, she learns that Matthew has been killed in a car crash. Downton Abbey serves as a hospital on the show for soldiers during WWI. In reality, Highclere Castle also served as a convalescent home for soldiers during that war.


Season four is set in 1922-23. Mary is Matthew’s sole heir which gives her management of the estate until their son George comes of age. Mary settles back into life at the estate with her son. Two men, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), are interested in her but she is still mourning. Mary’s sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) begins writing a weekly newspaper column and she falls in love with her editor, Michael, a married man whose wife has been confined to an asylum for some time. Michael travels to Germany where he plans on becoming a citizen and then will be allowed a divorce from his wife which Great Britain prohibits. While there, he is killed by Hitler’s men during a riot. Edith, who is pregnant and has kept it secret, goes abroad to give birth and places her child with a family in Switzerland. She later finds her daughter Marigold (Eva Karina Samms) and gives her to a family who lives on the estate.

Season five finds the family in 1924. Charles Blake, still interested in Mary, decides to try to reunite Lord Gillingham with his former fiancée Mabel. In the meantime, Edith inherits Michael’s publishing company. Cora learns that Marigold is actually Edith’s daughter but the truth is kept from Mary.

Halcyon Style: Downton Abbey Style

Season 6 is set in 1925. Many wealthy families in England are being forced to sell their large estates. Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) proposes to Edith but she does not know if she should accept because of Marigold. Edith eventually accepts and reveals the truth about her daughter to her mother-in-law who supports her because of her honesty. Mary marries Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode).

Of course, there were dozens of subplots based on other characters living nearby and the household staff that added interest to each season.

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The series was filmed at Highclere Castle in North Hampshire. Many outdoor scenes were shot in Oxfordshire, including St. Mary’s the Virgin Church and the rectory in Bampton.

The opening theme is “Did I Make the Most of Loving You?,” composed by John Lunn.

The show was praised by critics. Metacritic gave it a rating of 91/100. The show received a Guinness World Record for the highest critical review acclaim for a TV show. Breaking Bad would overtake that record in its fourth season with a rating of 96/100.

The series was congratulated for a sympathetic portrayal of a wealthy family rather than ridiculing them. Sam Wollaston of The Guardian said that “it’s beautifully made—handsome, artfully crafted and acted. [Maggie] Smith, who plays the formidable and disdainful Dowager Countess, has a lovely way of delivering words, always spaced to perfection. This is going to be a treat if you like a lavish period drama on a Sunday evening.”

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The Crawley Women Photo: town&

Fellowes said a tremendous amount of research went into making all aspects of the show realistic. Costume designer Anna Robbins said she found many pieces of vintage clothing in her native Scotland and went to Paris annually to buy items. They were then painstakingly restored by Anna and costumer Caroline McCall. The furniture was based on a real-life photo of the house during that era. The show was so popular that an exhibit featuring original props, costumes, jewelry, kitchenware, and other items toured various world cities.

Because of the attention to detail, each episode cost more than $1 million dollars to produce.

Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is among the show’s fans. She had been a guest at Highclere castle.

The show was nominated for sixteen Emmys in its home country of England. With so many fans and awards, why was the show canceled? Apparently, the characters found their happy endings, the plots were resolved, Maggie Smith had decided not to return to the show, and the show was coming to an era where the estate would not have been able to be maintained. By 1930, it was hard to find domestic staffs for large homes and the estates were too expensive to operate, which was made worse when taxes increased after the war. Fellowes wrote a letter to American fans saying, “We wanted to leave while we would still be missed and not wait until everyone was dying to see the back of us.” However, it wasn’t truly over because the movie Downton Abbey came out in 2019.

Who was your favourite suitor of Downton Abbey's Lady Mary? -

I have to admit I have never seen the show. I have a self-imposed rule that I need to watch at least several episodes of each show before discussing them in my blog. This time I made an exception because I do have plans to watch this one. During the time it was on, I did read about it often and felt like I had a good understanding of the plots and characters. With only 52 episodes total, it can easily be watched within a month. I do love history, and I am looking forward to studying all the cultural history that this show displays. For those of you who have seen it, I would live to hear your thoughts on what you loved or did not enjoy about the series.

Rick Steves’ Europe: Inspiration for Your Traveling Passion

Rick Steves' Books: The Only Way To Travel Europe - Tourist Meets Traveler

We are learning about some adult PBS shows this month that inspire us. We have learned about shows that inspire our collecting and our cooking, but one of my favorite things is travel, and today we get inspiration for getting away. Any time you are stuck at home with the travel bug (hint, think any moment from the last two years), turn on the TV and tune into Rick Steves’ Europe. This travel documentary series was created by Steves and is hosted by him.

The show is produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting. It debuted in 2000 with 152 episodes being released, as well as a few specials. Steves spends about a third of his year filming TV shows and researching locations for his guide books.


Rick was born in 1955. His love of Europe began when he was 14. His parents owned a piano store, and the family traveled to Europe to check out piano factories. Steve kept a journal of their travels. He stored postcards and numbered them to remember the trip. After high school, he attended the University of Washington, majoring in European history and business administration. He wrote his first travel book in 1979. Before Rick Steves’ Europe, he had another show on PBS called Travels in Europe with Rick Steves from 1991-1998.

His travel philosophy encourages people to explore destinations that are not tourist-centered spots and to learn more about European lifestyles. He also has a radio show called “Travel with Rick Steves” and has authored numerous travel guides and newspaper columns. He donates royalties from one of his books to Bread for the World, an organization to end hunger. His newest venture is an app called “Rick Steves Audio Europe” which features self-guided walking tours.


Rick designs all the tours that are featured on the series. He emphasizes trying local cuisine and encourages making discoveries on your own that you might not see on the show. Annually, he takes about 30,000 people to Europe, utilizing 100 native guides.

His PBS series is one of the most popular and longest-running travel series. With long-time producer Simon Griffith and cameraman Karel Bauer, Rick lets visitors, physically and mentally, learn about the best B&Bs in Tuscany; play backgammon in Turkey; hike on Alpine ridges in Switzerland; and eat tapas in Spain or pub-grub in Ireland.

As we have seen throughout the past year, Steves was also grounded by COVID-19. His travel strolls were limited to his own neighborhood. He realized that as things open up, his tours will still have to wait for an extended period of time. Because he likes to visit small, cozy villages and interact closely with Europeans, he knows this will require a bit more patience. As he says, “So, the whole beauty of travel for me is people. And that’ll come back, but I’m gonna be patient.”

Rick Steves' Europe: An innkeeper explains the real Venice |

Until that happens, you can find a lot of interesting information on his website. It’s all free. He also has a Europe Bingo. Download and print the Bingo cards and learn about the great European cities while streaming an episode of his show.

Steves’ motto is “Keep on Travelin.’” Luckily for us, watching his show will allow us to do so no matter how often we are stuck in our living rooms.

Antiques Roadshow: Inspiration for Your Collecting Passion

Earlier in the year we looked at some kids shows on PBS. This month it’s the adults turn. You can learn so many fun facts and become inspired on PBS. Up today is a show that has now been on a quarter of a century. Antiques Roadshow began on the BBC as a special in 1977. In 1979 it became a regular series in Great Britain. The American version was produced under a BBC license at WGBH in Boston in 1996 and began airing in 1997.

Pottery segments are some of my very favorites Photo:

Traveling around the country to different cities, antique owners bring in their personal items to be discussed and appraised on the show.

Chris Jussel was the host for the first four seasons. Contemporary art expert Dan Elias took over from 2001-2003. Lara Spencer, who had been a correspondent on Good Morning America, moved into the seat for seasons 8 and 9. Actor and game show host Mark Walberg became the host after she left.

For the first nineteen seasons. the hour-long episode began with the host introducing the location. Most cities had three programs devoted to their location. The format showed a variety of items being evaluated by a variety of appraisers with knowledge of different categories of collectibles. Throughout the show, you would see shorter segments at the tables where a very brief appraisal was given for a couple of items. Halfway through the show, the host would explain more about the city or location where the show was being filmed.  Often, shows were held in city convention centers or hotel ballrooms. The show ended with taped comments from the Feedback Booth where people discussed what they learned about their items. Some episodes would then have a Hidden Treasures segment where one or two items that were more rare or expensive or old would be given a more thorough appraisal.

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In season 16, a few small changes occurred to the format. New logos,as well as  opening and closing credits were designed. A new set was created. Most of the host’s appearances including the halfway segment were dropped. Beginning in season 23, more shows were filmed at historic sites and parks, rather than city or commercial buildings. Walberg left the show in season 23, and Coral Pena took over the voiceover duties.

Author Jason Reynolds on celebrity edition Photo:

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the television industry and Antiques Roadshow was no exception. The limited number of episodes that aired in 2021 were conducted with celebrities instead of a variety of antique owners. I thought they were very interesting shows. Four celebrities were included in each hour: my favorite collections were with Jay Leno, Jason Reynolds, S. Epatha Merkerson, Marc Brown, and Nancy Kerrigan.

Tickets are free but are provided on a random basis. Viewers must fill out a form on the website and if you receive a ticket, you also receive a free appraisal whether your segment makes it on the air or not. Keep in mind, if you wear clothing with a business logo, you are automatically not appearing on television; the show cannot take time to contact all business owners for permission.

On the filming day, visitors check in at designated times and wait in line to see an appraiser. About 150 of the appraisals are taped, and approximately 30 of them make it on the final show. What if you live alone and want your antique dresser appraised? If the show thinks the item is interesting, they will move it free. If you receive a ticket, you can submit photos of your furniture to the producers and they will pick it up and return it in a 60-mile radius of the host city. However interesting some items are, there are several types of collectibles that the show won’t appraise including cars, stamps, currency, coins, fossils, tools, ammunition, and explosives.

Former Playboy Bunny items appraised by Laura Woolley Photo:

Typically. there are about seventy people appraising at each site. Antiques Roadshow uses volunteer appraisers and does not pay them or cover travel expenses. However, they do receive a few free meals that day. While they cannot buy or sell any items that day, they do get national exposure. To learn more about the appraisers, you can go to and find the Antiques Roadshow page. You can also learn their rules and the cities that they will be visiting, along with a lot of other interesting information.

Sports are always popular Photo:

While items are often identified as fakes or reproductions, there have been some very significant finds on Antiques Roadshow. The most expensive appraisal never made it on the air. The owner preferred not to let America see who had this rare collection. It was a collection of autographs from every Presidential cabinet member from Washington to Franklin Roosevelt and was valued at a million dollars.

Some of the other fun collectibles included: a set of Chinese cups carved from rhinoceros horns from the late 17th century, valued at over a million dollars; sports appraiser Leila Dunbar valued a Bost Red Stockings 1870s memorabilia set at a million dollars in 2015; a never-worn Rolex Oyster Daytona Chronograph watch was valued at $500,000-700,000; and a set of Charles Schulz Peanuts comic art at $450,000. A New Jersey woman bought a card table at a garage sale for $25 and sold it for half a million.

The show draws about 8 million viewers a week and is very popular with PBS financial supporters.

Antiques Roadshow has been nominated for more than 19 Emmys. It has won more nominations than any other reality show, but it has never won an award.

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I could not find too many mishaps on the show, so either the network keeps them very quiet or they have been very lucky. One vase was appraised for $50,000 which later turned out to be made by a local high school student and valued much, much, much less. One man collapsed and fell after learning the value of his object, but I’m sure it was embarrassing for him so I won’t share the location and item from that incident.

While I have always loved history, I remember seeing the show as a parent of toddlers and thinking it had some interesting pieces but seemed like “an old person’s show” and about ten years ago, I began to watch it regularly so I either misjudged it or I am now an old person; if you have an opinion, I’ll let you keep it to yourself!

The always popular Keno brothers Photo:

As a museum curator, I have learned some valuable information that I have been able apply to items in our collection. What I love most about the show is that there is something for everyone: handmade furniture, first-edition books, beautiful pottery, sports memorabilia, clothing from the entertainment field, and on and on. There is a reason the show has been on the air for 25 years so if you have never seen it, check it out this year.

The French Chef: Inspiration for Your Cooking Passion

This month we are looking at adult PBS shows that inspire us. Today we check out a show that has intimidated and inspired thousands of us: The French Chef hosted by Julia Child. I think Julia’s life was a fascinating one. I spend a lot of my time reading biographies and Julia’s biography Dearie by Bob Spitz is one of my all-time favorites.

Simone, Louisette and Julia Photo: mae’

For those of you who are not as familiar with her life, Julia was born in 1912 to a wealthy family in Pasadena, CA. She had a younger brother and sister. She was very athletic and went to Smith College in Massachusetts, graduating with a major in history. After graduation, she moved to New York City to work as a copywriter for an advertising company. She joined the OSS, the precursor to the CIA in 1942. She became a research assistant in the Secret Intelligence division. She later was posted to Sri Lanka where she met Paul Cushing Child who would become her husband in 1946. After the war, he joined the US Foreign Service, and the couple moved to Paris. Paul introduced Julia to a more sophisticated cuisine. While trying to find something to keep her busy in Paris, she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking school and later studied with well-known chefs. When she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, the trio decided to write a French cookbook for Americans. Paul and Julia eventually settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts but also had a home in Provence.


In 1963 Julia gave a presentation about omelette-making on WGBH, the Boston PBS station from the book she wrote with her friends, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After a last-minute cancellation by a guest on one of the on-air shows, Julia agreed to fill in. When Paul and Julia watched the show on their black and white television in Cambridge, Julia was horrified. She said she looked like Mrs. Steam Engine careening across the screen, panting heavily. “There I was in black and white, a large woman sloshing eggs too quickly here, too slowly there.”

It was so popular, that it became a weekly television show airing for a decade from 1963-1973. It was one of the first cooking shows on television. There was not a lot of money for shows on public television. Volunteers came in to wash dishes, and Julia’s creations were often auctioned after the show to raise money.

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NET, which would become PBS, continued the show in reruns until 1989. Some episodes have also been run on other networks including the Cooking Channel and Create; they are also available on PBS’s streaming service.

In 1964, Julia received a Peabody Award because they said her program did “more than show us how good cooking is achieved; by her delightful demonstrations she has brought the pleasures of good living into many American homes.” In 1966, Time magazine said that “So good is she that men who have not the slightest intention of going to the kitchen for anything but ice cubes watch her for pure enjoyment.” 1966 was also the year she won an Emmy.

At the time Julia and company wrote their book, French cuisine was considered expensive and difficult; it was typically reserved for ordering in restaurants, not making at home. The show was done live, so mishaps were not uncommon. During the second episode, she was so busy “chatting” that the onion soup burned.  Instead of acknowledging it, she just discussed the “wonderful smell.” She would often burn butter, drop food, spill sauces, and have other little incidents that all of us experience in the kitchen weekly. Never one to be embarrassed much, Julia just accepted them and turned them into teachable moments. When she dropped a potato pancake on the stove, she just said “Oh, that didn’t go very well. But you can always pick it up. If you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?”


I thought it was interesting that Julia’s show beginning in 1971 was the first television show to include captions for deaf viewers. And speaking of firsts, Child was the first woman inducted into the Culinary Institutes of America’s Hall of Fame. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush in 2003.

If you watched this show there are things that you fondly remember including her love of good wine, her unique voice, her loyalty to butter and abhorrence of margarine, needing a very clean towel in the kitchen, and her closing each show with “This is Julia Child, Bon Appetit!” Of course, even if you did not watch this show, you will likely be familiar with these same points because whenever Julia is spoofed by comedians, these elements are part of the sketch.

Viewers loved her show. Apparently, grocery stores reported that after her episodes aired, they often ran out of ingredients she used in her dishes that week. Julia produced two books to accompany the show: The French Chef Cookbook and From Julia Child’s Kitchen.

In the eighties and nineties, Julia continued to host television programs, and the later shows invited celebrity chefs into her kitchen to cook.  Her lessons were always memorable. Some viewers recall her tickling lobsters, showing the cuts of meat on her own body, and using exotic tools. While making crème brulee, she employed an interesting tool, saying “Every woman needs a blowtorch.”

PBS has a website devoted to Julia. Her kitchen, which was designed by Paul, now has a home at the Smithsonian Museum of American History.

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Julia did not see cooking as a boring duty but as “an immense pleasure and a true creative outlet.” She further said that “we should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.” Who can argue with that? If ever there was a television series to inspire us, The French Chef was it. I do remember my mom watching this show occasionally, but I have to admit our weekly dinners never reflected any of the recipes. Perhaps having five kids running through the kitchen did not lend itself well to cooking quiche and using a blowtorch. Julia’s best advice for everyone: “Learn how to cook—try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all, have fun.” Thank you so much Julia Child for teaching us to cook, to try new things, to learn from our mistakes, and especially, to have fun while doing it.