BY ALEX STRACHAN, POSTMEDIA NEWS
The heckling started early, from the back of the room, where the white wine flowed a little too freely and a handful of Downton Abbey enthusiasts were getting a little too enthusiastic at seeing Lady Mary, Lady Edith, Anna Bates, Mrs. Hughes and Daisy Mason, in the flesh, as it were. It was The Ladies of Downton Abbey Night on one of the final evenings of the threeweek summer meeting of the Television Critics Association, and the combination of evening wear, lively conversation and bounteous quantities of Chardonnay was having its effect.
The coming fall season will see some of the most witless, lowbrow, low-class sitcoms ever to appear on the small screen. "You ain't seen nuthin'" one inebriated reveller shouted, "until you've seen Super Fun Night."
And whatever faults Downton Abbey may have had in its third season, anything is a tonic after being forced to sit through two weeks of network sitcoms like Super Fun Night, with its scene in which quasi-comedienne Rebel Wilson opens her party dress and exposes two flashing red lights over her breasts, in what's meant to be a sight gag. The Dowager Countess would not be amused.
Downton Abbey doesn't return to PBS's Masterpiece showcase until January, but the Public Broadcasting Service flew The Ladies of Downton - two-time Emmynominated Michelle Dockery and her Downton castmates Joanne Froggatt, Phyllis Logan, Sophie McShera and Laura Carmichael - to the U.S. West Coast from London, England, where filming on Downton Abbey's Season 4 is nearly complete.
The evening was bracketed by dinner-with-wine on one end and a cocktail party on the other, with an impromptu news conference in-between hosted by Masterpiece Classic's longtime executive producer Rebecca Eaton and veteran Downton Abbey executive-producer Gareth Neame, who is also producing The Hollow Crown, PBS's exhaustive, full-length co-production of Shakespeare's Henry IV, in outdoor locations in the U.K. and France.
Eaton opened her part of the evening by gamely working her way through several Masterpiece casting announcements, which were greeted from the back of the room by attendant shrieks of exaggerated joy and, at one point, someone mimicking a horse neighing, followed by the inevitable cry, "Frau Blücher!" Michael Kitchen will return as Christopher Foyle for a fifth season of Foyle's War - even though, Eaton noted dryly, "the war, unfortunately, is over.
"It's still called Foyle's War, though. It's now the 1950s. He is in London, and he is still solving crimes."
Masterpiece is co-producing a new ITV miniseries, Breathless, starring Jack Davenport - mere mention of Davenport's name provoked paroxysms of ecstasy from the back of the room - as a medical practitioner.
"It's set in the 1960s in London," Eaton soldiered on. "There are a lot of women. He happens to be an Ob/Gyn."
More shrieks of ecstasy, followed by one or two howls of mock indignation.
"So you can imagine the rest," Eaton said, dryly.
"We're announcing another miniseries," she continued, "miniseries being our meatand-drink on Masterpiece, a piece called Death Comes to Pemberley, based on the book by P.D. James. It's her version of what might have happened six years after Elizabeth Bennet married Mr. Darcy. We will air it in 2014. It stars Anna Maxwell Martin as Elizabeth Bennet. You know her from The Bletchley Circle, as well as from Bleak House. Mr. Darcy. Who is Mr. Darcy? He is Matthew Rhys from The Americans."
The screams were instantaneous, and they were loud. Matthew Rhys! The back of the room went wild.
"Oh, you like that," Eaton said. "You like that. And who plays Mr. Wickham? Do you want to know?"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! "Or are you just going to ... Mr. Wick will be played by Matthew Goode."
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