Let’s Discuss “Downton”
"Manor of Speaking" unpacks each new episode of the critically-acclaimed Masterpiece Classic series and has quickly become Houston PBS's most popular locally-produced show.
Ernie Manouse traveled to Amsterdam at the end of August 2012 but spent the three-day trip holed up in his hotel room, unexpectedly binging on the first two seasons of Downton Abbey.
“The couple of times I did leave my hotel room, I would think about the episodes I could have been watching,” said Manouse, a Houston public-television personality. But when the credits started rolling on each episode, he found himself wanting to discuss the developments with someone. While he missed out on seeing Amsterdam’s canals and museums, he did come back with the germ of an idea for a new television show.
When he returned to Houston, he discussed the possibility of creating a live talk show to follow Downton Abbey, and the idea was received enthusiastically. Manor of Speaking, which had its premiere in January 2013 and celebrates the end of its second seasonon Sunday night, has picked up a devoted following of hard-core Downton Abbey fans. The show airs live from the University of Houston’s Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting in the thirty minutes immediately following Downton Abbey, the critical darling of the “Masterpiece Classic” umbrella series. Just under 50,000 people tune in for Manor of Speaking each week, and 112,000 watch Downton Abbey immediately before.
“We have an amazing retention rate this season,” Manouse said. This makes the show the most popular locally produced series in the history of Houston PBS. Those outside the viewing area can watch a live stream online, and by next season the show may be on public television stations nationwide. “We’ve had interest from coast to coast,” Manouse said.
Manouse moved to Houston eighteen years ago to take a job with the local PBS station. He wants Manor of Speaking to have both universal appeal and Texas flavor, he said.
“The show is a mix of turn-of-the-century English country house and modern-day Texas,” Manouse said. “I’m in a tux as an hommage to those days, but I’m wearing cowboy boots because I’m a Texan.”
Each week, around fifty Houstonians, often bedecked in period clothing, make a $90 donation to Houston PBS for the privilege of driving over to the Melcher Center to watch that week’s episode of Downton as a group. After the show, they shift to the studio next door, which features a set decorated like the kind of living room many Anglophiles might love to curl up in on a cold winter day, complete with fireplace, book-filled library wall (fake-looking, even from a distance) and moss green wallpaper.
From the overstuffed maroon and gold brocade couches and chairs in the center of the room, the silver-haired Manouse holds court with his two British regular guests, St. John Flynn, director of classical programming at Houston Public Media, and Helen Mann, a former vice consul at the British Consulate in Houston. Over the next thirty minutes they dissect that week’s episode, speculate on where various plot points will lead, and delve into nuggets of British history, etiquette and customs.
“If Downton Abbey, is your meal then Manor of Speaking is your dessert. It’s a fun, easy show to watch,” Manouse said.
While much of Manor of Speaking is devoted to lighthearted subjects like pig husbandry or famous chefs of the early twentieth century, there are exceptions. When a character was raped during the fourth season, Manouse invited Leticia Manzano from the Houston Area Women’s Center to discuss the trauma. “We opened with her and spoke for a few minutes in order to address things properly and not make light of a serious situation,” Manouse said. Throughout the show, Manouse is approached by his butler, Mr. Rodgers (Luke Wrobel). “I have your tweets, m’lord,” he says, holding out a silver tray stacked with 140-character missives, scrawled in felt marker on notecards, reacting to that evening’s Downton Abbey episode.
One week a Twitter user suggested that Manouse, as the “lord of the manor,” should properly address his butler simply as Rodgers. When Manouse broached this subject on the air, Rodgers responded with a curt “I’m not comfortable with change, m’lord.” Manouse said he appreciated the interactive aspects of his show because it let him constantly see and explore things from different angles.
Each week features Manouse’s pretaped interview with a celebrity guest. Guests have included Marcia Clark, who was the prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial; Gareth Neame, executive producer of Downton Abbey; and the Countess of Carnarvon, chatelaine of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, inside and out. But the most prominent guest so far has been the former first lady Barbara Bush. “I love the program, and every friend I have loves it,” she said enthusiastically during her appearance. “I just can’t tell you what a clean, wonderful, joyous time it is to watch it.” (Her husband, however, is “not into” the series, she said.)
Manor of Speaking, too, has been greeted with critical acclaim. Both Manouse and his improbably named director, Matthew Brawley (one of the show’s most beloved characters was Matthew Crawley), received 2013 Lone Star Emmy Awards.
After one recent show, members of the audience greeted Manouse and his co-hosts. One woman was dressed as a flapper; another wore a long lace skirt. They encircled that week’s special guest, Robert Patten, an emeritus professor of English and humanities at Rice University, who was a regular during the first season. The fans’ enthusiasm appears to have heartened Manouse. “It’s been a joyous ride,” he said.