“Television doesn’t end with ‘Downton Abbey,’” Jeremy Irons told a ballroom full of surprised TV critics and chagrined PBS suits.
Dressed in his traditional Bronte Romantic-Lead Press Tour costume — rough cotton pants tucked into heavy black wandering-across-the-moors boots, etc. — Irons had come to plug his upcoming PBS program, “Shakespeare Uncovered,” in which he and other actors who’ve performed The Bard’s work discuss the roots of his various plays.
The show debuts Jan. 25 and features Ethan Hawke explaining “Macbeth,” Joely Richardson tackling Shakespeare’s comedies — and Irons probes “Henry IV” and “V.”
But what captured the critics’ attention was his breezy candor about “Downton” — which, ever since PBS’s press-tour at-bat began the previous day, had been very much The Prettiest Girl At the Party.
Since Monday morning, it had been “‘Downton’ this,” and “‘Downton’ that,” while the casts and producers of other PBS shows kept their upper lips stiff at the tour, while vultures gnawed at their bosoms.
Irons wasn’t having it.
Shakespeare’s plays, he said, “still speak to us, they have resonance — hundreds of plays written since then don’t,” he said. And “Shakespeare Uncovered” “opens up to this huge American audience this gold dust, and shows them [that] television doesn’t end with ‘Downton Abbey.’ If you think that’s good. . .see what real writing, real authors and real characters are about.”
“There’s more to TV than ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” he also sniffed.
“Downton,” he said, warming to his theme, is like the Ford Fiesta of drama. “A Ford Fiesta will get you there and give you a good time. But an Aston Martin. . .” he said, though he did not get to finish his thought as the crowd erupted in laughter.
Of performing Shakespeare, Irons said that it takes projection and “practice, practice, practice — you can’t sort of mutter it in a ‘Downton Abbey’ way.”
“We do love ‘Downton Abbey’,” PBS member station WNET exec Stephen Segaller, sitting on stage next to Irons, added nervously.
Finally, one critic took a microphone and said he got the feeling that Irons thought “Downton” was overrated, “but I don’t want to misrepresent you when I write my little story. Can you clarify your thoughts?”
“If I shot myself now, would I create enough of a diversion?” Segaller joked.
“I’m a terrible television snob. . . . I’ve never seen ‘Downton Abbey,’ so I don’t know what I’m talking about,” the Oscar-winning actor responded happily.
“I’m sure it’s splendid,” he snickered, adding: “I’m conscious you’ve all been here for 14 weeks” and that he thought he’d “stir the pot to keep you awake.”
Oh, and remember how we warned you earlier this week not to expect PBS to air “Downton Abbey” episodes closer to their run in the UK? That after the third-season debut clocked nearly 8 million viewers for PBS, nearly six months after it debuted in the UK — quadrupling PBS’s prime-time average, which PBS chief Paula Kerger called “a beautiful thing”?
“Masterpiece” exec producer Rebecca Eaton announced Tuesday that Season 4 of “Downton” will begin shooting in a matter of weeks “and, fingers crossed, will show up in January of 2014.”