A Yank at Highclere or Tuned in, Turned on and ( almost ) Dropped out of Downton Abbey.
As the gaping wound of year 2017 finally seals up we find ourselves praying the bandages will hold. Without getting too deep into a year of abject horror, misery and deadly fear, I would like to relay a story to you, ( that's what writers do isn't it?), about how I came to be performing at "Downton Abbey", otherwise referred to as Highclere Castle, seven kilometers south of Newbury, U.K. In October of 2017.
My obsession with DowntonAbbey started with my initial rejection of it. I was so disgusted with my niece fawning over the acclaimed British Television series, I would post veiled criticisms of it on Facebook below her "Timeline" posts, disillusioned by the fact that she would express actual anguish whenever one of it's characters met an untimely death. I dismissed Downtonabbey as "just another piece of B.B.C. Victorian fluff" at one point, without actually having watched it and found myself perplexed as to what all the fuss was about. I was soon angrily corrected by one of my niece's Facebook friends who informed me in no uncertain terms that the series took place during the Edwardian period, not the Victorian. Of course I was painting with a broad brush but this led me to do some research and becoming, to my great surprise, a die hard fan myself. I fell head over heels in love with the indellible characters portrayed so elegantly by Hugh Bonneville as Lord Grantham, The dignified butler Carson and Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, a multi talented actress, perfectly suited for the role, with what I considered the sexiest eyebrows on the planet.
Once the series began to gain traction and become more widely known, friends, knowing I liked to play television and movie themes on piano for guests, were adamant that I learn to play the theme music. By about the third installment of the series my girlfriend's brother was taken ill with stage four cancer. As he was wheeled home to live out the rest of his days, my girlfriend flew up to Washington D.C. to be at his bedside, During this time my girlfriend's niece began streaming episodes of the series from her laptop and they would both slowly get hooked watching it together on her niece's bed. My girlfriend would call me nightly and we ended up discussing episodes of the series over the phone while I remained behind in Florida.
I first met Fiona Canarvon, Countess of Highclere, briefly at a fundraiser in Naples Florida. I had convinced the sponsors of the event that my piano version of the Downtonabbey theme was the best countywide and wouldn't it be a nice touch if I played it as the countess and her entourage walked through the door. After hearing me play the committee nodded their heads in unison and agreed. When I actually did this, the reaction turned out to be a little different than I expected. The Countess along with two other women accompanying her burst out laughing and rushed away, leaving me to wonder if I had indeed made the right impression. Fortunately it was all good, the event proceeded seamlessly and by all accounts the Lady Canarvon had herself a most enjoyable evening.
Little did I know a ten day trip to London would land me on another collision course with the Lady Canarvon and Highclere Castle. Shortly after the aforementioned event, I emailed Css Canarvon's Personal assistant to ask whether they might consider letting me play piano for a "high tea" or some such event if I was ever in London and received a polite but firm "thank you, we'll keep your information on file and should we need someone in future...etc etc" Kind of thing. Just for the hell of it, prior to our trip I once again emailed Highclere Castle and got redirected to Lady Canarvon's new personal assistant. This time I got a very different answer and was informed that I'd been given a personal invitation by the Countess to play at the castle while the tours were coming through and to enjoy an afternoon of tea and scones with her. By then I was feeling pretty puffed up and proud of myself, posting the news on all of my social media outlets. The trip itself turned out to be something of a comedy of errors but what was I to expect since the entire year had been a witch trial up to that point?
My first mistake was asking if I could play for free, something I almost never do but which could have been one of the reasons I was invited to play in the first place. The drive to Highclere from my hotel in London took well over two hours, with no shortage of traffic on the M4. By then I'd already spent more money than I could have charged. By the time we reached the quaint little nothing village of Newbury, ( a place I would recommend avoiding at all costs ), we finally crossed a beautiful little two lane bridge leading to the grounds of the Castle, an imposing two toned pile sitting atop a gorgeously manicured tuft of grass. As I understand it an enormous English country estate home was built as an add on to the castle with all the amenities that make a luxury abode livable and then some. English police guards with their yellow parkas and checkered hats greeted us but unfortunately Lady Canarvon's personal assistant had given me the wrong time and I was hours too early. On top of that, her walkie-talkie conversation with the guards, some of which I overheard did not indicate that she was "best pleased", as they say at Oxford, with my early arrival, something about "No I can't possibly see him now..tell them to come back." Fine I thought, we'll just go kill some time until we could return at the vague hour suggested by one of the guards. Easier said than done.
My driver, a low key middle eastern chap who offered me a cigarette which I declined, had less of a clue concerning our whereabouts than I did. I suggested we try driving back to Newbury, not realizing there was a place almost within walking distance on the Castle grounds where we could have waited, refreshed ourselves and had tea and sandwiches, if only we'd known. ( My driver discovered this by accident as I was entertaining the guests.) So off we go to Newbury in the 6 series BMW at high speed. The town was having a little arts and crafts show consisting of pure junk which we both killed a little time walking around, marveling as to how someone could even entertain the idea of actually buying anything there.
I pointed out a small cafe where I bought the driver a coffee and myself something that was billed as the "finest chocolate peanut butter milkshake in the entire world". As it turned out they weren't wrong and shortly thereafter we were off again back to Highclere. Alas, once again the guards informed us that the tours would not be ready to come through for at least another hour. The driver and I looked at each other dumbfounded but I was damned if I was going to miss this opportunity to do my bit even though we'd been turned away for a second time. So we drove around a little more, sightseeing through the countryside while I swore between gritted teeth that Lady Canarvon's assistant and I were going to have a little talk. If this was an exercise in patience, I was surely getting my "Karmuppance."
No matter, all that was washed away when we returned for the third time and I was greeted at the doorway by a charming young girl complete with black yoga pants and a walkie talkie. In fact the place was teeming with young women in black yoga pants and walkie talkies. A uniform de rigeur as I was later to find out, worn only by Lady Canarvon's closest, high ranking associates. I was led, without much fanfare, to a room containing the Lady Canarvon's ornate, lovingly preserved, turn of the century,Hamburg Steinway piano and told that I would be given a signal when it was time to roll. All my apprehensions disappeared the moment I started my recognizable two note, slow trill in A minor opening onto the main theme, shortly after which came great gasps of surprise from the guests followed by enthusiastic applause. As quick as it had begun it was over, but I was given a last minute personal tour of the main library and other rooms I had been dying to see first hand. A lady actually appeared from behind a fake wall in the library made to look seamlessly like a continuing row of book shelves. When she caught sight of me she was literally in shock for a moment until she discovered I was accompanied by a staff member clad in yoga pants.
Unfortunately it was against the rules to take cell phone pictures inside and even though I was told I could get permission from the Lady Canarvon to do so, I'd been chewing my fingernails hoping the driver wouldn't be tempted to take off without me and in the end decided not to. As it was afterwords, the Countess took time out to breathlessly exchange some pleasantries, join me in a mug of truffle soup and ask about how we were doing post Hurricane Irma. I let her know how fortunate we were that even though the deadly swarm came right over us, neither life nor limb nor property were harmed. Even our porch screens were left untouched, which was something of a miracle. My conversation with her was, as usual, delightful. She is a warm, caring and attractive woman, someone who makes you feel instantly comfortable to be around. Eventually her personal assistant slid in next us, a gorgeous young woman with straight blond hair in a sharp looking burgundy leather jacket covering the proverbial black yoga pants, trusty walkie talkie at her side. I just didn't have the heart. In fact both women seemed a little breathless and I began to see just how much hard work goes into opening up a castle like Highclere to the public.
Thankfully the driver put his foot to the floor and got us back to the hotel in record time for dinner without even charging me extra for time spent. Now that's what you call a courteous employee! All in all it was a very memorable, worthwhile and exciting time which I hope to have an opportunity to repeat at some future occasion, now that I have the lay of the land and some inkling on how I might attempt to deal with any future peccadilloes or inconveniences. When next a yank like myself deigns to visit Highclere Castle for a second time he shall be fully prepared.
Well that's it. Much love to all, and may this next year give us a bit of a breather. Hope you enjoyed my adventure.