Downton Abbey, now in the middle of its fifth season in the U.S., hits that sumptuous sweet spot for those who relish seeing how the Edwardian one-percent coped with their luxuriant lives.
It follows in that grand tradition of the American fascination with such other British period series as Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited, which similarly whipped viewers on this side of the Atlantic into a froth of Anglophilia.
Australia, though, doesn’t want to be left out of this tea party, bringing the addictive, binge-worthy A Place to Call Home to the festivities. The first season, which aired in Australia in 2013, is now available for streaming in the U.S. through Acorn TV, a site devoted to British (and now Australian) television.
A big, brawny blend of traditional Aussie soaps, melodramatic Hollywood films from the ’50s and high-toned British drama, A Place to Call Home is perfect for American Downton fans itching for their next TV fix.
Unlike Downton, Home is set in the early ’50s, giving it a hint of the massive cultural shifts of the mid-20th century that were lurking around the corner.
Yet, like its English counterparts, A Place to Call Home revolves around an aristocratic family, the Blighs. At the head is widowed grandmother Elizabeth (a fantastic Noni Hazlehurst) who runs her New South Wales country estate/sheep ranch — Ash Park (derisively called “Cash Park” by one character) — like a well-heeled boot camp.
Everyone bows to her wishes, including debonair middle-aged son George (Brett Climo), entitled grandson James (David Berry), giddy granddaughter Anna (Abby Earl) and James’ new British wife, Olivia (Arianwen Parkes-Lockwood), whom he met while attending university in England.
Of course, everyone in the nearby village of Inverness, from the town doctor Jack Duncan (Craig Hall) to the town gossip Doris (Deborah Kennedy), seems to be in her thrall.
Woman with a past
Lives are turned upside-down when nurse Sarah Adams (a riveting Marta Dusseldorp) arrives in town with the force of an Outback thunderstorm.
An Australian who has lived in Europe for the previous 20 years — including through the horrors of World War II after converting to Judaism — she’s tight-lipped about her experiences and what may have happened to her. One thing’s for sure: Sarah has little use for the established order and will butt heads with Elizabeth, unearthing long-guarded Bligh family secrets in the process.
On top of that, and much to Elizabeth’s chagrin, George is totally and absolutely smitten.
Not only is A Place to Call Home an absorbing, if sometimes sudsy, family drama, it’s also a peek into a time when Australia was Great Britain with a sunburn, with a largely Anglo-Irish population where the local Jews and Italians were seen as, if not threats, then certainly outsiders.
It was an era when all things English — whether an upcoming visit from the queen or atomic testing at Emu Field — were treated as treasures.
At the same time, George — who lost his wife when the Japanese bombed the Australian city of Darwin in 1942 — is being wooed by politicians (including the prime minister) to host a Japanese business delegation. While Inverness remains a hotbed of anti-Japanese sentiment, an Australian future of Toyotas and Sonys beckons.
Show creator Bevan Lee has been quoted as saying he wanted to make a “compelling melodrama about love and loss set against the social change of the 1950s.”
He does it not only with story but the well-curated music, as the soundtrack ranges from Nat King Cole’s Mona Lisa to Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart. (Not to mention those clothes! Those cars!)
While the plot machinations get to be a bit much by the end of Season 1 — there’s probably at least one too many big reveals — A Place to Call Home remains compulsively watchable television.
In Australia, the series’ cancellation by the Seven broadcast network after the second season — it said production costs were too high — generated enough noisy fan outrage to induce the cable-TV Soho network to pick it up for two more seasons.
Once Americans open the door to this Home, they likely will understand why.
Cary Darling, 817 390-7571
A Place to Call Home
☆☆☆☆ (out of five)
The first season is available for streaming now at www.acorn.tv. The site offers a free month and costs $4.99 per month or $49.99 per year subsequently. The first-season DVD will be released in the U.S. on March 3, and the second season will be available for streaming in April.