I arrive to Victoria’s venerable Oak Bay Beach Hotel wearing a ‘20’s-inspired gold gown, elaborate headband and a long-dead fur (all borrowed from the stellar Langham Court Theatre Costume Loft). I have to admit I’m feeling a little Oscar-y, even if I keep catching one heel in the hem of my dress.
I’m at the “manor house” hotel for the Jan. 3 premiere of the sixth and final season of the beloved PBS series Downton Abbey. I’ve dodged the online spoilers and opted to take in a screening with 80 or so new friends. Guests assembled in the lobby have each paid $99 (and in some cases, the additional cost of a costume) for full Downton immersion — a thematic evening featuring a cocktail reception, professional photography, a three-course dinner, and the simulcast premiere. A portion of the proceeds benefits the David Foster Foundation and KCTS9.
Sure, I’m a Downton fan. I’ve watched every episode and enjoy the storytelling, set design and sumptuous costumes like everyone else. That said, I don’t spend time debating Lady Mary’s haircut in the off-season. It’s been so long since Season 5 wrapped, I’ve forgotten the bad-boy under-butler’s name.
Fellow guests have made an effort when it comes to vintage attire. I was curious whether any Downtonites would dress as the below-the-stairs crew — maybe there’d be a Daisy or Anna in the crowd — but it appears most have come in the guise of upper-floor guests, content to enjoy the white glove service provided by hotel staff: footmen in bow ties and maids in full aprons. While this is tony Oak Bay and it may be just another night in the neighbourhood for some, it’s hard not to feel you’re on set and part of the action.
After a glass of bubbly, we take our seats for dinner in the David Foster Theatre, home to spectacular chandeliers, towering centerpieces and flickering candles. My place card is prefaced with the honorific “Lady.” I feel a bit like a lady, especially when my tablemates insist on the moniker. I could get used to this. Now I see why all those wealthy estate-types are looking to hang on to their “traditions.” Table favours include a Downton Do not Disturb sign — especially charming for those overnighting at the hotel, yet entirely viable for home use.
My tablemates prove a riot: There’s Lady Marilyn — a realtor sporting a glorious fascinator — and Lady Paula — a dynamic soft fabrics designer who has crafted an intricate gown that would put most DIYers to shame. We’re joined by delightful Lady Chris who at 81 might pass for 65; she attended last year’s premiere and has been coming to the hotel since 1957. Lady Chris is the ultimate insider: “They’ll be serving cocoa and cookies at the end of the night,” she winks. I plan to stick close to her after the show.
The elegant décor and dim lighting carry us to another time and place. We’re cautious in deciding which fork to use and we sit tall (in my case, to keep the slinky period dress on my shoulders). Lady Paula leans over and whispers: “It’s okay to take your gloves off once you’re seated. I looked it up.” Bare-fingered, we nibble dainty crab-stuffed gougères. We negotiate the watercress hazard accompanying our medallions of wild Pacific salmon (after all, when was the last time you caught Lady Mary with greens in her teeth?) and tuck into local, free-range chicken with creamy potato and truffle gratin. Once we’ve polished off lemon tarts with pistachios and raspberries, we dab the corners of our mouths.
Lady Marilyn tells me she read somewhere that headbands — ubiquitous in this room — were once known as “headache huggers.” Worn tightly, the accessories were thought to disperse or prevent tension. My own hefty headband comes with a cluster of beads at one end and seems at odds with the theory; my neck is already stiff and by the close of the night, my noggin’ will be throbbing. I watch our server move seamlessly in and out from the table. As he’s pouring the coffee, I ask him if the white serving gloves get in the way. “To be honest, they’re the bane of my existence,” he confesses with a smile. Good to know we’re in this together.
At the 20-minute countdown to showtime, a gleeful titter erupts. When Downton’s theme song kicks off and the familiar grounds of Highclere Castle come into view, the energy in the room surges. Fascinator feathers flutter in the light of the screen. Suddenly, we — all of us — are invested again. The stakes are ratcheted up on unresolved plot lines: Will the doom and gloom dogging Anna and Bates cease? Will Lady Edith’s handkerchief ever be dry? Will the glacial, six-season courtship between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes achieve consummation? In the meantime, we covet the horsey crowd’s buttoned-up crimson threads. Suddenly, it all matters again. We have opinions (oh yes!) after five seasons, as if we’ve earned the right to tell Julian Fellowes how it should go. The cheek.
Laughter erupts from the live audience with the usual zingers from the Dowager Countess (“Does it ever get cold on the moral high ground?”) and ramps up when hapless Mrs. Patmore is left to determine whether Mr. Carson expects a “full” marriage to Mrs. Hughes. Part way through the episode, I feel a set of eyes resting on me in the dark. When I realize it’s Lord Grantham who has me in his sights, I do a double take; the svelte cardboard cutout is half-illuminated in the alcove where he’s been tucked under an exit sign.
At our table, we revel in the past, but discover there are some benefits to modernity. Our server whispers that we can simply text to order a drink during the show. I try to picture Carson thumbing a tiny keyboard.
As the night winds down, I pass a group of Downton-goers lingering in the hotel conservatory — debonair men with swept-back hair and neatly trimmed moustaches, and a woman I heard earlier describing herself as a “vintageista” in her era-true frock. For a moment I am transported to 1925. And it is magic.
The March 6 series finale is the last chance to experience Downton at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. The evening features a roaming dinner and reception, live music and theatre screening. Full details here.
The Vic Life attended the premiere as a guest of the Oak Bay Beach Hotel.