Photo: Houston Chronicle © 2015.
If you’re a Downton Abbey
fan, you might already know that one of the most delightful personalities on PBS today is seven-time Emmy award-winning PBS anchor/producer Ernie Manouse
of Houston Public Media. And one of the best shows on PBS right now is Ernie’s Downton Abbey
after show, Manor of Speaking
Manor of Speaking is like a post-Downton water cooler gathering — a chance to re-hash the show and also learn a bit about the era, hosted with the perfect balance of decorum and dishiness by Ernie Manouse. In fact, someone once told Ernie they started watching Downton Abbey because they were such fans of Manor of Speaking! If you’re an avid Downtonite but not yet watching Manor of Speaking, you’re missing out!
With the final season of Downton Abbey airing on PBS starting January 3, 2016, at 9 p.m., I knew I had to talk with Ernie about Downton Abbey, Manor of Speaking and beyond. Ernie is smart, funny, engaging, quick-witted, interesting, charismatic and all-around fabulous, and I am so grateful for his time!
At first, I sent questions for Ernie to answer via email. However, as a fan of Manor of Speaking and of Ernie, it turns out I was a little over-enthusiastic and sent him about a million questions. He started answering via email, but eventually we decided just to chat on the phone instead! So halfway through the Q&A below, the answers get a lot more in-depth. (The first question was from our phone conversation; I decided to move it to the top.)
In a tip of the hat to the Manor of Speaking audience interaction style, at a couple of points below I’ve invited reader responses. Leave a comment and let us know what you’re thinking!
Pam Stucky: What did you love about Downton Abbey? Why do you think it enraptured us all so much?
Ernie Manouse: There have been so many of these costume dramas that we’ve seen over the years from Masterpiece, but the reason that this one works, the reason that this one pulls us all in, is because I think they have an amazing ability of taking today’s issues, common concerns that we have in our generation, and placing them on a period story. What Mary’s going through, people today are going through. When the Granthams lost their money, it was a time when we all were facing financial troubles with the drop in markets and all that. Julian Fellowes has been very clever in taking what look like old issues but they’re actually current issues, so I think that quickly ties us to these characters. We can relate to what they’re going through. I think that’s what makes it different from all the other period pieces that they put on Masterpiece.
Also, they’re skillful in the way they direct the episodes. It might be a long scene, but they cut it up. They cut back and forth with another scene, so there’s always movement in the show. So it’s not a five-minute scene in the drawing room. There’s a moment in the library, then they’re in the kitchen, then they’re in the drawing room, and then back in the kitchen. It gives the sense of movement. I think they’re telling the same story, but with a faster eye, and I think for today’s generations, that, and their being stories you can connect to, the two together really make for a strong show that draws us in. That, and that fact that it’s wonderfully written and they’re great characters, and we love to see them suffer, and we love to see Mary get her way; there are these things that are guilty pleasures. That’s my take on it.
PS: Personally I think one of the reasons your after show, Manor of Speaking, is so popular is because it reconnects us in an increasingly disconnected world; it serves as a sort of nationwide water cooler where we can all gossip about our favorite show. What do you think? Why do people love it? What feedback have you gotten about Manor of Speaking?
EM: I think the reason that the show is so popular is that we have a warm, friendly way of reconnecting with the audience after the show is over. I think the humor, warmth and wit shows a love and appreciation for Downton Abbey but also gives us the opportunity to poke a little fun at it in a loving way. We serve as a sort of book club where maybe the folks at home watched the show, had a glass of wine and joined us in our manor house. I worry sometimes some of our viewers are watching the show alone, and when it ends the experience is over for them, but they still want to share. Our show gives viewers a chance to engage, to share, to see what other viewers are saying through social media, and to laugh and celebrate their favorite program.
PS: One of the fun things about Manor of Speaking is that you have on experts, who can explain some of the finer details and subtle nuances of the historical aspects and accuracies of the show. Have they ever caught the DA producers in a historical inaccuracy?
EM: The best answer would be what Alastair Bruce (Downton’s historical consultant) told me — the job is to inform the production of what was historically accurate, and then what the producers, directors and such do with it is up to them. But for us, Helen Mann has noticed a few timeline inaccuracies, or at least “strange timings” … But for the most part they are pretty on point.
PS: Have you seen all of the final season yet? What did you think? [This Q&A was done before Christmas and the airing of the final Christmas episode in the U.K.]
EM: I have — all but the last [Christmas] episode. I think it has given us what we would want: intrigue, humor, scandal, emotion and excitement. It seems a fitting end to a wonderful series.
PS: If you haven’t seen the series finale [Christmas episode], how do you think it should end?
: I have always joked that the series should end on a close up of Mr. Bates … Slow pull out revealing Anna at his side, holding in her arms their small child … Pull out further to reveal Bates holding an ax with blood on it … and finally, a wide shot with the cast dead at their feet … Turns out Bates killed them all — all through the series — poisoned Mr. Pamuk, cut Matthew’s brake cord, etc. … And the baby’s name … Norman, Norman Bates! [Of Psycho
fame, of course!]
PS: I think that would be perfect! Favorite storyline from the past seasons?
EM: I have enjoyed Thomas’ journey. They have given him plenty of opportunities to show dimension and character growth. I actually initially was not at all interested in Rose, but in Season 5 I became very invested in her and Atticus’ story.
PS: Which storyline do you think played out too long?
EM: Mr. Green and Bates’ imprisonment — those two … Enough said! I will not prolong it any further!
PS: Which storyline do you wish they’d given more time?
EM: Gregson in Germany — I really would have been curious to learn more about what went on there…
PS: Which characters did you find yourself wishing you’d seen more of?
EM: Cora’s mother and Jimmy.
PS: Thomas: Good guy or bad guy?
EM: Most complicated, intriguing character. That’s what makes him endlessly fascinating. I think at his vote he is a wounded good guy, who has built up his walls and feels he needs to strike before he is found out. He is my favorite character on the show.
PS: Of all of Lady Mary’s suitors, who do you think was best suited for her?
EM: He wasn’t her suitor, but Tom Branson — since they both lost their loves, I always wanted to see them happy together. Otherwise, of course Matthew, then Gillingham.
PS: Carson and Mrs. Hughes: Why do you think we love this pairing so much? Where do you think they’ll be in 20 years?
EM: Happily married — they have since the beginning seemed as the mother and father of the downstairs staff, a loving unit who oversee their children with love, and a firm hand.
PS: Okay, and Bates and Anna. Come on! There is no chemistry there. Am I right? What do you think of Bates and Anna?
EM: See my answer for how the series should end ;-). But the audience does just love to see them in turmoil. I will say I was caught off guard when they were coupled — I guess I missed all the subtle cues!
And then Ernie and I got on the phone together … and the answers got a lot longer (which I love)!
PS: Do you think we’ll see a Downton Abbey spinoff? If so, what should it be?
EM: I know that early on there was an idea for a spinoff, which actually I kind of like, but I don’t think it’s going to happen now. It was going to be the Robert and Cora story. They were going to go back and tell the Robert and Cora story, how they met, and how they came to be who they are today. I think that’s actually a pretty fascinating story, and I would have loved to have seen that, I would have loved to have seen the negotiations between Violet and Cora’s mother. I would have loved to have seen all of it. I think that would have been a great story. That would be a spinoff I would enjoy.
Also, as I’ve said throughout, my favorite character is Thomas. I’m fascinated by him, I think Rob James-Collier has done an amazing job. Because of his complexity, he’s an interesting character to follow.
I don’t know how much you’ve seen of Season 6. [I’ve seen all of it except the Christmas episode.] They even continue into Season 6 making Thomas really a complex character. I think some people think they draw him a little too often from the same card, like “He’s bad,” but I think they’ve done a good job. Especially in the Season 3 or 4 where he first warmed to Jimmy, and kind of showed a dimension of him that was like, he does care, and he loves. But the world has made him “bad.”
READERS: What do you think? What kind of spinoff would you want to see? What characters do you want to see more of? Answer in the comments!
PS: In a smack down between the Dowager Countess and Professor McGonagall [Dame Maggie Smith’s character in Harry Potter], who would win?
EM: If it’s a battle of wits, it’s got to be Violet. Physically, McGonagall.
EM: Oh, please! Mrs. Patmore! Of course! Daisy knows everything she knows from Mrs. Patmore. Anyway, Daisy would have yelled at the judges if they got it “wrong,” and she’d be in trouble, because Daisy’s gotten way too uppity.
PS: How did you come up with the idea for and format of Manor of Speaking? I hear there’s a connection to Celtic Thunder (which, of course, is the show that launched the career of a mutual friend of ours, whom PBS audiences might also be familiar with, Irish singer/actor Damian McGinty)?
EM: I was in Ireland shooting the national pledge breaks for the Celtic Thunder show, and shot for a week. At the end of the week, they shot the show on Friday, so I had the weekend. I decided I was going to stay in Europe for the weekend because it was my birthday. I decided I’d go to Amsterdam for my birthday. I’d be all alone, but I’d go to Amsterdam, have fun and fly home. So. Finished shooting Friday night, flew out Saturday morning to Amsterdam, got to my hotel room. I always travel with a media player and a digital media reader, that’s just the way I am. So I hooked it up, and I had gotten a little touch of a cold on the flight, and I thought, well, I’ll just sit in my room a bit and watch a little TV.
I realized I had Season 1 and Season 2 of Downton Abbey on my player, so I thought, I’ll watch those. So, I started, and I watched both seasons, episode after episode. I didn’t go out, didn’t enjoy Amsterdam, I spent my whole birthday weekend in my hotel room in Amsterdam watching Downton Abbey. When I finished it, after every episode, I was like, “I wish I had someone to talk to about this show!” Not only was I not around anybody I knew, I wasn’t watching it when anybody else was watching it. So there was no one to share it with.
When I got back to the U.S., I was at work, and one of the people I work with came up to me and said, “You know, Downton Abbey is doing really well. I wonder if there’s something we could do for membership drive with it. Do you have any ideas?” And I said, “No, but I’ve got a great idea for an after show, because if our audience is anything like I was, when each episode ends, you want to talk about it. You want to share it with someone who just experienced it with you.” And so, that was the birth of Manor of Speaking. It was a show just to help people decompress after an episode. I knew I didn’t want it to be stodgy, I didn’t want it to be too heavily thought out. I wanted it to feel like you and a bunch of your friends got a bottle of wine and were in a book club, and you just wanted to have fun with it.
I think at times people think we’re a little disrespectful of the depth of it, but I think that’s what makes it work. We love the show so much; we can have fun with it. We can laugh with it. We can be sad with it.
So we came up with that concept. Then we decided we wanted to interact with the audience, so we wanted to have tweets. But we thought, well, if we’re in a manor house, how are we going to get tweets? So my director came up with the idea, “You should have a butler deliver tweets to you.” That’s where the idea of me having a butler came along.
We have a friend of mine who’s an actor … it’s a long story of how he got to do it. Suffice it to say, he took the character and ran with it. All we knew is it was going to be a butler bringing tweets. He came up with the name, he came up with the schtick we do each week of me asking questions and him giving an answer, he just kind of made the Mr. Rodgers character into something. That’s all on Luke Wrobel, who created it ... Luke just was right for that role. He’s been wonderful. He’s gotten Emmy nominations twice for playing Mr. Rodgers, it’s just worked out great.
PS: How does that work with the tweets? I know being on the West Coast, they aren’t our tweets. Are they East Coast tweets? How does it work? Is it a live show? Is it pre-taped? What’s the magic behind the tweets?
EM: [Evil laugh] You want to know the dirty secret of our tweets? Okay. The deal is we pre-tape our show on Tuesday nights. We have to pre-tape the show. The first season we did it live, but now we have to pre-tape the show because we distribute it. We’re on about 140 PBS stations across the country. So we need to send out the tape, and it needs to be processed and all that. It’s complicated, but that’s how it works. So the thought was, how do we keep the live tweets on the show? So when the show airs in the U.K., we gather all the tweets that are generated by that episode. The tweets that we’re posting are real tweets, and they were inspired by the episode you just saw.
Then, when I lay out what we’re going to do on the show that night, we kind of know what areas we’re going to talk about. We know that in the first break we’re going to talk about this storyline, and in the next break we’re going to talk about that storyline. So we have a “Tweets Producer” who basically culls through all the tweets the U.K. does, and then matches them up. We know we’re going to be talking about this storyline, so all the tweets will reflect that storyline, and look like they’re coming in in the moment.
That’s the first week. But on the second week that we do our show, by that time the first episode has aired in the U.S. already. So we go through all the tweets that come in during that episode [in the U.S.], and any that are more generic or character-driven and tie in with what we’re talking about the next week, we’ll incorporate those into our show. So if on the first episode you tweet something about Violet, and then she does something in the second episode that we’re going to talk about, your tweet might show up there. So in the first week we don’t have your tweets on, but by the second week we’re starting to incorporate tweets from the U.S.
It’s a very complicated process, and then out of all the tweets that come in, we cull through them and I pick out like nine of my favorite tweets, no matter what they’re about, and those are the ones that make it to Mr. Rodgers’ tray.
I think that’s the biggest question people ask when they realize the show is pre-taped. They’re like, “How do you get the tweets, then?!” It’s magic! It’s Mr. Rodgers’ magic!
PS: So back to Damian McGinty, I have to ask you because I know you know I thought he should have been cast in Downton Abbey at some point. If you were to cast Damian in Downton Abbey — too late now, of course, but there are always time machines — what role would you give him?
EM: I would think, two roles that maybe he would be good for. People aren’t going to like this. One, he could be a new house butler, a house boy, but I also think for some reason Daisy might encounter him out at the farm. He could be a good love interest for Daisy.
PS: I had thought that he could be Tom Branson’s younger cousin, come to visit.
EM: Ahhh. See, my thing is, because I know him, I know he’s not stodgy and stiff-collar, so I had to see him as one of the more down-to-earth people.
READERS: If you know of Damian McGinty, what role would you have created for him on Downton Abbey? Tell us in the comments!
PS: How do you handle it, especially in … I don’t remember what season it was, but there have been some pretty heavy storylines, and then you have a sort of light, dishy, gossipy show, how do you balance that? How do you maintain the tone of your show when the tone of Downton Abbey gets heavy?
EM: I think that’s the best thing about Manor of Speaking, because we’re there with the audience to help them decompress from the story. The best example of that would have to be the episode when Anna was raped. [After that episode] all over the country, stations got phone calls and complaints; people were upset and bothered by it, but our station didn’t get a single complaint call, and that was because of Manor of Speaking, I think.
What we did was, when we came out of that episode, knowing it was going to be so heavy and disturbing, and also knowing that in the U.K. it got the reaction it did, we opened our show with a grief counselor on the panel from the Houston Area Women’s Center — just me and that woman. And we came to us, and we explained why sharing that story was important in today’s day and age, what we can learn from that story, and told our audience, if you find yourself in a similar situation, or if the storyline brought up feelings or memories in you, we had a help line, and we put that number up. I think that transitioned our audience through that uncomfortable moment. Then we went into the open of our show, and then we did our regular show. We kept that woman on the couch, because, you know, we reminded everyone, these are characters. It’s a story.
I think it was a huge service to our community. That’s when we broke format, and it’s the only show when we’ve actually broken format. It was important to do, and I’m happy we were there to do it, and the audience reaction was very strong to it. We didn’t get any negative reaction. We handled the rest of the show, looking at the other storylines, the same way as we always did. We didn’t then want to make the whole thing down and sad and all of that. But it was important to realize there are serious issues that are dealt with. Luckily for us, they haven’t given us a whole lot of those, so we’ve been able to keep our laughter and our humor going. We try to match the audience where the audience is.
PS: I think that’s fabulous you did that. I’m sure that made a real difference for some people. But, you’re almost done with Manor of Speaking now! What’s going to happen next? Will you do this format for other shows?
: I think if the right program came along, we would do it. You have to realize that Downton Abbey
is very unique in the way people react to the show. And it’s also cleverly written in a way that allows us to have fun with it. It has fun with itself, and so we’re not being disrespectful to it. There are some shows where I think they take themselves so seriously and the audience does, too, that if we came out and did this, they would be offended. But Downton Abbe
y has a good sense of humor. If something comes along, we’re ready to do it again. But other than that, I’ll go back to doing InnerVIEWS
and the other shows that I do.
READERS: We need more Ernie, am I right? Are there other shows you’d love to see Ernie do an after show for? I’ve suggested Poldark and A Place to Call Home — I especially think A Place to Call Home is ripe for an after show! What shows do you think need an after show like Manor of Speaking? Let us know in the comments!
EM: Now we’re in our 14th season, and we’re already taping for season 15.
PS: Fantastic. Tell me about that. How do you decide who to have on? What is your goal in your interviews, your guiding mission?
EM: A couple different things. One is, they have to be someone who has a story or career worthy of a half-hour conversation. You think, “Oh, that’s easy.” But it’s not. There are so many people that are popular today for one or two things, and to sustain that for half an hour would be hard. I like to find somebody who has a good body of work that we can talk about. But also who’s done something with themselves. When people ask me to describe what the show is, I often say that it investigates the creative mind. I want to know how people achieve what they achieve, and how they got to where they’re at, and then also how they give back with it, what they do with what they’ve learned. That’s usually the overlying guideline for that show.
The other thing is when we put up their name underneath them, we don’t have to explain who they are. So if it says “Judy Collins,” I don’t have to put underneath it, “Singer.” People will just know who they are. That’s what I look for. Also, I tend to like people I tend to like. You know? So someone I’m a fan of or who I like. I’ve been fortunate. Yes, I’ve done some people where I’m not a huge fan of their work, just because I haven’t been exposed to it or it’s not in my wheelhouse, but that doesn’t mean they don’t belong there. For the most part, I’ve been lucky, and I get to pick who I want, when I want.
PS: And you clearly love interviewing people, talking with people. What is the draw for you? What is it that you love about that?
EM: I said very early in this career that if I ever sat down with a celebrity or star or somebody of accomplishment or of note, and I was bored with it, that I should retire. Because really, it’s a fascination of talking with these people, of being in the room with someone who can tell me these stories, you know? They were there, and they can share it. I think it was Walter Cronkite who said, “My natural curiosity,” and I was like, yeah, that’s what it is. It’s my natural curiosity that carries me through these interviews.
It’s wild. I mean, if I want to talk about visiting the moon, I can talk with somebody who actually stood on the moon. If I want to talk with somebody about having 18 top 10 singles in their career, I can sit down with Taylor Dayne, and she did it. You know, it’s not, I can sit with friends and speculate, “What would it be like?” Or I can talk with the people who really did it. It’s so cool.
PS: That is definitely very cool. So tell me, what else do you have going on with PBS, and in your career?
: I also do a show on PBS here in Houston called Arts InSight
airs across the country on multiple stations, Manor of Speaking
airs across the country, and Arts InSight
is a local show, but we share our content with 32 other stations, called the “major market group.” Our stories that we do at our station go to other stations, and their stories come to ours, and I host the Houston version of the show, but all the other stations have their version of the show. So we do that.
But now, with the shutting down of the manor house at the end of March, my station offered me a very nice situation. And that is that starting in March, I pretty much have my own production company within our station, and I can do whatever I want. They want me to find stories, and tell stories, and make shows, and I have the full use of all the facilities we have at our station. So that’s a huge deal to get. The only stipulation is they don’t want long-term series. They don’t want like a weekly series that would run for 10 years. What they want is maybe a short, limited series, like Manor of Speaking, pledge specials, music specials, art shows, documentaries ... whatever I want to do, it’s free for me to do, as long as at the end of the day we’ve made “event television.” So that’s what we’re going to be making. And then we’ll be distributing them.
PS: So do you have ideas already, anything you can talk about?
EM: Yeah, I have something. I know what the very first production is going to be. It’s going to be a documentary about a crime that happened here in Houston, which kind of changed Houston and had impacts across the country. But I don’t want to say what it is quite yet. But you’ll probably be seeing it on Twitter before long, so you’ll know.
PS: You and I both love PBS. Personally, I think public free access to education and information is critical to the health of a community — things like PBS, NPR and public libraries being at the core of that idea. Talk to me a little bit about why you love PBS, and why you think PBS is important?
EM: I love PBS because I feel we’re given the time and the resources to tell the stories in a complete and competent manner. I think too often, with the way the world is today, everything has to be done in sound bites, or 90-second stories, or even if it’s a 2-hour news magazine, not to call any out by name, it’s built around the commercial breaks, so the story has to have a very certain arc, so that at each commercial there’s a cliffhanger. And that doesn’t really serve telling a true story in a truthful way. At PBS what we’ve been allowed to do is tell stories the way the stories need to be told. If it warrants a half an hour, it gets a half an hour. If it warrants an hour, it gets an hour. For the most part, we’re not judging for you. We’re giving you the information, and then you get to decide. I think that’s so important. That’s one thing I try to keep with anything I do, that I’m not telling you how to think. These are the different sides of the story. Now your responsibility is to figure out where you fall on it. It’s not my job to tell you. My job is to give you the information so you can decide for yourself. And that’s really the beauty of working in PBS, and especially Houston Public Media. We’ve been very fair and balanced in what we do. I know sometimes some people will say, “Ah! PBS is so liberal!” And then other people will say, “Ah! PBS is so conservative!” So I’m happy they say it’s both.
PS: What do you hope the next five to 10 years of your career look like? What would you like to do that you haven’t yet done?
EM: I think that I just get to continue to do the work that I’ve enjoyed doing. It’s going to be hard to put Manor of Speaking to bed, because the show so beautifully fits in my wheelhouse, it’s what I like to do. As much as InnerVIEWS is one side of me, the in-depth, thoughtful conversations, Manor of Speaking is the quirky, funny, quick-witted, one-liner side of me that most of my friends probably know.
PS: It’s clear that you’re very comfortable in that. It comes across that that’s you.
EM: I’m friends with Lyle Lovett, the country singer, and Lyle is on the first episode of Manor of Speaking this season; he’s going to sit on the couches with us. [The first episode has already been taped.] After the show, he said he’d never realized that the whole show is ad-libbed by me. There’s no script. Manor of Speaking is all just off the top of my head. And he was like, you know, he’s known me for a while, he knows my sense of humor, and he knew that was there, but he was like, “Every single toss, everything you do on the show is just in the moment.” And I was like, “Yep.”
So once the show starts, for me, it’s a challenge, and it’s a rollercoaster ride, and in my mind a little game, “Will I hit the points, will I get it right, will I make this work?” Because we don’t have anything to fall back on. Even though the show is now pre-taped, it’s live-to-tape. We go through it as though it’s live. There are no re-shoots, there are no fixes, we just do what we do. So I’ll miss the adrenaline, the excitement, the fun of all that.
PS: You’ll have to find something to replace that. If I think of something, I’ll let you know.
EM: Please, let me know!
READERS: Do you have any ideas for Ernie or his production company? What small series, pledge specials, music specials, documentaries, etc., do you want to see? Leave your ideas in the comments!
EM: I’ll tell you some other people who are going to pop up on the show this season. We’ve got Lyle Lovett on the couch, we have Brené Brown …
EM: She’s going to be on the couch, she’s on the second week. Ina Garten, the Barefoot Contessa, is going to do Across the Pond with us. A few other surprises up our sleeves, but those are the ones I know are written in stone.
PS: That sounds fantastic. So much to look forward to! Ernie, thank you so much for your time! You’ve been just fabulous to chat with, and I’m so grateful. I hope we see more of you! Happy New Year!
EM: Thanks, Pam!
So, fans of Manor of Speaking, Downton Abbey, Ernie, and more, there you have it! Be sure to catch Manor of Speaking right after the Downton Abbey Season 6 premiere on January 3, 2016. It sounds like a fantastic season ahead!