A new season of Downton Abbey is a cause for celebration for millions of Brits and Americans alike. Just before Christmas, I spoke at a packed advance screening of Downton Abbey season four, hosted by Sharon Rockefeller, the Chief Executive of WETA, the PBS affiliate here in Washington. To my wife's disappointment, to put it mildly, we weren't able to stay for the screening itself, so it was a real treat to catch up with what we had missed on Sunday night.
The following evening, in New York, I attended a fantastic period performance of Twelfth Night by the London-based Globe Theatre, featuring the remarkable British actor Mark Rylance (who is simultaneously starring in a production of Richard III at the same theatre) as well as Stephen Fry. Then the next night we treated ourselves to the glamorous, funny and award-winning Broadway musical Kinky Boots, based on the British film set in a Northampton shoe factory. The three experiences, on three consecutive nights, reminded me once again of the breadth of the cultural heritage we share with the United States.
UK productions do amazingly well on America's stages and screens. Alongside Kinky Boots, the other big Broadway hit of the year was Matilda, based on the novel by children's writer Roald Dahl (a fighter pilot who spent much of World War II here in the U.S. making the case for supporting Britain in the fight against Nazism). Between them, the two shows received 25 nominations at the 2013 Tony Awards.
Downton is the most watched show in PBS' history, but it's by no means Britain's only success story on U.S. television. In November, 2.4 million Americans tuned in for the 50th anniversary special of the British sci-fi classic Doctor Who. HBO's Game of Thrones, filmed in Northern Ireland with a largely British cast, continues to attract millions of viewers and dozens of awards. And we're all looking forward to seeing Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman back in action in the third season of the BBC's Sherlock later this month.
Shakespeare is still the pre-eminent dramatist on both sides of the Atlantic. Washington's Shakespeare Theatre Company continues to delight audiences with its world-class performances under the leadership of Michael Kahn, to whom Her Majesty the Queen awarded an honorary CBE last year. At the same time as the Globe's Twelfth Night and Richard III, Ethan Hawke is starring in Macbeth at the Lincoln Center. So the Bard has at least three top New York productions of three different works playing simultaneously. How many playwrights, let alone 450-year-old ones, could say as much? Meanwhile, two knights of the theatrical realm, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart, appear together, also in New York, in Waiting for Godot and No Man's Land at the Cort Theatre.
Next month, it will be 50 years since the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, marking the start of Beatlemania in the U.S. The intervening five decades have not dimmed the popularity of British music over here. Sir Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones toured the U.S. last year on their own 50th anniversary tours, playing to capacity crowds in huge venues around the country (I enjoyed seeing Sir Mick Jagger running onstage waving a huge Union Jack). English singer Adele won a Grammy, an Oscar and a Golden Globe in 2013. Adele's 21 was the best-selling album in the U.S. for two years in a row -- a unique achievement. New British acts are emerging onto the scene all the time. In September the Embassy hosted a live performance by Bastille, whose single "Pompeii" debuted at number 1 on the Billboard Alternative chart.
Few cultural partnerships can match ours for closeness or longevity. In November, the Congressional leadership -- accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry -- unveiled a new a bust of Sir Winston Churchill in the US Capitol, commissioned to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Churchill's historic address to both houses of Congress in December 1941. Roger Daltrey of The Who provided musical accompaniment, while the political leaders showed a remarkable knowledge of Churchill quotes and anecdotes.
In 2014, we will continue to celebrate the history and culture that unites us. Among many other things, Sir Kenneth Branagh will be making his Broadway debut playing Macbeth. We will be doing our own celebrations of 50 years of American Beatlemania in Washington and around the country. And copies of the Magna Carta from Lincoln and Hereford Cathedrals will go on display in Washington and Houston respectively, in preparation for the 800th anniversary of the charter that forms a foundation stone of liberty in both our countries.
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