Beth’s Blind Date with Mr. Bates: A Downton Abbey Diary

The long-awaited Downton Abbey film is scheduled to be released in the United States today, September 20, 2019, and that gives me a perfect opportunity to share the story of my blind date with a tv star.

It all happened when Chicago’s Goodman Theatre produced a play called St. Nicholas this past winter. Tickets sold quickly, and here’s why: the star of the one-man show was the actor who played some guy named Mr. Bates in Downton Abbey.

I don’t watch much television, had never seen an episode, but who hasn’t heard of Downton Abbey? The theater was offering a touch tour before the show, and if you were blind or came along with a friend who is blind, you’d get discounted tickets.

I invited Audrey, a writer in one of the memoir-writing classes I lead in Chicago. Blindness is an advantage when teaching memoir. I can’t judge writers by how they look, I learn who they are from their stories. Audrey has written about parents coming to Chicago from South Carolina during the Great Migration. She’s been in my class so long that we’ve become friends. I know her family. Her past. Her dreams. But just when you think you know a person, they come out and surprise you. When Audrey read an essay in class last year about being a Downton Abbey fan, I was sure she was joking. I just didn’t think that would be in her list of interests.

Well, Audrey does. Chicago’s public television station, WTTW, sent her a DVD of the entire series to thank her for a donation. Watching one episode led to another, and before you know it, she binge-watched the whole thing.

Ice and wind was fierce the day of our matinee. Staff at The Goodman greeted us warmly, then warned us Brendan Coyle might not be coming out to talk with us before the show. “He has a regular stretching routine and voice prep he does before shows and we’re just not sure…”

Audrey sighed. She’d been hoping to ask Mr. Bates if he really did murder that guy. I couldn’t blame him for not bothering with the pre-show, though: I was the only blind person there.

But as we say in the biz, “The touch tour must go on.” Audrey and I were guided to seats near the front of the theater, where the props guy, the costumer, and the stage manager described what we were about to see. Then, suddenly, ta da! Mr. Bates! Brendan Coyle appeared! There he was, on stage to give us a private showing.

“You have time to talk with us?” the house manager asked, surprised.

“Sure!” the actor shrugged. “What would you like to know?”

And then we were off. The last name Coyle suits him. I could feel a little coil whirring around in his brain while he spoke from the stage. What might a person who can’t see want to know? How can I express that to a person who can’t see the stage?

The set was minimal, and when he explained moves he’d be making to help the audience conjure up different settings – sitting a certain way during pub scenes, for example — I could picture them.

Lots of staff members were there with us. My guess is they aren’t encouraged to fraternize with a big shot like Brendan Coyle? Maybe this was their chance. We all asked questions, Brendan was generous with his time. Audrey never asked him if he really murdered that man, but I had a few questions about the character he’d be playing that day.

My pièce de résistance? “You say you look ‘dashing and disheveled’ in this play. Do you have a beard?

And then, wait for it…Brendan Coyle jumped off the stage, walked over to where I was sitting, took both my hands, directed my palms to his face. “See what you think,” he offered. All eyes were on us. I felt ready for my close-up.

Brendan answered the rest of the questions while standing right there alongside Audrey and me. “Anything special you do to get ready?” one staff member asked. “You know, since it’s a one-man show and all?” Brendan was silent for a bit. “There is,” he finally said. “I put this certain fragrance on right before I enter the stage. The aroma convinces me, okay, this is it. I’m on.”

And with that, he jumped on stage, headed offstage, then back, jumping off the stage again and returning to Audrey and me. “May I touch your wrist?” I turned my arm, opened my palm, and Mr. Bates applied his fragrance there, then did the same for Audrey.

She melted.

Advance touch tours help me understand the play I’m about to see, yes, but much more important is what that does for me afterwards. For the next couple weeks, if I find myself on a bus or a bar stool or at a coffee shop talking with people who can see and attended that same play. Instead of them having to tell me all the things I “missed” because of my sight loss, I can fill them in on what I know and they don’t.

I have no intention on going to the new Downton Abbey film, but later this week, when everyone is going on and on about what they liked, didn’t like, wish there’d been more of and all that, I’ll be able to tell them a thing or two. Like what Mr. Bates’ beard feels like. Or how he smells before a performance.


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  1. Sylvia Ropp Says:

    I did have the great privilege of meeting him at the audience Q and A event for St. Nicholas. We were told he wouldn’t be staying after to take pictures and sign autographs, but Brendan went to the side of the stage sat down and talked with every single person who wanted to meet him while posing for pictures and signing autographs! He is a true kind and humble gentleman!

  2. Elizabeth Murphy Says:

    This is absolutely beautiful. I have been following his career since Downton so I am not surprised by his kindness. Would love to meet him one day.

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