‘Manor of Speaking’ goes national
by Donalevan Maines
Ernie Manouse is ahead of his time. He’s already screened every episode of Season 5 of Downton Abbey, the addictive Masterpiece TV drama that he and his guests dissect in the popular after-party show, Manor of Speaking, on Channel 8.
But is he spilling secrets about the upcoming season? Yes and no. “I can tell you that the resolution of the Mr. Green situation does not come quietly,” Manouse allows.
But when he reveals that “two characters will meet their demise,” it’s with a wink because, as fans will discover, that’s only true in a manner of speaking.
When talking about the critical darling Downton Abbey, it’s all about that pace, so the “dirty little secret” that Manouse springs about the show going national will be especially welcome to fans: instead of being shown live, as before, this third season of Manor of Speaking will be a taped broadcast. “The good news,” Manouse says, “is that our studio audience will get a chance to see the episode five days in advance,” on a Tuesday, while at-home viewers must wait until it’s broadcast on Sunday night.
In fact, because of the holidays, the January 4 episode will be screened December 16 for Manouse’s studio audience at the LeRoy & Lucile Melcher Center for Public Broadcasting, and his after-show discussion with a cast of Houston celebrity super-fans will be taped and fed to other public television stations on January 2 for broadcast on January 4 as if it were live.
“The reason is the technicalities,” explains Manouse, the Channel 8 arts and culture senior producer/host. “Some local stations don’t keep a master control operator on the weekends, so our show will be prerecorded and sent out all across the country.” Fans can get free tickets to the tapings at manorofspeaking.org. In prior seasons, a donation to Channel 8 was required for attendance.
“We are located right outside of downtown on the University of Houston campus at 4343 Elgin,” he explains.
“A comfortable audience is about 50 people,” says Manouse, who goes on to titillate us with the hint that Thomas Barrow, the show’s scheming gay character, is front and center in “a major plot point this season.”
“The show will be dealing with his sexuality quite a bit,” says Manouse.
Barrow, played by pretty-boy model-turned-actor Rob James Collier, began at Downton Abbey manor as a footman and has advanced to underbutler. In previous episodes, he tried to blackmail a former lover, the Duke of Crowbough; he teased a kitchen maid, Daisy; and yes, he locked Isis in a shed. “All my life they’ve pushed me around just ’cause I’m different,” Barrow has complained, adding, “I’m the one that got away.”
Among the show’s giant cast are Academy Award winners Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine.
On October 25, Manouse won his fifth Emmy Award for producing the second season of Manor of Speaking, which was named the top Interview/Discussion-Program/Special/Series from among the state’s 19 TV markets. At an awards banquet in Houston for the 12th annual Lone Star Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Manouse was also nominated for hosting Manor of Speaking and anchoring the 2014 Houston Public Media Spelling Bee.
He’s won twice as best on-air talent for a year’s body of work, and he claimed two other Lone Star Emmys for producing and hosting programs at Channel 8.
Manouse, who arrived at Houston Public Media almost 19 years ago, seems ubiquitous at events in Houston’s LGBT community. “I came out early in my career when I was interviewed by a gay newspaper in Chicago,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I come out now, it won’t be an issue. Let’s just get it over now. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.’ From that point forward, it’s not been a hidden fact. When I moved to Houston, I asked myself, ‘Do I say anything? Do I wait?’ I was interviewed by OutSmart, so I said, ‘That’s who I am.’ There’s never been any kickback from it.”
Manouse grew up in Binghamton, New York, which is about three and a half hours northwest of New York City and about that far south of the Canadian border. It’s only 10 minutes from Pennsylvania.
In sixth grade, Manouse went on a school field trip to the Big Apple and saw his first of many Broadway shows. But Grease, starring Richard Gere as Danny, was more PG-13 than he expected. “How shocked I was by how scandalous it was,” he laughs. In fact, other kids had to explain to Manouse about a reference in the show to condoms.
Even more disturbing was what he read about homosexuals when he peeked through books at the local mall. “I was maybe around 12,” he says, when he came to the conclusion that “I would have to be either a drag queen or a leather queen. In a serious book on gay lifestyles, this was all there really is: I was going to have to pick one of them. That’s probably the only thing that gave me pause.”
Manouse picked Loyola University in Chicago to go to college, graduating with a major in communications and minors in psychology and English in 1991.
Those early dating years were restricted by the threat of AIDS. “You get the keys to the kingdom, but now you can’t use them,” he says.
The Windy City introduced Manouse to jobs in radio and network TV. After work, he enjoyed watching a late-night TV program, Later with Bob Costas. “It was a fabulous show,” says Manouse, “and it became the prototype and inspiration for InnerVIEWS,” his signature, syndicated Channel 8 series that has aired in more than 100 cities.
Just as Costas did in Later, Manouse conducts genial, one-on-one half-hour interviews with a single guest per episode. “The show is truly about the guest, not the host,” he says. “In everyday life, my friends will say I’m very chatty, chatty, chatty. But on the show, I let the guest talk.”
In just one week in November, Manouse taped InnerVIEWS segments with Oscar-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr., director Julie Taymor (The Lion King, A Midsummer Night’s Dream), and out filmmaker James Ivory (A Room with a View). “A good proportion of my show has gay people as guests,” he says, noting that the PBS affiliate in San Francisco stocks up on InnerVIEWS for its annual Pride month lineup.
Manouse cites Barbara Walters as a big influence and, perhaps surprisingly, counts a mother from Jasper, Texas, as a more important interview subject than any of the 200 big-name celebrities he’s met for InnerVIEWS. The late Stella Byrd (whose son, James Byrd Jr., was reportedly dragged for three miles behind a pickup truck on an asphalt road by white supremacists in 1998) was courted unsuccessfully by Oprah Winfrey, Ted Koppel, and others before she chose to sit down with Manouse for “the only long-form interview she did,” he says.
Manouse recalls that the Texas Legislature, intent on passing a hate crimes bill that commemorated the brutal death of her son, tried to drop stronger penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s actual or perceived LGBT status. “She said, ‘If you take them out, then take my son’s name out.’ She said, ‘Hatred of any people is wrong.’ I was amazed by that woman. I thought, ‘There is somebody I want to interview.’”
Like InnerVIEWS, which has aired nationally for 11 seasons, Manor of Speaking is distributed this year by National Educational Telecommunications Association (NETA), whose proposal reads, “Manor of Speaking is a solidly packed show with re-caps, history lessons, surprise guests, behind-the-scenes stories, and a whole lot of fun. Additionally, viewers are invited to participate via Twitter and on the Manor website, making the experience complete.”
“One by one, stations are coming on board,” says Manouse. “My little Downton Abbey after-show is a hit. Weeeeeeeee!”
From coast to coast, Manor of Speaking has attracted a congratulatory media spotlight. “The show is a mix of turn-of-the-century English country house and modern-day Texas,” Manouse says in his 960-word coronation in The New York Times. “I’m in a tux as an hommage to those days, but I’m wearing cowboy boots because I’m a Texan.”
“If Downton Abbey is your meal, then Manor of Speaking is your dessert,” he told the Times, which called Manor of Speaking “the most popular locally produced series in [Houston Public Media’s] history.”
A lush color photograph that accompanied the article showed Manouse on set with recurring program co-stars Helen Mann, a former vice consul for public affairs at the British consulate in Houston, and Music Box Theater performer Luke Wrobel, who plays Mr. Rodgers. He’s the butler who delivers viewers’ messages to Manouse on a silver platter, announcing, “Tweets, m’lord.”
The third recurring co-star is St. John Flynn, the arts and culture producer for Houston Public Media. “His British accent is real,” says Manouse.
In Emmy, the magazine of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, Robin Roberts wrote, “The set replicates the parlor of an English country manor house, and Manouse, clad in formal wear, holds court over a revolving cast of experts, historians, and anyone remotely connected with Downton, including fans.” That list of notable fans even includes former first lady Barbara Bush.
“I want it to be like a TV clubhouse,” Manouse told the Houston Chronicle. “We’re a family with our viewers. We interact with them.”
He added, “I grew up on a steady diet of Dynasty and Dallas.”
Manouse is “definitely a ringmaster in a three-ring circus,” the show’s producer told the Chronicle, while a member of the Manor studio audience gushed, “He’s the Andy Cohen of PBS.”
Manouse adds that he’s thrilled to be hosting Manor of Speaking again and can hardly wait until episodes of Season 5 of Downton Abbey begin airing, so he can finally share with friends and fans more of what’s happening with the show’s aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in 1920s England.
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.