By Noel Young, Correspondent

January 6, 2013 | 4 min read

Under the headline "A Bit of Britain Where the Sun Still Never Sets" the New York Times has paid tribute to what may be Britain's most unexpected TV triumph ever internationally: Downton Abbey.

The show resumes tonight on PBS's Masterpiece Theatre, with Shirley Maclaine playing Lady Mary’s American grandmother, Martha, as you can see in the US trailer.

Downton is possibly the most successful show in the 40-year history of the Masterpiece series.

“Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” Julian Fellowes, the creator and the writer of the show, told the Times.

Surprisingly, it has become a hit in Sweden, Russia, South Korea, the Middle East and other places "where viewers wouldn’t know a dowager from a dogsbody," as the NYT put it.

Actor Jim Carter, who plays the butler Carson,found out about the show's popularity on a cycling trip in Cambodia after shooting ended on the third season.

Amid the temples of Angkor Wat, said the Times " he found himself wilting in cycling gear in the steamy climate — when he was suddenly surrounded by a group of Asian tourists screaming, 'Mr. Carson!'"

The show premiered in Britain on ITV in September 2010 Co-produced by Carnival Films (now part of NBC Universal) and “Masterpiece,” it has now appeared in more than 200 countries or regions.

“Although in one sense,” Fellowes told the Times, “ ‘Downton’ is very British — it’s very fixed in a particular part and way of life, a particular limited range of society and so on — I think most of the stories are about emotional situations that everyone can understand.”

It was the most-watched drama in Denmark, the No. 1 scripted series in the Netherlands and at or near the top of its time slot in countries like Singapore and Brazil last year, according to NBC Universal International.

It is also a hit in Australia, Norway, Belgium, Israel and Iceland.

The show’s success is on a scale almost never reached by British or European series, Amandine Cassi, head of international television research at Eurodata TV Worldwide told the Times.

Claudia Macedo, of Globosat, which carries Downton in Brazil, said ,“We took the risk of airing a period series in a slot dedicated to contemporary fiction because we believe in its strength, and the way its themes are dealt with is timeless.”

NBC Universal estimates that more than 120 million viewers worldwide have watched “Downton Abbey” at some point.

That number should grow significantly when CCTV in China begins offering a version dubbed in Mandarin this year.

Some Chinese viewers , however, already know the world of “Downton.”

“I was in Shanghai earlier this year and people were coming up to me saying it was their favorite show,” Gareth Neame, managing director of Carnival Films, who came up with the initial idea , told the Times.

“This is the People’s Republic of China, and this is a show all about primogeniture and inheritance and aristocracy and all those things that you thought the whole point of China was to do away with. So that was a surprise.”

Most important in the show is , the unabashed romance.

Neame, an executive producer, said, “The romance is depicted in a very sort of genuine, heartfelt way. We’ve found that no matter where you live on this planet, you get it.”

Where English is not the primary language, said the NYT, the TV company delivers a broadcast-ready version of the show, which can include hiring actors to dub the dialogue into the region’s dominant language, if necessary.

Fellowes added, “You travel thousands and thousands of miles, and you get off the plane, and someone says, ‘Is Mr. Carson going to marry Mrs. Hughes?’

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