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Jeremy Irons: ‘Television Doesn’t End With ‘Downton Abbey”

Actor compares show to a Ford Fiesta and Shakespeare to an Aston Martin — before admitting he doesn't watch it

Jeremy Irons wants American viewers to realize that "television doesn't end with 'Downton Abbey.'"

The British actor took several entertaining jabs at the popularity of the hit series Tuesday while promoting his PBS show, "Shakespeare Uncovered."

But he later offered a clarification that either negated his insults or amplified them, depending on your interpretation: He said he's never actually seen an episode of "Downton," which airs in the U.S. on PBS.

Irons, in a playful mood, spoke during a Television Critics Association panel in which he also took several deadpan digs at the French.

"What I'm really excited about with 'Shakespeare Uncovered' is we'll see some of the best British actors playing Shakespeare. What you can do is to open up to this huge American audience… show them that actually television doesn't end with 'Downton Abbey.' If you think that's good, then watch the Shakespeare productions. You'll see what real writing, what real stories, what real characters are about."

He added — at the prodding of his "Shakespeare Uncovered" cohorts — "We do love 'Downton Abbey.

But he went on to compare the show to a Ford Fiesta and Shakespeare to an Aston Martin.

"A Ford Fiesta will get you there and give you a good time. But actually an Aston Martin…" he said, as laughter drowned him out.

He later talked about the difficulty of performing Shakespeare: "It's practice, practice, practice with Shakespeare. You can't sort of mutter it in a sort of 'Downton Abbey' way."

A reporter asked for clarification: Was it fair to say Irons considers "Downton" a bit overrated?

WNET vice president of programming Stephen Segaller, seated beside Irons, seemed to dread the answer.

"If I shot myself now, would it create enough of a diversion?" he asked.

But Irons answered.

"I don't watch very much television," Irons said. "I've never seen 'Downton Abbey.' So I don't know what I'm talking about, basically. I'm sure it's splendid."

Irons also joked that the French of old often lost battles because they were more interested in looking good than fighting. A reporter joked that Irons probably wouldn't be vacationing in France anytime soon.

"As long as you undertstand them, you can deal with them," Irons said.

Irons also talked about the "nightmare" of starring in a play with your wife, which he said he once made the mistake of doing in "The Winter's Tale."

"There's no one to go home to and bitch about your leading lady," he said.

Irons is one of several actors — including Ethan Hawke, Derek Jacobi, Trevor Nunn, Joely Richardson and David Tennant — who will help examine the author's works in the series.

"Shakespeare Uncovered" airs Fridays from Jan. 25 to Feb. 8 on PBS.