Alastair Bruce is no fan of a polite peck on the cheek. He doesn’t have much time for people who hug, either. And while a handshake might be a little more acceptable, all things in moderation, please. As the historical adviser on PBS’ Downton Abbey, Bruce has stepped in to prevent many an actor’s impulse for a warm-hearted greeting. For good reason: In the pre-penicillin world of a century ago, body contact wasn’t just frowned upon, it was life-threatening. “There were still terrible outbreaks of illness,” Bruce says. “They simply didn’t have the means to cure themselves in the ways we take for granted now. It’s the non-touching that reminds people what a starchy time it was.”
Bruce has been with the show — a Carnival Films/Masterpiece co-production in association with NBCUniversal — from its inception through its meteoric rise from British Sunday evening drama to world-conquering phenomenon. At times he feels like a stern headmaster corralling a rebellious classroom of actors, but it’s his work that elucidates the vast changes in social protocol that took place between that era and now.
“I simply detest the word ‘etiquette,’ because it makes people think of what they’re being told to do as prissy nonsense,” he insists. “By referring to it as protocol, you recognize it as instinctive. We make protocol decisions today without thinking about them, just as they did in Downton Abbey in 1923.”
This past season has featured its share of fresh considerations, opening with Downton mourning the death of Dan Stevens’ Matthew Crawley and closing with a debutante ball for Lady Rose at the court of the British Royal Family. For a self-confessed obsessive when it comes to such matters (“it’s as interesting as cleaning a drain for most people, but my arm is right around the U-bend”), Bruce was in his element.
“There were very clear rules about what a person did in mourning,” he explains. These rules defined whether you could accept invitations to parties, what color clothing you should wear (hint: black) and minimum mourning periods. But he stresses his role is to advise, not direct. “I think the producers’ desire was not to have Michelle Dockery stuck in black for the whole of the series. We are delivering entertainment, not a documentary.” Still, Bruce made sure the truncated period depicted was correct: Even the family’s stationery, barely glimpsed on tables in the background, took on a black trim.
Bruce has had cameos in each season, and relished his turn this year as the Lord Chamberlain at the royal court, although he did battle with the costume department about the details of his dress. “My source for this fascination is the court, so I was very keen to get that right,” he says. “I went to Windsor Castle, summoned the master of the household’s documents for 1923 and found instructions for the specific court Lady Rose would have attended.”
He has another reason to strive for perfection when it comes to the monarchy. As an adviser to the Garter King of Arms, Bruce is likely to have a hand in the next real-life British coronation. And if it’s good enough for the future King, well . . .
Joe Utichi is an Awardsline contributor