EMMYS: Setting History On Its Proper Course In 'Downton Abbey'

Image (2) Awardsline-logo_use-this-one__140529211810-275x38.jpg for post 738599Alastair 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 PBSDownton 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.

'Downton Abbey' Historical Consultant Gets His Facts Right“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

  1. If they let Lady Edith off without repercussions from having a baby out of wedlock and growing up in the same estate then I will quit watching. She would have been humiliated and they had best follow a historically correct story line.

  2. I am just glad we are over the ‘wearing black’ for a long mourning period. In many cases it was a mask to hide the real feelings of the deceased who in all likelihood was not missed. And widows were expected to remain widows and not remarry – great changes in a lot of areas of society now. I never was one for touchy-feely in public with strangers or people who I did not know very well and I am still that way – I have an invisible three feet circle around me that is my space and I am not comfortable when people get within that space. In some ways I miss certain aspects of ‘protocol’ and in other areas I am glad they no longer exist.

    1. This is not true. Widows were allowed to re-marry, and many did, after their mourning was over.

  3. I like how they put so much detail and thought into the show, as a Brit it shows what the country’s past was like, for all classes.

    1. Whilst its true that they did put so much detail and thought into the first two series, the same could not be said for the last two. And I’m sorry but Downton Abbey, IMO does NOT show what early 20th century Britain was like. It’s a pastiche and what Fellowes thinks what the past was like.

  4. I have met Alastair Bruce in person and he is smart and engaging. I absolutely love that he is so strict about adhering to the historic details. It allows us a realistic glimpse into the era and adds to the integrity of the show.

    1. He isn’t strict. Or rather, he might try to be but a lot of errors slip through, and I’m sorry, Downton Abbey isn’t realistic. It’s Fellowes’ version of what he thinks it was like.

    2. With all due respect to Mr Bruce, all the claims about “we get it right” aren’t backed up by the number of errors that one notices in the telecast – the circumstances of Dame Nellie Melba’s invitation and the boorish way she was treated, the king speaking to a deb being presented, the sponsor accompanying the debutante while she’s being presented and the curtsey to the Prince of Wales when he drops by; there are more serious errors that totally misrepresent the era such as Rose running amok the streets of London and Downton village unchaperoned. In real life, the likes of Rose would have developed the reputation of being “fast” and there will be tutting over Cora’s dereliction of duty and failure to provide moral guidance to a young woman who hasn’t been presented yet. Downton has failed to remain true to the era it is purportedly set and it has been more noticeable from late series 3 onwards.

  5. Except it’s not correct to the period, is it? it’s riddled with errors and avoidable ones at that. Off the top of my head, the Gutenberg bible; the Prince of Wales wearing his Garter star and ribbon to a nightclub; Robert’s medals and the uniform he was wearing at the presentation looking more like an escapee from a Lehar operetta than a member of an elite fighting regiment. Understandable, I suppose, given the poor man’s total emasculation by his vile family, but still the wrong uniform; and there’s no excuse for that. Sorry, Mr Bruce, these claims of “we get it right” are wrong. You don’t. This is essentially a 21c take on what you and Fellowes THINK the aristocracy were like and your standards have slipped badly from series 1.

  6. closing with a debutante ball for Lady Rose at the court of the British Royal Family.

    Did you actually watch it?? the ball was at the Grantham’s London home. The presentation was at Court.

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