On a two-day set visit to Downton Abbey, I learned a number of surprising things. Among them: Lady Mary can swear like a truck driver; which bigwig Hollywood names are fans; that one family member we thought we’d seen the last of is back for at least part of Season 6; and that all the female cast, upstairs and down, share a penchant for fluffy pink bathrobes.
A few weeks before I traveled to Highclere Castle and Ealing Studios, it had been officially announced that this would be the final season of the historic period drama that has become a global phenomenon. So, many of my conversations with folks ranging from exec producer Gareth Neame and producer Liz Trubridge to stars Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, Lesley Nicol and more, were related to how it feels now that this seminal period drama is coming to a close as we reflected on their favorite moments and a few bëtes noires. I saw several scenes being shot, did a stint in Lady Cora’s bedroom and had a good root around the servants’ sets when I was left on my own to explore. Here’s a look at what it was like to get down with Downton for a couple of days:
Storming The Castle
To get to Highclere Castle is a 40-minute train ride from London and a quick taxi up to the grounds. Shooting on the final run by now has wrapped and Highclere Castle will go back to its normal function as a working sheep farm and tourist destination — arguably a much more popular one now thanks to the Crawley family’s residence there since 2010. But on my late April visit, it was bustling with activity. Security consisted of a genial gent at the edge of the main parking lot which also houses the production trailers. I give my name and get waved in to walk up the long path to the house, and it strikes me: If you know precisely the right things to say, could just anyone access the house? I later learn that an American couple a few years back impersonated winners of a contest to spend a day on set. They got into the castle and were promptly found out, but one cast member took pity and gave them a quick tour. Security was tightened after that.
There are a half dozen trucks parked outside the main entrance where Rob James Collier (Thomas) is having his legs stretched by a cast mate. He’d run the London Marathon the day before. Actors like Carmichael (Edith) and Raquel Cassidy (Baxter) mill about, those pink bathrobes covering their costumes, as they try to catch a bit of rest and a ray of sunshine on what’s otherwise a chilly, windy day. The main entry door (the one we see Mr Carson opening and closing all the time) is under a black canopy for now as they’re shooting a scene in the foyer. Later, I spy to the left of the door, a table with tea fixings. This is the only place near the castle where there’s any food or drink – nothing is allowed inside except water, and you can’t even plug in a phone charger, so sensitive is the electricity.
Around the back of the castle, the grounds sprawl for acres. The outside of Highclere isn’t much used for the show, but diagonal from the back left of the massive stone house is a giant tree with a bench underneath that’s affectionately been dubbed “Lady Mary’s Crying Bench.”
A “Pornographic” Suggestion?
Inside, the front hall is abuzz with activity as rehearsals are on for a scene in which three different directors will cover three separate conversations. Among the players here are Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Matthew Goode (Henry Talbot), McGovern (Lady Cora), Carmichael, Penelope Wilton (Isobel), Samantha Bond (Aunt Rosamund) and Brendan Coyle (Mr Bates).
The main conversation they are shooting in the hallway is a scene in which Henry cheekily suggests he and Mary can get a coffee “or something” in London. Goode laughs at his own line reading: “I made it sound pornographic!” we hear him say on the monitor in video village. At another point, Dockery forgets her line and shouts, “F*ck, I’ve dried!”
Video village today is in the library with Trubridge and a half dozen other onlookers keenly following the action. Trubridge tells me it’s not yet sunk in that the show is ending, but adds that she’s very aware of trying take it all in — much like brides are told to do on their wedding days — so she doesn’t forget anything. Also there is Alastair Bruce, the historical advisor. He’s got two roles today: making sure everything is accurate that’s being shot, and keeping an eye on his phone since the next Royal Baby is about to be born and he’ll have to dodge out and do a report for Sky News should she appear. At one point, he sees that Goode’s scarf is out of place so he darts up to get on set and fix it. Later, he hands Trubridge his phone to show her the foreward that’s been penned for his new book by none other than Prince Philip, aka the Queen’s husband.
Bananagrams & What Hugh Bonneville Would Like To Forget
At Highclere, the main rooms that are used include the great hallway, the library, the drawing room and the dining room. There’s no shooting today in the drawing room, so that’s reserved for a card table with Bananagram tiles strewn about – the game is the favored pastime of the cast when they’re in between set-ups.
I sit down with Bonneville in the dining room — he’s still bundled up in a duffle coat over his evening finery after just coming in from taking a phone call. The table is set and there are menu cards at each place which are meticulously written in cursive and in French – they change for each meal, I learn. There is also an engraving on a wall behind the table (and on several parts of the castle in general), that reads “We Serve Only One.” No one is particularly sure if that means one god, or one king.
I tell Bonneville, who’d recently starred in box office smash Paddington, that he’s been having “a really bad year.” He appears shocked for a moment, says, “What do you mean?” then gets the joke. “Oh, an American doing irony. My God!”
He jokes himself that it’s the right time to end. “Absolutely, we’ve run out of camera angles in the rooms so it’s about the right time to finish I think.” Echoing something that Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) will say in August of her post-show plans, Bonneville says, “It’s going to be pastures new. Right now I just want to go to sleep for a long time.”
Of a potential movie he says, “I don’t know. It would depend on the script. Obviously it’s a very different beast. As long as (creator Julian Fellowes) doesn’t end up writing Gosford Park again, which he could easily do, I think it’s going to be like herding cats to get us all together.”
I ask Bonneville what his favorite scene is and he says, “It still remains one in which there are no lines and only one actor and that’s Maggie walking across the hallway after Sybil dies and she just falters for a moment and then gets her strength back and carries on to be the matriarch. I thought that was a wonderful piece of writing and simple but evocative acting. The audience is so engrossed in the characters by then, it’s deeply touching. I can still see it in my head. I wasn’t even there.”
Something he’d like to forget? “Some of the dining room scenes. There was one that took two days to shoot because it’s just so technically complicated.” That’s a sentiment that many share, particularly those who play the servants. Carter will later tell me they are “an exercise in patience.”
Baxter & Molesley Sitting In A Tree?
Back outside for a spell, I sit on the lawn with Cassidy who only joined the show last season. Of ending, she says, “It feels like my character just got going and stopped. I think it’s extraordinary how the characters developed, but I feel like my character kind of came in a bit late.” She then jokes, “If there’s a movie, I want it to be all about Baxter. That’s just a way of saying I’m not really ready for it to be over. It says a lot about the show, I love her.”
Cassidy has enjoyed her storyline with Molesley. “It’s super sweet because you see different aspects of Molseley than you ever thought you would because this character of Baxter comes in and he grows and he’s brave and stronger than you think he would be.” She will not, however, tell me if the pair ever consummate their obvious affection.
For Kevin Doyle (Molesley), he’s glad the show is finishing “simply in terms of sanity. Most actors can live with a character for tops five or six years. I think actors become actors because they want to experience different things.” There has also been “cynicism” in Britain about the show’s success. “They put you up there for a little while and they’re very quick to knock you down.” But that’s “counterbalanced by other countries’ enthusiasm for it; like the States for instance.”
Of Molesley’s growth as a character, Doyle tells me there was an “under-riding melancholy to the man and a sense that life has passed him by. He’s got a really good heart and he knows that people have reached out to him in the past. He was a bit of a joke to start off with but people have now responded to him.”
One thing the Yorkshire-based actor is looking forward to is “not getting the train down to Highclere to open the door or serve a cup of tea to somebody and then go home again.”
Froggatt (Anna) comes out for a quick chat in the backseat of one of the cars that’s used to ferry people to and from London. She tells me she’s looking forward to perhaps producing in the future; but never giving up acting. A Downton film is a hope. “It would be lovely to do; it would be a stepping stone to not doing Downton ever again.” She’s then quickly whisked away, needed back on set.
Lady Edith’s Nightmare
Over the two days, I spend time with Carmichael both in costume (and pink robe) and in civilian clothes. The character of Lady Edith is arguably one of the most evolved and Carmichael got Downton after her first-ever audition. “It completely changed my life and was so from nowhere. I had not had a TV audition before and I suddenly was going in for this part that was so huge and being given the chance to be around and learn from these amazing people and get comfortable with them; it’s been so enormous.” She was even comfortable with the veteran Smith from the beginning. “From the first day, she wanted it to feel like she was Granny.”
Will Edith finally find happiness? “I hope so; it’s what you hope for but it doesn’t make it easy. There is always the threat of living with this illegitimate daughter and there is always going to be that drama.”
A fashion forward girl in real life, she’s still bummed not to be taking any of the clothes — and especially accessories — home. But some of the costumes she has wanted to “chop up into little pieces.” At Ealing, there is a busy costume shop that is constantly “firing on all cylinders,” as Carmichael says. At least four women toil away down the hall from the set as racks and racks of dresses line the hallway.
The worst day Carmichael can recall was back in Season 3 when Edith is jilted at the altar by Sir Anthony Strallan. “Everyone was in, but not everyone was being used. It was a long day for them to sit around watching us. You start off fresh-faced walking down the aisle; it’s the happiest day of my life, I’m so thrilled and by the end it’s disaster and catastrophe. But you get to the end, cut, reset and go back to the beginning.” The take was done more than 20 times and was extra punishing because the cast had all been celebrating a birthday the night before. “Everyone had had a little wine so it was just the hardest day.”
Lunch Break With Tom Branson
When lunch time is called, everyone heads back down to the production HQ and to line up for the food trailer. Collier’s son is visiting and notices Allen Leech (Tom Branson) in the queue and runs over to say hi before going off to play with Trubridge’s 7-month-old chestnut-colored spaniel Rafferty. I then tap Leech, who I’ve previously met on several occasions, on the shoulder and say, “Fancy seeing you here.” He shrugs and tells me with a knowing glint that he always knew he was coming back. For how many episodes remains unclear. Leech’s return was revealed over the summer when photos of the actor dressed as Tom on a Downton location shoot leaked online, prompting him to tweet an unofficial confirmation:
As lunch draws on, we learn that Dockery has taken ill and had to return to London. Because a dining room scene which features Mary had been planned for the afternoon, there is now talk of shifting gears, but ultimately the decision is made to pack up for the day.
Downton Abbey-ing Star Wars
When I get to Ealing Studios the next morning, the team is “double banking” or shooting multiple scenes on the two main stages. Pretty much everyone from the day before is around with work going on the nursery set, Cora’s bedroom, Carson’s office, the dowager’s kitchen, and Edith’s office, among others.
My first port of call is Lesley Nicol’s dressing room. The affable veteran, aka Mrs Patmore, is not sporting her usual cook’s costume, but a long skirt suit. She revels in showing me that she’s wearing “a shoe, not a boot!” There’s often been talk of wardrobe envy between the downstairs and upstairs cast. Nicol says she’s just happy to have said goodbye to her corset last season. “I never looked like I had a corset on; I always looked completely round. So why was I putting myself through that?” she laughs.
Of ending the show, she says “It’s going to be very hard even if it’s exciting. It’s been a very important job. Some of the kids have grown up on it, like Sophie (McShera/Daisy) who I’m very close to. Like with the character, she sort of blossomed into this young woman.”
Nicol, who’s been “doing this job for 40 years” has enjoyed the “surreal” fan reaction. Once recognized by a farmer in China, she’s also seen a lot of doors open. Those include the door of JJ Abrams. “He likes the show, and I met Paul Feig. For 40 minutes, we sat and chatted. Those are big doors. JJ apparently on set says things like ‘Let’s Downton Abbey this up a bit, guys.’”
Because so many scenes are being set up at once with actors milling to and fro, I’m allowed some time to skulk around the “downstairs” sets which are not being used. This is one of the biggest and is built through in much the way it’s seen on the show. The kitchen has running water and a real working stove, but the lights are off to save energy.
The famed bell wall is there as are the boot room and Carson’s office which holds a giant silver case built into the wall. The real silver fixtures are polished on slow days by the prop team.
When I sit for a moment at an unused set of monitors, I can hear Bonneville and Carter preparing a scene through the wooden set wall. Is Robert Crawley making one of his rare trips below stairs?
I’m also allowed to skulk around Cora’s bedroom which is much as it appears on television. One small item that I don’t ever recall seeing on camera is a photograph of the late Lady Sybil on Cora’s mantle.
Sybil’s Death And Showcasing An Industry
When I later sit down with Trubridge in her upstairs office, she tells me that filming Sybil’s death in Season 3 was “extraordinary” for the team. “It was the first time a key cast member died” and there was a much-needed trip to the pub afterwards for them all.
In her office, there’s a corkboard with photos and memorabilia from the series. One picture stands out, George Clooney at Highclere which was a highlight for the production when he shot a promo for charity Red Nose Day last year. In the corner, are two dog bowls for Rafferty.
Trubridge says it’s “a very strange mixed feeling of a real loss of something we’ve loved for so long and has been part of our lives for so long. For me it’s been year-round so it’s been a huge part of my life and it will be a massive loss, but that is tempered by the knowledge that we are so blessed to have been part of this huge success. We know that this is the right time. It would have been far sadder for us to see it diminish just into a sort of regular series. It’s a signature piece.”
Did the fact that talent contracts generally last three years in the UK come into play? “I think it would be silly to say it doesn’t play any part. Obviously we can’t do it without them but it sort of didn’t arise because I think there was a general consensus that this was the right time. Had we wanted to continue it may have played a role but we didn’t go there.”
As for Downton’s impact on the UK industry, Trubridge said it “has become a showcase for the talent and the crew. I don’t think it created it, but it created a platform for it. We try to get as much value on the screen but we do not compete with American budgets, we can’t. For us, it’s the most enormous flattering thing that we get nominated alongside those huge and brilliant productions.”
The show’s legacy “will continue for ITV and PBS. That isn’t going to disappear when Downton disappears. I’d like to think that makes more things possible with commissions braver and more risk taking.”
Concern For Younger Cast Members & Why Some Fans Need Therapy
Back downstairs with Carter, his booming baritone welcomes me into his dressing room where gardening mags sit on the coffee table. He’s not one for reading the Hollywood press, he says, remarking on the strange language we use. “Helmers…” he muses, giving me a look that says, “Honestly!”
Carter is busy working on a documentary about ’50s musician Lonnie Donegan which he’ll author for ITV and for which he’s about to interview Ringo Starr and Roger Daltrey. Of his post-Downton days, he says, “I’m rather keen to do less. But, if someone offers me a film in a sunny location, I’ll be gone.”
Of playing Carson, he says being the butler is “funny, because for 90% of it, you’re a functionary just sort of standing there. So, the bits I’ve enjoyed most are the ones that are more personal. With Mrs Hughes, you see two lonely people — Carson hasn’t got any friends because of his position. He can’t fraternize below stairs and above are the family. So Mrs Hughes is his only friend.” He also has appreciated the “avuncular father-like relationship” he has with Lady Mary.
He is worried “about the youngsters.” For them, “this is the biggest thing they’ll ever be in and it’s at the beginning of their career. I hope they’re not disappointed thinking ‘I’ll have to go back to turning right on an airplane.’”
His best fan interactions have been in a Cambodian temple after a charity bike ride, sporting lycra and sweating bullets when a couple of Chinese tourists addressed him as Mr Carson. “It was deeply weird.” In L.A., “a woman said my performance made her want to lead a better life. And I thought, ‘OK, maybe you need therapy.’ ”
An American In Edwardian England
Waiting for a scene to take place later, McGovern is in her dressing room wearing pink bathrobe, natch, and curlers in her hair as a plastic keyboard sits on the table next to her. “I have this sideline that is music and it’s been a little frustrating because we’ve kept having to put things off whilst I shoot the series,” she tells me. But, “the series has also given us a little bit of oxygen.” She’ll go back to finishing an album once all is said and done.
As the sole American in the regular cast, McGovern, who has long lived in Britain with her film director husband Simon Curtis, says, “I do feel a little bit like I’m the one that’s sort of looking on this pack of characters with bemused wonder and I kind of like that role. There’s a slight rolling of the eyes about the things that are so important to them as a culture. I think that is sort of true in life so I feel very comfortable.”
In the first season, Cora, McGovern said, “was essential to the storyline; the spine of it was built around the fact that there was this inherited money based on a marriage so I felt central to the actual spine of a lot of the muscle of the storylines. As time went on, it ebbed and flowed and I had to reconcile myself to being sort of the more passive wife and mother.”
Of working on a British show, McGovern (who broke out in Robert Redford’s Ordinary People in 1980 and was an Oscar nominee for 1981’s Ragtime) said it was an adjustment “to have to accept the script that lands on your doorstep. I found that a little painful… I’m used to having the control of saying ‘Oh I won’t do that.’ That was an adjustment I had, to psych myself into being in a long-term series. It’s a slightly different exercise as an actor because I’ve been so used to doing plays or movies so you sort of figure out ‘This is my arc.’ But on a long-term series you don’t really know an arc and it will change. At first I thought, ‘This is so terrible because everything has to be such a bland choice because you can’t commit to being anything particularly.’ ” But she learned to enjoy it: “It’s gone on for so long that you don’t have to think about being the character at all. You just are it. There’s something about that that’s quite a special experience.”
Later we all crowd into Cora’s bedroom for a crew rehearsal of a scene that features McGovern, Bonneville and Cassidy. Bonneville’s Robert is lamenting an issue he has with his mother. Right next door, they’ve been shooting a scene with the three children: Sybbie, George and Marigold. When the kids arrive — there are a couple of sets of twins who play them — they and their parents are welcomed warmly by the cast members milling about. There’s a huge group watching the scene unfold as the kids are each placed in their beds and told to remain totally still while Carmichael tells Harry Hadden-Paton (Bertie Pelham, who was introduced in the Christmas special last year) which one is which. The kids actually all fall asleep. But there’s Bruce again, fretting over whether the sheets would be tucked in at the bottom of the bed in 1925. He’s also trying to convince the director to have Bertie touch Marigold’s sleeping head when he says “God bless you.” Bruce tells me that it would have been tradition “even though the show tries not to be overly religious.” Bertie’s understanding of Marigold is “very important,” he says.
How Mary & Matthew Made The ShowLunch that day is served in the rain and shortly afterwards I sit down with exec producer Neame in the Ealing production trailer. He tells me that on the day the announcement of the final season was made, “There was instant relief.” It was “quite substantial because there are so many stakeholders that it was about picking the date that worked for PBS that plugged in with ITV.”
Of the finale, he said, “I don’t think it’ll be tied up in a bow. But we’re not going to do a Sopranos. The lives of these characters are not going to suddenly end, they’re not going to disappear in a puff of smoke. Their lives are going to continue after the camera has moved away from them. But this being a more traditional piece of storytelling it does feel like it wants more of an ending. Also because romantic love is such a big part of the show and romantic dramas need conclusions, I think there will be a little more of a full stop.”
Downton has been “an important part of this Golden Age of drama. It’s an important part of the globalization of drama. It’s by far and away the most successful non-U.S. scripted show to come to America. That’s a show I was told seven years ago when I was trying to put together that nobody in the United States would ever be interested in (and it) goes on to become one of the highest rated shows in America, one of the most critically well received, and award nominated. It demonstrated to the American television community that even in very parochial markets like the U.S. or the UK that were very inward looking 10 years ago, those days are over and (a good idea) can come from anywhere and capture people’s imagination.”
Of his favorite moment, Neame says he “always” goes back to Season 2 when Mary goes to the train station to say goodbye to Matthew, whom she has rejected and who is now engaged to someone else as he travels back to the Front. “She realizes actually she does love him but she’s lost him and it makes her even more determined and she goes to the station to see him off that morning. I think to this day it is the most important scene we’ve ever done. She gives him the good-luck stuffed animal. It’s a beautifully written scene, beautifully acted where two people don’t say to each other that they love each other but sort of do.”
That, Neame believes, “galvanized romantic love as a really crucial part of the show. This is the one element when I initially proposed it to Julian, I thought romance would be a part of it because if you’re telling the lives of a family it will involve both marriages and death so I kind of knew there would be romance. I didn’t know to what degree romantic love would be as popular as it’s turned out. I didn’t know that we scratched an itch. Non-sexual love on television is so unfashionable and so untrendy and unsexy. The idea of holding hands and love that doesn’t involve sex from the get-go is something that no one on the planet is seeing and of course it’s appropriate in this show that we treat it this way. What came clear is this international language as the show goes round the world, everyone has responded.”
“When I look at how this final season is coming together across the whole six, in general terms it’s exactly the idea that I pitched and hoped that I could convince Julian to come and create. In broad terms it is exactly what I’d imagined… I think it’s going to be a show that is remembered for a long time, part of this reinvention of the genre.”