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.” (more…)