THE opening of the second series of Downton Abbey reveals that it’s an upper class story of Yorkshire folk. Phil Penfold reports.
It’s no secret that the real Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the Victorian family seat of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. Below stairs sequences are filmed at Elstree Studios.
But now the truth is out. It’s made clear from the outset of the new series that Downton Abbey is a stately home in Yorkshire.
In series one, the script by Julian Fellowes did not refer to where “big house” might be. Two of the characters were evidently Yorkshiremen – Mr Carson the Butler, played by Harrogate’s Jim Carter, and the second footman, William Mason, played by Thomas Howes from Doncaster, and this might have offered a clue.
But within minutes of the new series opening we are left in no doubt about where we are. And to cap it all, the master of the house, the Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) becomes the Lord Lieutenant of the County.
The wider context is now the middle of the First World War and a fictional Yorkshire regiment is woven into the story.
The heir to the Earldom, Matthew Crawley, has enlisted, been made an officer, and gone off to fight. The servant William Mason, beau of scullery maid Daisy, remains at home, forbidden by his elderly father to join the forces. But when he’s handed a white feather and called a coward he makes for the nearest recruiting office and on the Western front he encounters the gilded Crawley. The two are swept up in the Battle of the Somme and are reported missing.
Thomas Howes says, “William departs filled with hope and patriotism and very much ‘King and country’”, and believing it will all be over by Christmas.
“Because at that time they were so used to just taking orders from their masters, they didn’t question it – the orders came from above and they were followed. For example, Matthew is William’s captain. So it’s still the same – you still take the orders from above. They felt it was an honour to go out and fight. One of the interesting things about the show is that in the first series, that is how it is and it is unquestioned.”
“Everything is turned upside down, however, by the war. It shakes people’s perspectives. It shows the worth of human life, so people begin to think, ’Well actually, why should we work for these people?’ It brings about all these changes to the balance of power.”
The battle scenes were filmed near Ipswich on a landscape created by a military historian and most of the extras were re-enactment fans.
What William in uniform faced came as a bit of a shock to Thomas Howes.
“Conditions were cold, grim, and very wet obviously not half as bad as the real thing, because we went home at night to a warm hotel bed, but I really did get the feel of it all,” says Thomas.
“The extras were amazing, if there was any question you wanted answering, it was there, right at hand. I do like all that sort of stuff myself.
“There’s no computer-generated technology and the bangs and the thuds and the mud and the flying debris were all for real.
“There was one scene I’m very proud of where I have to run and dive under a cart which then explodes over my head. So I had to wear ear-plugs and move pretty fast because the whole shebang went off over me.
“Then I had to fire a rifle and those old army rifles have one heck of a kick to them. I’ve seen a lot of the footage, and it looks amazing.
“Not only is it a period drama focusing on events at the Abbey, but it is also a war drama, reflecting the world-changing events only a few hundred miles away.”
“Death does not entirely pass Downton by,” says the creator of the series, Julian Fellowes. “Nothing was ever quite the same again, and so many divisions of class were swept away forever.
“But the fighting on the front line is only a backdrop. The focus is still very much on Downton itself and I wanted the audiences to wonder how everyone carried on with their daily lives back home.
“We’ve avoided the stereotypes of the 1950s, where all the servants would have been comic and the family noble, or of the 1990s where the servants would been heroic and the family vile.
“There are good and bad people upstairs and downstairs – there is no class division between characteristics. We don’t have to view this world through rose-tinted spectacles or slam everything in it. We may change in the way we make toast, but the fundamental imperative is not very different in any era. Most people want to get on in life – whether they’re a miner or a duchess.”
“At the end, people are nervously seeing how much of their previous lives can carry on.
“We take the audience through the process that turns Downton Abbey into a convalescent home. I wanted the family to stay and live amongst the convalescents. We wanted that
sense of the war being something you cannot in the end resist. It’s going on whether you wish it or not – you can’t avoid it.”
Devising an authentic-seeming North Yorkshire regiment was the work of the Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary of the College of Arms. He’s known to his friends and the entertainment industry as Alistair Bruce of Cronnach, a former member of the Scots Guards and now a Lieutenant Colonel in the Territorial Army.
This descendant of Robert the Bruce has made his wealth of experience available to Downton Abbey since it started filming two years ago.
“What gave me the greatest delight”, he says, “is that they asked me to invent a completely new and fictional regiment that the Earl of Grantham could have served in.
“So I came up with the North Yorkshire Volunteers, of which he is Colonel-in-Chief, and which I stationed in Richmond.
“There’s a formal mess dinner going on, and the Earl assumes that he will soon be leading his men in France. It was such a lot of fun researching everything and making it all look authentic, right down to the cut of the jacket, the caps, the badges and the tunic buttons.”
It certainly passed muster so far as Hugh Bonneville, playing the Earl of Grantham, is concerned.
“I must say that the uniform of the North Ridings that Alistair concocted was wonderful to wear and it was beautifully tailored and cut,” says Hugh. “It looks so authentic and I hope that it finds a home in a display somewhere. It really does inform you, as an actor, because you stand in a different way and it makes you straighten your back.
“Sadly, those scenes which were supposedly in Richmond are actually in some rather beautiful buildings in central London, more’s the pity.”
Alistair Bruce has also advised on matters of aristocratic living such as how gentlemen of the day should sit correctly while wearing tails, and if asparagus should be eaten at the dinner table with fingers – or without. Of the latter, he suggests, “If it is served as a separate vegetable, and on its own, then fingers are appropriate. If it is part of a salad, then cutlery is de rigueur.”
Jim Carter says that his character, Carson, the loyal butler, has an ambivalent reaction to the war. “I’m sure that he’s an extremely patriotic man”, says Jim.
“But I think that he feels that having many of his male staff desert him and his Lordship is frightfully inconvenient, and that running a big house with maids, instead of footmen, serving at meal-times just isn’t on.
“The routine to which he adheres is upset and the demarcation between jobs gets horribly blurred. He believes in the status quo, but he’s also the sort of man for whom the phrase ‘Keep calm and carry on’ could have been invented.
“In the face of almighty odds, he remains the same – he doesn’t bend a lot. And because of all the extra pressures, his health starts to suffer. Anxiety kicks in, it’s a nightmare for the poor man, and then, indignity of all indignities, he collapses while supervising dinner in the main dining room…
“People have a great affection for Carson. Isn’t it odd that that the butler occupies such an iconic place in our culture?
“He’s almost part of English folklore – what the butler saw, or the butler did it.
“When you are cast as a butler, the very name does a lot of the work for you.
“I’ve done a lot of work in series like Cranford, Red Riding and The Singing Detective, but I’ve hardly ever got recognised in the street, which suits me fine.
“But Downton has changed all that. Now it’s all over the place, people in the local Sainsbury’s, in garages, and while paying at check-outs. It just shows how hugely popular Downton is.
“Could I ever have been a butler? No way. There’s far too much routine”.
Will there be a series three of Dowhnton Abbey? “I sincerely hope so”, says Julian Fellowes. “The idea is that we follow the action into the roaring Twenties.”
* Downton Abbey will be broadcast in the autumn – ITV have yet to announce a transmission date.