Tissues at the ready. The end of Downton Abbey is nigh. The sixth series, which begins later this month, will be the very last of the internationally successful franchise. ITV, the show’s creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame all felt that they should quit while the ratings were still high, but before the tears there is the prospect of one final instalment.
Set in 1925, the series opens as the Great Depression is looming and Downton, the pile that is supposedly one of the stately homes of Yorkshire, is facing up to reality. Owner the Earl of Grantham is being practical. He can manage with one butler, he reveals, “but do we really need an under-butler?”
“This show has always been about the end of an era,” says Neame. “And we’ll reveal that this way of life is inevitably coming to an end. Not everything will be wrapped up, because no-one ever reaches complete resolution until the end of their lives.
“Ending Downton with a catastrophic earthquake never loomed large at the planning stage. Our camera will gradually drift away from the abbey – and whichever inhabitants remain – and we’ll leave them to the rest of their lives.”
For millions of viewers worldwide, it will be the end of a television era. Downton is sold to no less than 250 territories, which makes it just about the most successful export that Britain has today. The final country to buy into the show is Japan and in the USA (they are just warming to the fifth series). But wherever it is screened, it soon amasses a loyal fanbase and many of them are convinced Downton is one of Yorkshire’s greatest landmarks.
In the series, when anyone goes shopping, it’s to Thirsk or Ripon. The Grantham family and their servants are all great fans and supporters of the Malton Show. The Earl has attended mess dinners in Harrogate. And in the first episode of the new strand, there is an almighty battle on the horizon – between the formidable Dowager Countess and her cousin Isabel – over the future of the Downton Cottage Hospital. The Countess wants it subsumed into the orbit of the Royal Yorkshire Hospital, with its HQ in York, and Isabel wants it to keep its independence.
But the plain fact is that not one single frame of any of the miles of film that has been shot to bring Downton to our screens has been shot in Yorkshire. The cast and crew have filmed at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland and the Duke of Argyll’s home at Inveraray Castle and the cameras have also rolled at Ealing Studios, on Loch Fyne and at Laycock Abbey in Wiltshire.
Neame admits that when Downton was in the initial planning stages, location scouts were sent north, but – Castle Howard and Harewood House cover your ears – apparently there wasn’t one Yorkshire property that met the vision that he and Fellowes had.
In the end the show was filmed at Highclere Castle, in Berkshire, home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, who Fellowes knew socially. It has proved a very lucrative friendship. According to VisitBritain, almost one in three tourists to the UK visits a historic house or castle, spending around £6.5bn during their stay, and at Highclere, thanks to the Downton connection, ticket sales have gone up by an eye-watering £38,000 a day.
Yorkshire’s own Jim Carter, who plays the dour controller of the Downton household, Carson the butler, sighs and indicates a glass in front of him on a table. “That,” he says, “is about as close as we have ever come to my home county, or indeed, my home town”. In it is a small measure of Harrogate Spa Water.
Carson has been wooing his opposite number at the abbey, Mrs Hughes, and at long last it seems that wedding bells might be heard.
“The courtship has been at the speed of two mating Galapagos turtles,” Carter observes. “What will happen to them both if there is any downsizing at Downton? I suspect that they would be among the very last to leave, and that they would both eventually retire in post. I can then well imagine them opening a rather superior bed and breakfast in Scarborough, where there would be no nonsense allowed.”
Carter admits that he shed a few tears at one party where all the “downstairs” cast got together with the technical crew, but adds that he is a realist.
“Actors are gypsies,” he says, “Of course I have a soft spot for Carson, I always will have, but he is only one of the many characters I have played in over 100 TV appearances and around 40 or so films. It’s true that I’ve never had a role which has gone on for so long, but now that he’s left my life, I move on.
“We all got on together exceptionally well when we were making Downton, but in my experience, friendships are really only job deep. I’ve already got my circle of friends. However, one of the most important spin-offs to Downton is that we have all helped, through being recognisable faces, to promote fundraising for a wide range of charities, and if my face or alleged fame can manage that, then I’m delighted to be involved. It is marvellous to be a huge force for good. Having said that, to be recognised as a famous face is not what acting is about.” There’s a slight pause before he adds: “Well, not for most of us...”
There is also change on the horizon for North Yorkshire’s Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, the lady’s maid to Lady Mary, one of the daughters of the Downton household.
“Of course, she’s married now to Mr Bates, another member of the staff, and they are having difficulty in having children. So, in 10 years’ time, I wonder if they might have adopted, or possibly be fostering children.
“And I think that it’s very probable that they too would have opened a little guest house. Maybe they could call it The Bates Hotel? But seriously, Downton has changed my professional life – in that it has given me a far higher profile.
“As for not filming in Yorkshire, well, we are in a business that is all illusion. You are never filming in the place where you are supposed to be. As soon as I finished Downton, I had a short break, and now I’m making a series called Dark Angel, which is all about Britain’s first serial killer, a woman called Mary Anne Cotton. She was hanged for killing three of her four husbands – to collect the insurance money – and probably had about 21 victims in all. She used huge quantities of arsenic. She was born – and killed – in County Durham. So where am I filming the series? In the middle of Leeds.
“But that shows you how odd this business is, and how you leap from one different role to another. From maid to murderess in the matter of a fortnight.”
Robert James-Collier, who played the devious and double-dealing footman Thomas, admits that being in Downton for the last few years has provided massive security, the kind that actors don’t often enjoy. “Now I have to find out if I get offered other good roles. If I don’t, I could always try drystone-walling – in Yorkshire, of course.
“As for Thomas, I can’t imagine what he might do if he was made redundant from the abbey. Don’t forget that he is also gay, at a time when it was a criminal offence. Would he hide his sexuality? He’d probably end up doing quite a lot of double-dealing, and, if he survived until the outbreak of the Second World War, he’d almost definitely have been in the middle of the black market. That’s the sort of man he is. He’d never change.
“What will I remember about Downton? The day I had to do a scene where the under-stairs staff were allowed to attend a ball with the folk of the upper floors. And Thomas plucked up the courage to ask the Dowager Countess to dance. And, God help me, I trod heavily on Dame Maggie Smith’s toe. The look she gave me will remain in my mind’s eye forever.”
And if Lesley Nichol, who plays the cook, Mrs Patmore, was allowed one Downton souvenir to remind her of the show, what would it be? “Her faithful Brown Betty teapot,” she laughs. “Mrs Patmore would go to her grave clutching that pot!”
• Downton Abbey begins on ITV on September 20.