Location, location, location
Although the fictional estate of ‘Downton Abbey’ is set in North Yorkshire, the exterior and most of the upstairs interiors are shot at Highclere Castle in Hampshire. Built in Jacobean style by Sir Charles Berry, who also designed the Houses of Parliament, the castle is no stranger to the big and small screen either – it starred alongside the late Heath Ledger in the 2002 film ‘The Four Feathers’, featured in Stanley Kubrick’s 1999 movie classic ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and served as Totleigh Towers in Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry’s hit TV show ‘Jeeves and Wooster’. However, the servant cast have to make do with a not-so-glam Ealing studio for their downstairs scenes because the lower quarters of Highclere Castle have been totally modernised.
For he's a jolly good Fellowes
‘Downton Abbey’ creator and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes is well acquainted with privileged living and esteemed titles. Born the son of a diplomat and educated at some of the best public schools in Britain, in 2011 he was ennobled as a life peer of the House of Lords with the name, style and title of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. He also holds the title of Lord of the Manor of Tattershall in his home county of Lincolnshire, and has one son with the suitable aristocratic name of Peregrine Charles Morant Kitchener-Fellowes. Bottom line… Julian is quite posh.
From upstairs to downstairs
In a strange version of riches-to-rags, actress Rose Leslie, who plays housemaid Gwen in the first series, was actually raised in a Scottish castle! Her childhood home, complete with turrets and its own forest, dates from the 15th century and has belonged to her family for over 500 years. She’s not quite Baron Fellowes posh, but unlike her Downton alter ego, Rose is from rather good stock.
A matter of manners
In order to ensure accuracy regarding early 20th Century social formalities and etiquette, the show has a designated protocol expert – royal herald and equerry Alistair Bruce. A life-long advisor on doing things ‘proper’, Mr Bruce is on set at all times to check on everything from seating arrangements and serving rituals, to military medal positions and the art of getting in and out of cars. However, Alistair has cited one of his biggest ‘Downton Abbey’ challenges as teaching young actors how to sit up straight and not put their hands in their pockets! He sounds a tad scary.
Out of time
Despite the huge effort that goes into making sure ‘Downton Abbey’ is historically accurate, there have been a few early slip-ups and gaffes that were picked up by eagle-eyed viewers and critics. In the first ever episode, television aerials seen on village house rooftops garnered some tuts. Then a few episodes in, disdain was expressed about the visiting diplomat Kemal being referred to as a Turk – his homeland was in fact called The Ottoman Empire at the time, and didn't take the name Turkey until 1923. Whoops!
Fine calibre TV shows don’t come cheap, and ‘Downton Abbey’ is no exception. According to the book ‘The World of Downton Abbey’, penned by Jessica Fellowes (Julian Fellowes’ niece, if you were wondering), each episode costs around £1 million to make. And worth every last penny, it is!
Trouble up North
When ‘Downton Abbey’ was first shown in England and Wales, the Scottish TV broadcaster STV passed on airing the series and chose to screen a documentary about Scott of the Antarctic and the detective drama ‘Taggart’ in the timeslot instead. The decision sparked uproar north of the border, and determined Scottish viewers turned to satellite and the Internet in the thousands to catch up on the country-house hit. In 2011, after an avalanche of complaints, STV restored calm by adding the show to its schedule.
Three times a lady
Undoubtedly, the formidable Violet, Dowager Duchess of Grantham, is the show’s best-loved character. The role was specifically written for veteran actress Maggie Smith as writer John Fellowes says he could not think of anyone else who could deliver Violet's devastating one-liners (“A weekend? What IS a weekend?”) with such power, emotion and comedy. ‘Downton Abbey’ is in fact the third time Dame Maggie Smith has played a steely old lady for Fellowes – she previously starred as Constance Trentham in his 2001 Oscar-winning film ‘Gosford Park’, and Mrs Oldknow in his haunting 2009 movie ‘From Time to Time’.
The elaborate costumes featured in the show have a definite wow-factor, but you wouldn’t be wrong if you think you have seen some of them before. For example, Catherine Zeta-Jones previously wore Lady Mary’s embroidered sleeveless red dress in the 2007 supernatural thriller movie ‘Death Defying Acts’. And Dowager Duchess of Grantham’s elegant teal silk dress formerly graced the curves of Hollywood hotty Uma Thurman in the 2000 film ‘The Golden Bowl’.
Cora the crooner
Aside from Elizabeth ‘Cora’ McGovern being a seasoned, well-known and highly respected actress, she also has a side-line career as a rather good singer and songwriter. She fronts a band called Sadie and the Hotheads, and is sometimes joined on vocals by Michelle Dockery, who plays her eldest daughter Mary in the series.
The amazing response to ‘Downton Abbey’ has taken even its greatest fans by surprise. In addition to the first series gaining kudos as “the most critically acclaimed English-language TV show” in the 2011 ‘Guinness Book of Records’, the show has been sold to more than 100 different countries! And TV executives are not the only people to benefit from the success – on the strength of his performance as the heartthrob solicitor Matthew Crawley, actor Dan Stevens recently hit the Hollywood big-time starring alongside Sigourney Weaver and Alicia Silverstone in Amy Heckerling’s forthcoming horror-comedy movie ‘Vamps’.