It’s a cultural touchstone in Britain and a ratings hit in the United States, yet the socially stratified, angst-ridden world that is Downton Abbey nearly didn’t make it to air. In 2007, a project that executive producer Gareth Neame was working on with writer Julian Fellowes had stalled. But Neame had another idea: “a new episodic TV series set above and below stairs in an English country house in the Edwardian era with a big cast of characters.”
However, the writer was reluctant to sign on because he had used a similar “upstairs-downstairs” concept in the movie Gosford Park (2001), won an Oscar for the screenplay and didn’t think lightning would strike twice. Neame, who has a reputation for successfully rethinking old TV concepts, didn’t believe anyone else “would write it with such affection and confidence.”
Fortunately Fellowes was reading a book about rich American girls who married poor Victorian aristocrats. He spent the next few weeks turning that concept into a series.
The fictitious stately home of Downton Abbey is ruled by the earl of Grantham, who, like so many of his generation, replenished the family’s coffers by wedding a Yankee. Unfortunately the union was not blessed with a son. So their eldest daughter, the coldly beautiful Lady Mary, won’t inherit the house, the land, the title or her mother’s fortune. That was to pass to a distant male cousin. Season one opens with news of the heir’s unfortunate trip on a ship called Titanic. The Great War is the focus of season two, with Downton turned into an officers’ convalescent home. (Season one repeats on PBS’s Masterpiece on Dec. 18 with season two starting Jan. 8.)
Downton Abbey, a series about a hierarchical, rule-driven life, was a roaring success from the first episode, posting Britain’s highest ratings in two years. In the United States, a million viewers downloaded the series from the Masterpiece website. Along the way it won six Emmys and even a Guinness record for the most critically acclaimed TV series. Neame says it’s a hit because the intricately interwoven storylines feature 20-odd well-defined characters, from suffragette Lady Sybil to ditsy scullery maid Daisy. “We see all traits of humanity there—love, hate, intrigue, jealousy, rivalry, affection, humour,” he says. In an interview with the Telegraph, Fellowes said the attraction is that all the characters are given the same weight. “Some are nice, some are not, but it has nothing to do with class or oppressors versus the oppressed. Daisy’s crisis is as important to her as Lady Mary’s is to Lady Mary.”
Lady Mary’s crisis—which still haunts Downton—is her assignation with Turkish guest Kemal Pamuk, who dies in her bedroom, threatening a scandal that could destroy her reputation. So Downton’s women heft his body back to his room. “No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else’s house,” sniffs the dowager countess. “Of course it would happen to a foreigner.” The plot was taken from an old family diary belonging to a friend of Fellowes, who recounted how “dowagers and debutantes” in 1890 smuggled a dead diplomat back to his room.
For many viewers, though, the most fascinating character is the stately home itself. Downton was shot at the majestic Highclere Castle in Berkshire. Canadian art director Charmian Adams (My Week With Marilyn) took extraordinary pains to ensure accuracy. She attached telegraph cable supporters to the outside of the private home that was transformed into the post office for the Titanic news scene, got eight men to remove an “inappropriate” drawing room rug and, since there are no unrenovated Edwardian kitchens left, had one built in a studio and outfitted with rented equipment from the era. For combat scenes in the second season, she “refurbished” replica trenches located in a field outside Ipswich.
The schedule of events at the neo-Elizabethan castle is now so full that Downton bus tours have to pre-book and Adams often has to rush to dress her elaborate sets. Masterpiece’s head Rebecca Eaton is equally busy: “We’re Downton Abbey all day, every day. That’s all we do now.”