A screening of this Sunday’s first feature length opening episode and extracts from the rest of the series was followed by Q&A sessions with members of the cast and production team.
Then small round table interviews with many of the actors involved.
Upstairs at Georgian Town House 30 Pavilion Road.
My first feature – on former Coronation Street star Rob James-Collier – appeared the next day in the MEN.
You can read it here.
My second feature was published in the MEN this week, with more to come later in the series.
It has yet to go online, so let’s put that right below, along with seven short audio clips underneath.
IT begins with the sinking of the Titanic, leaving a Manchester solicitor as heir to both the earldom and estate.
Our first visit to Downton Abbey (ITV1, Sunday, 9pm) takes us back almost 100 years to 1912. Below stairs the servants are ironing the daily newspapers. Upstairs the baffled Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), who has never worked a day in her life, asks in episode two: “What is a weekend?”
The seven-part costume drama was created and written by Gosford Park Oscar-winning Julian Fellowes who has included 18 regular characters, introduced in the first episode and all given their own storylines during the series.
They include Rob James-Collier in his first TV role since Liam Connor was murdered in Coronation Street. He plays first footman Thomas, complete with slicked-back hair, white bow tie and tails.
And as we soon discover: “He’s not a ladies’ man.” Rob laughs: “It was a dream job. I’ve always wanted to play a gay Edwardian footman.”
Hugh Bonneville is Robert, Earl of Grantham, married to American heiress Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). He is resigned to the loss of both the estate and her fortune when he dies.
Historical advisor Alastair Bruce was on hand to ensure the etiquette of the day was accurately reflected on screen. “He says his day job is to make sure that at the next Coronation everyone sits in the right place,” says Hugh.
“So there is nothing he doesn’t know about the structure of that society. He and Julian could be locked in a room for several days and never get bored talking about it.”
Most of the scenes were shot on location at Highclere Castle in Berkshire, home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, with the exception of the kitchens and attics. “Because they are so changed in these houses,” explains executive producer Gareth Neame.
“The kitchens have always been made into something much more modern and the attics have either been converted into flats or they’re deserted.” So those sets were created at Ealing Studios in London.
Two years away from the First World War, Britain is changing. Electricity has just been introduced into the house, although talk of it being installed in the kitchen is met with bemusement by the servants. As one says: “Whatever for?”
Julian recalls: “I was always rather interested in this way of life. I was born in 1949 and it had finally died in about 1939, as a structure that went from Land’s End to John O’Groats. But very recently. And so when I was young, there were lots of older people around who had lived this life until the Second World War.
“It seemed so extraordinary to me that people could all be living under one roof with such entirely different ambitions and rub along together. But they might as well have been on different planets. Gosford Park was my lucky break and tapped into an interest that was already there. Although I loved the movie, this offered the opportunity to go on with seeing these different parallel universes.”
The £7m series comes ahead of BBC1’s revival of Upstairs Downstairs, yet to reach the screen. It was announced while Downton Abbey was being filmed.
“All it says to me is that television people are recognising there is a market for this kind of aspirational drama,” reflects a diplomatic Julian. “It’s got a wonderful cast and I wish it nothing but good things. I just hope it continues to feed and nurture the taste, so that we will profit from it.”
Gareth points out that “99 per cent” of period dramas on TV are adaptations of novels. “We set out to make a new, original piece of work. Most costume dramas, there’s that journey the audience goes into of immersing yourself in a wonderful different world.
“We didn’t want to do that with this show. We wanted the audience to feel like they were part of this house. Imagine what it would be like if you worked as a maid or if you were lucky enough to be a member of the family. We wanted it to have a much more contemporary here and now feeling to it.”
Manchester solicitor Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and his mother Isobel (Penelope Wilton) arrive in Downton in the second episode, invited to become part of the local community.
Matthew is the third cousin of Lord Grantham. His father was a doctor, which amazes the Earl and offends the Dowager Countess. “Matthew is not aristocracy,” explains Dan. “He’s a lawyer and out of the blue he gets this letter from Lord Grantham, telling him that he’s going to inherit this great estate.
“I have a line where Matthew tells his mother that Lord Grantham ‘wants to change our lives’. Which is exactly what happens.”
1) Julian Fellowes on a less angry world:
2) I asked Rob James-Collier what his initial reaction was when he was approached about the part:
3) Rob James-Collier on life after Liam Connor in Coronation Street:
4) How would Jim Carter fare if he had to do butler Mr Carson’s job:
5) Elizabeth McGovern on filming at Highclere:
6) Hugh Bonneville on location filming during the volcanic ash flight ban:
7) Does Gareth Neame expect Downton to sell well around the world?