Behind the Scenes at ‘Downton Abbey’

February 7, 2014  
Filed under Travel

As the set for the PBS series "Downton Abbey," England's Highclere Castle has become the country's best-known stately home. (Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen)

By Sharon Whitley Larsen

When the lovely, statuesque young woman opened the door and greeted me with a warm smile and handshake, I momentarily thought she was a public relations assistant. It took me a few seconds to realize that this was Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith Crawley — the middle of three daughters in a well-to-do family — in the wildly popular PBS series, “Downton Abbey.”

Only if you’ve been unconscious for the past three years do you have an excuse for not knowing about this British period drama, which begins with the sinking of the Titanic and includes women’s rights, World War I, inheritance laws, politics, fashion, and the trials of love and life both upstairs and down in a luxurious estate called Downton Abbey.

In real life it’s Highclere Castle in the Berkshire countryside, which has been the ancestral home to the Carnarvon family for more than 300 years. Coincidentally, Julian Fellowes, the screenwriter for the series, is friends of the present Carnarvon couple — the eighth Earl and Countess of Carnarvon — and hence draws his script ideas from the real-life dramas of the family’s previous generations. Art imitates life.

Season four recently aired in the United States, and season five begins filming soon in Britain.

I was lucky enough to interview Carmichael, 27, and Lesley Nichol, 60, who plays the flustered but lovable Mrs. Patmore, the cook. She doesn’t look like Mrs. Patmore in person (she’s younger and thinner), yet her distinctive voice gives her away.

Charming and relaxed, the two actors sat on small sofas in a Southern California hotel suite as they chatted about their roles in this high-class soap opera, which airs in more than 100 countries. Carmichael discussed her role as poor Edith, the daughter who is rather plain (and, until recently, unlucky in love) compared to her suave, beautiful older sister Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery).

“Edith has evolved a lot,” she observed. “She’s had a lot of hard knocks (like abruptly getting left at the altar). “Some she brought on herself, some were brought on by life being cruel. I think she would have been the most conventional of the three daughters. (Younger sister Sibyl died during season three.)

“Edith wasn’t going to sit back and let life pass her by” after these heartaches, she added. “She has ambition, conflict with Mary, she’s a fighter. Playing a lady is really fun — she has the confidence of being an aristocrat.”

“They are feisty women,” interjects Nichol of the characters in the series, which also includes Elizabeth McGovern as the girls’ American mother and Dame Maggie Smith as their witty paternal grandmother.

What was the most challenging scene they have faced so far?

“It was after Sybil died, the scene with (Tom) Branson (Sybil’s widower) and Mary,” recalled Carmichael. “It was such a complicated scene.”

It took eight hours to film.

“We couldn’t speak afterward, we were crying so much,” Carmichael explained, noting that since both she and Dockery have sisters, they could really relate to the grief that would follow the sudden death of a sibling — in this case one who had just given birth. “That was probably the toughest …

“Then we went to the pub!” she said with a smile.

Since Jessica Brown Findlay (Sybil) was leaving the cast — and it couldn’t yet be announced to the public — they had banners displayed in the pub that said “Happy Birthday” instead of “Goodbye, We’ll Miss You!”

“Since we were still in tears, the patrons looked at us like we were crazy,” recalled Carmichael. “Like, it’s only a birthday, why are you so sad?”

Both Carmichael and Nichol express amazement and respect at the tremendous attention to authentic period detail apparent on the set, the work of costume designer Caroline McCall and historic adviser Alastair Bruce.

“Like putting our hands on hips — he doesn’t like that,” said Carmichael, grinning.

Nichol added that “the kitchen is Mrs. Patmore’s domain — I’m king of my little world!”

Diehard “Downton” fans can make the pilgrimage to Highclere Castle, which is about an hour southwest of London and is where the “upstairs” scenes — the great hall and staircase, the library, drawing room, dining room and some bedrooms — are filmed. (The downstairs kitchen scenes, as well as bedroom replicas, are filmed at Ealing Studios in London.)

My husband Carl and I visited Highclere in April 2011, two days before the royal wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton, who are fans of the series. In fact, the queen (who is also said to be a “Downton” fan) had just visited Highclere two weekends earlier. After all, she’s the godmother of the current Earl of Carnarvon (whose mother is American) and was a close friend of his late father. There’s a framed photo of her in one room.

Carl and I took the train down from Yorkshire (coincidentally the venue of “Downton Abbey”) to Highclere. Since we didn’t have a rental car, we hopped a taxi at the Newbury station, then took a 15-minute ride to the Carnarvon Arms Hotel (a former coaching house near Highclere, where the cast stays). We were planning to spend the night at the charming, 23-room hotel, which is within walking distance of Highclere. (Since public transportation is sporadic in this remote area, we asked that the taxi driver pick us up at Highclere the next day at 3 p.m. so we could retrieve our luggage from the hotel, then be driven back to the train station.)

The next morning we walked for about 40 minutes down a two-lane highway, then around the winding, gorgeous drive on the peaceful, scenic grounds of Highclere, past tall trees, green meadows and grazing sheep, to the front door (no, Carson wasn’t there to greet us). After touring inside as well as viewing the King Tut exhibit in the basement (the fifth Earl of Carnarvon bankrolled its 1922 discovery), we then had tea with Fiona, Countess Carnarvon, who was casually dressed and very down-to-earth.

The tea wasn’t held in the 5,000-book library with the famed red velvet sofas as I had hoped it would be. Since tourists were traipsing through the rooms, we sat with the countess for 45 minutes at the little outdoor cafe area, where no one recognized her. An accountant and book author, she was charming, gracious and enthusiastic about “Downton Abbey” being filmed here. It’s obvious that she and her husband have much pride in the property, which was in serious disrepair before filming began.

“I don’t want to present a museum,” she pointed out. “I want people to know that we reside here. It’s a living history.”

After chatting with her, we toured the exquisite gardens and inside rooms again. Since the tour buses had departed, we had the place to ourselves except for the guides posted in each room who patiently answered our questions. The family resides here most of the time, and we could check out their reading material and medicine bottles on the master bedroom nightstand.

Promptly at 3 p.m. our taxi arrived and we reluctantly departed.

Who would have guessed that three years later Highclere Castle would remain such a huge tourist draw, becoming England’s best-known stately home, and that “Downton Abbey” would continue to be such a huge hit?

As Nichol summed up the cast: “We’re like a family — we know each other well, we’re fond of each other.”

Then she and Carmichael posed for a photo, warmly hugging each other, and that said it all.

WHEN YOU GO

For information on summer 2014 tours, visit the Highclere Castle website at www.highclerecastle.co.uk. For 2014 PBS summer tours to Highclere Castle, visit www.vegaspbs.org/specials/highclere or www.kpbs.org/events/2014/aug/12/22855.

For other “Downton Abbey” tours, visit www.britmovietours.com.

For Viking River Cruises tour of Highclere Castle: www.vikingrivercruises.com/extensions/oxford-highclere-castle.aspx?refsrcprg=vrc&vardc=highclere

We stayed at the Carnarvon Arms Hotel: www.thecarnarvonarmshotel.com. For additional information, visit www.visitbritain.com, www.visitengland.com and www.britrail.com.  – CNS

 

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