Downton Abbey

Every Downton Abbey fan (of course, I’m one of them) is waiting now for the sixth season of the series, that will not be shown until next Autumn on ITV. This period drama inmerses us in the life of an English mansion in the early 2oth century. But the plot does not only revolve around Lord Grantham and his family, the Crawleys, but also around the lives of the servants of the house. Thus, in Downtown Abbey we see what happens above and below stairs.

This Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning drama was a success from the very beginning as it managed to pulled in a media of 10 million viewers on the first season just in the UK. This success has spread everywhere as it has been sold to more than 200 territories including countries such as Finland, Poland and Albania. In Spain Downton became the most popular foreign programme to appear on Spanish television in five years.

Downton Abbey opens in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic and from then on we are going to witness many other great events in history that not only have an effect on their lives, but also on the British social hierarchy. During the first season we are still in the Edwardian era; in the second one (1916-1919) we go through the First World War, the Spanish influenza pandemic and the Marconi scandal; the interwar period and the formation of the Irish Free State is what we see on the third series (1920-1921); the Teapot Dome scandal in the fourth series (1922-1923); and the United Kingdom general election of 1923, the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre and the Beer Hall Putsch in the fifth series (1924). We also see how the first telephones and electric appliances, the echoes of feminism and socialism and many other novelties and social changes arrive to Downton. Lady Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith, is opposed to all these changes, but also his son Robert Crawley (Lord Grantham) and Carson, the butler.

From the first episode the plot revolves around who is going to be the heir of the house, the title and the fortune. The first heir dies in the sinking of the Titanic, and this is how the show begins. From then on Robert Crawley has to look for his heir, and he finds him in a distant male cousin, Mathew Crawley. But I will not tell you anything else as it is worth watching the show.

It is amazing to see how every single detail is so well taken care of. This detailed period setting could only be attained with a high budget: Downton needed one million pounds per episode, which made it the most expensive drama ITV has ever produced. This magnificent attention to detail is in every single item: for example, any letter addressed to a character has been written with the correct period ink and on the right paper. Even the sentiments, ideas and thoughts contained are fit for purpose, despite the fact that no one other than the actor will ever read it.

This great attention to detail is also present in the costumes. Every night the Crawleys get changed to wear formal dresses or suits for dinner.  The show has brought back a fervent interest in Edwardian and 20’s era fashion and beauty. And this is one of the most fascinating eras of the journey of fashion, as women’s role in society changed with the aftermath of the First World War. With more freedom and control women’s dresses and skirts became shorter and simpler. To top it all off, the bob hairstyle was introduced. We see Sybil wearing a trouser skirt and Mary surprises us by cutting her hair.

The house plays a very important role. Downton Abbey is in fact Highclere Castle. The fictional Downton is set in Yorkshire. In fact, Yorkshire media speculated with the general location of Downton Abbey estate to be somewhere in the area between the towns of Easingwood, Ripon and Thirsk, in North Yorkshire. However, Highclere Castle is in the South of England, in Hampshire. One of the best things of Highclere is that you can actually visit the castle. But that will not be possible until 2016 as all tickets for 2015 opening season have been sold out. If you are one of the lucky visitors you will be able to recognise many rooms from Downton Abbey. But you will not find the kitchens there as they were recreated at Ealing Studios, as the original Highclere kitchens were torn out.

Somehow, filming has returned Highclere to its heyday again. In 1906, a valet, a butler, 14 footmen, 25 housemaids, 25 gardeners, two chauffeurs and three chefs had worked there. These days, there are just nine full-time staff. But when the film crew arrived, the place was overrun once more.

Highclere Castle was the seat, 100 years ago, of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered, together with his archaeological colleague Howard Carter, the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh, Tutankhamun, in 1922. This is why you can find an Egyptian Exhibition at Highclere. Highclere Castle has been home to the Carnarvon family since 1679. The present house was built in 1842 by Sir Charles Barry, who also built the Houses of Parliament in London. Nowadays Highclere is inhabited by the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, George Herbert, godson of Queen Elizabeth II, and Lady Fiona Carnarvon. Lady Fiona manages affairs at Highclere Castle, including overseeing its grounds and gardens and many other special events. Fascinated by Highclere’s history, Lady Carnarvon updates a blog on Highclere, but she has also written three books: the first two are about the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb with Howard Carter, and the third one covers the same period as the first two series of Downton Abbey, beginning in 1894 and continuing through the Great War.

Other notable location is Isobel Crawley’s house. Its outdoor scenes are filmed in the village of Bampton in Oxfordshire. They used the old rectory for exterior shots, whereas interior scenes correspond to Hall Place near Beaconsfield!!! I’m using these exclamation marks because I know Beaconsfield very well, as I have some friends there and I have visited them a few times.

Downton Abbey is written and produced by Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar in 2001 for Gosford Park, a drama on the English aristocracy set in 1932, where he also worked with Maggie Smith. The grounds for Downton Abbey were set in 2007, when Fellowes met with the television producer Gareth Neame. Their current project was an adaptation of Fellowes’ 2004 novel, Snobs. Neame had been unable to persuade anyone to fund it after two years of trying and he suggested Fellowes to consider returning to the world of Gosford Park. At the beginning Fellowes did not look very pleased with the idea, but fate played its part. At the time, Fellowes was reading a book called To Marry an English Lord, about American girls who had travelled to England in the late 19th century and married into the English aristocracy. Fellowes could not stop thinking that it must have been wonderful for those girls at the beginning, but what happened 25 years later when they were freezing in a cold English house aching for their birthplace? And that was how everything started. Some weeks later Fellowes started to write Downton Abbey, which tells us about Lord and Lady Grantham, who are the bedrock of the Crawley family. As the heir to the Downton Abbey estate, Robert Crawley married Cora Levinson, a young forward-thinking American. After years of marriage, the pair now happily presides over Downton in partnership.

What will happen next in Downton Abbey? Many rumours say that the sixth season will be the last.


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