Downton Abbey - from US resistance to world's most watched
After the first series aired in the UK, Downton Abbey producers got told that “nobody in the US would ever watch this programme”. Now, three years down the line, they can laugh it off, knowing that whatever happens, their series is now one of the most watched television shows in the world.
With series five announced to be in pre-production and series four currently on television (in the UK and over the next few months the States and other countries) we hear from the show’s historical advisor Alastair Bruce, and Gareth Neame, the show’s executive producer for Carnival Films.
As true addicts of the show we know that though it is in fact no more than an entertaining soap set in the early 20th century, we can’t stay away from it and are left without purpose as an episode draws to a close. But what is its popularity down to? Of course, week after week the storylines from creator Julian Fellowes are, how shall we say it in style, delightful. But there is a lot to say as well about the show’s historical accuracy and what it teaches us about times gone by – both the good and the bad.
Being asked at a recent industry event what Downton spends the most money on in production, Neame answered that it would definitely have to be the costumes – the graceful dresses we all admire. “As a producer you need to make choices as to what to spend your money on, in our case that is costumes,” he said. “It is the set pieces where you see the ladies in different clothes all the time that really come at a cost. All the dresses, the sheer volume of the costumes they have to make.”
Everything apart from the first floor, everything from the kitchen and servants' quarters to the working areas and upstairs bedrooms is built in London’s Ealing Studios. Highclere Castle in Hampshire was used for the exterior shots of Downton Abbey and the first floor interior. Only one third is actually shot on location, whether it’s the World War I trenches, a holiday in the Scottish Highlands or the location for the upcoming 90 minute Christmas episode (our lips are sealed).
As it is a precinct show, shooting on location is brought to a minimum. Neame’s philosophy is that it is okay to shoot on location “as long as you take the main characters with you”.
There’s one person that’s always on set: the show’s historical advisor Alastair Bruce. Nicknamed The Oracle by the cast for his wealth of historical knowledge, Bruce ensures that day in day out every tiny detail is correct for the time it is supposed to reflect. Currently, he says, the show finds itself in the jazz age (series five). “We’re seeing more jazz clubs in London and the dresses that go with it. Every aspect of the production has an inherit feeling of the times and needs to go along with them. The times are changing. Now we’re about ten years further then when we started.”
Bruce briefs the actors at the start of each series and sets out what is about to happen. These talks take place separately from the director as it is important that the characters “find out things for themselves” so as to really become that person.
Aside from this the show is shot according to a ‘fairly’ standard drama model. There are 24 shooting days for every two episodes per director, and filming takes place from early February until late August. The 24 days might seem a little longer than normal but this Neame says gives them “time for detail”.
And with detail he means detail. Every fan surely remembers the final episode of series one, where Matthew was leaving for battle and says his goodbyes at the station. The pin on his cap (did anyone notice?) was designed especially for this purpose by the College of Arms. It is this amount of detail (“Matthew would never wear that type of tweed”) in which the wardrobe designers, the art department and Bruce come together, and why he says that he enjoys working with them the most.
And that must be the answer to its success, it signifies what the show is about and that while, as Neame says, “nobody was looking to buy a show like Downton”, the series has become what can easily be called the series of the decade. The power of Downton is in the detail.
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