What You Never Knew About Downton Abbey

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America Inspired Britain

The British historical period drama that took to our TV screens in 2010 became an instant award-winning favorite. But there is more to the show than we know. The structure of this most loved period drama, set in 20th century Britain, is actually inspired by American shows. Series creator, Julan Fellowes, said, “I was constantly thinking in terms of those American structures. I had liked E.R. There was something called Chicago Hope that I liked very much, and Thirtysomething, with all those stories going at once.”

A Real Home

The castle where the show is filmed at is actually home to a real family.  The castle is called Highclere Castle and it’s been occupied by the Carnavon family since 1679. As well as its exterior, the library, dining room, drawing room, and grand hallway seen in Downton Abbey belong to the real-life Highclere Castle. In the summer the castle is open for tours for around $30 and it’s also available for weddings and private events, and occasionally is used as a hotel. Imagine your own Downton Abbey-themed wedding!

Your Royal Viewer

It seems that Queen Elizabeth II is a huge fan of the series and has apparently pointed out historical mistakes in the show. Brian Hoey, the author of At Home With The Queen, revealed that the Queen noticed a British officer wearing a medal from the wrong era. He reported, “He was fighting in the First World War and the medals on his chest did not come in until the Second World War.” Let’s hope there are no more embarrassing inaccuracies!

Second Time’s The Charm

Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, who play Lord and Lady Grantham, are married in the show. However, this is not the first time these two have tied the knot on screen. The pair starred together in a BBC sitcom called Freezing years before they reunited in DowntonThey had a close call when Lord Grantham was annoyed at how much time Cora spent away from him. But luckily the marriage was saved when Lady Rose pointed out to the Lord how good he’s got it! If only all men knew!

X-Files Star Said No

X-Files star Gillian Anderson is no stranger to period dramas and was offered a leading role in Downton Abbey. She was approached to play the role of Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham, but turned down the part. Instead, the actress was involved in an adaptation of Great Expectations. When talking about the show she said, “Hopefully people will embrace it with the same love that flowed toward ‘Downton Abbey.’ I was actually offered a part in ‘Downton.’”

The Servants’ Quarters Weren’t Good Enough

The servants’ living quarters and kitchen scenes take place on a built stage at London’s Ealing Studios. The servants’ quarters at Highclere castle did not make the cut as they had been modernized and were not suited to the period of the drama. This meant the producers had to pay extra attention to detail. The World of Downton Abbey author explained, “Thomas might be filmed leaving the kitchen with a plate of food for upstairs and would then appear two weeks later in the dining room!”

Three Rooms For One

The bedroom sets used for characters Cora, Mary, and Edith are in fact all the same set. Depending on the scene, the room was redecorated for the purpose base on the character. This apparently had to be done every few days during shooting. “By the end of the season it’s quite thick with paint and wallpaper,” Donal Woods, production designer, told PBS. “If you’re very smart, you’ll look out the window and it’s always the same view.”

From Ballet To The Ballroom

Jessica Brown Findlay, who played the youngest Crawley sister, was a professional ballet dancer. As a teenager, she danced with the National Ballet until she tragically was told she could not dance anymore. “Until I was 18, ballet was my life I loved it; I even danced at the Royal Opera House with the Kirov,” she explained. “Then I injured my ankle, had three operations on it, and the last one went wrong.” She then took up acting and landed her role as Sybil Crawley.

Extortionate Episodes

Each episode costs an extortionate amount to produce. Jessica Fellows, author of The World of Downton Abbey and niece of the show’s creator, reveals just how pricey the show was to produce in her book. Given the extensive attention to detail and the show’s authenticity, as well as the extravagant behind-the-scenes equipment and props, it is worked out that each episode costs an average of over $1 million. In the TV world, this is actually not bad, with the likes of Game of Thrones ranking around $10 million an episode!

Costume Stench

Many of the costumes used for the show are original items from the early 20th Century. This made them too fragile to be properly laundered. Due to this, and in keeping with the show’s authenticity, the producers wanted to avoid washing the clothes, adopting a “no-wash” policy with some costumes to maintain a look within the period. This meant the clothes gave off a nasty stench much to the cast’s dislike. Sophie McShera explained, “They have these weird patches, which are sewn into the armpits and which they wash separately.”

Was Cora Created For Americans?

Critics have questioned creator Julian Fellowes’ intentions in casting an American character. Many argued it was a strategic move to attract a larger American audience. “We weren’t thinking in those terms about foreign sales. The advantage for me of having the American wife was it gave me a central character who was not dyed in the wool of the upper-middle-class upbringing,” Julian responded, “She was not consciously written for America. The fact that we would have a central character for American sales was much more clever than we were really.”

Based On Real Events

During season two, Downton Abbey was turned into a recovery home for soldiers. In real life, the Highclere Castle was also turned into a hospital during World War I. Lady Almina, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon, was responsible for this. It became a hospital for the sick and injured soldiers returning home from the battlefields of Europe in 1914. Almina became a nurse taking care of the wounded soldiers. After the war concluded, Highclere returned to being a private home.

Food Secrets

As the cast members sit down at their fancy banquets, viewers watch on in admiration at the delicious meals placed in front of them. Lisa Heathcote is responsible for these mouth-watering meals that you see on the show. She reveals that the food in the series is all real, “If you have fake food, it’s going to look like fake food.” Lisa also exposed that she has to “cast” the food as in Downton the food would have been produced on the estate.

Maggie Wouldn’t Watch The Show

Actress Dame Maggie Smith, who played Violet Crawley, admitted she did not watch an episode whilst the hugely popular show was airing. “It’s frustrating. I always see things that I would like to do differently and think, ‘Oh, why in the name of God did I do that?’” she explained in an interview with 60 Minutes. Since the six seasons came to an end she revealed she would watch it as she was given the box set.

Huge Success!

“Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” Julian Fellowes reported to The New York Times in 2013 when discussing the huge success of Downton Abbey. It is the most nominated British TV series ever at the Emmys, receiving 16 nominations in 2012. Over the years they received 59 nominations and won 12 of them! It was estimated that more than 120 million people around the world watched the series at one point. In 2011 it was recognized by Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed English-language television series.

Terrorist Dog Links

Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, was angered by claims that the lovable pooch, Isis, was killed off as an attempt by the show’s bosses to avoid any association with the terrorist group that spreads violence through Iraq and Syria. He has labeled anyone that believes this as a “complete berk”. The yellow labrador, who was named after the Egyptian goddess, had the unfortunate namesake of the Middle East jihadist group. He passed away from cancer in the last episode of season five.

Tall Problems

Matt Milne, who plays Alfred Nugent in Downton Abbey, is a lengthy 6’4, so Lucille Sharp had to stand on a box to be in frame with him. Lucille Sharp plays Miss Reed, Martha Levinson’s American lady’s maid, who travels with her from New York to Downton Abbey in 1920. She is attracted to Alfred and kisses him. The scene did not run so smoothly, however, as the height difference between the two actors was not to the director’s standards.

Downton And The HotHeads

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, has an alternative career. She is actually the lead singer of a band called Sadie & The HotHeads. The Oscar-nominated actress is a folk-rock singer and her band is proving to be a success. She is not the only talented one, as co-star Michelle Dockery is also a singer and sometimes joins Elizabeth for gigs. The band went on tour in the US in 2014, just a month before the season 5 premiere of Downton Abbey in the US.

Not Just A Pretty Face

Dan Stevens, known as Matthew Crawley from Downton, is not just a pretty face. Dan attended Cambridge University where he studied English. In 2012, he was joined by other academics as a member on the judging panel of the 2012 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. Whilst on the Downton Abbey set, Stevens read 146 books for his role as a judge, a “tricky” year for Dan. It does not stop there, Stevens is also an Editor-At-Large for an online literary magazine, The Junket.

Double Death

Creator, Julian Fellowes, revealed there was almost a double death. In the 2013 Christmas special, Matthew (Dan Stevens’ character) was killed off in a car accident. Sybil, his partner, had died earlier in the year. Fellowes has exposed that he would have killed them together if he knew Dan was planning on leaving. Julian said, “It was tough really because Jessica had said she was going to leave right from the beginning.” However, Dan decided to leave after they started filming. “I couldn’t do more funerals, more memorials,” Julian said.

Breaking Bad With Tea

It came as a sort of surprise during the third season premiere party in Los Angeles when Hugh Bonneville summed up the series and joked that “It’s Breaking Bad with tea instead of meth.” Whilst most of us find it almost impossible to see any links between the two shows, this quote led to an interesting spoof that was created linking the two shows. Comedy Central funnyman Stephen Colbert created his own adaptation named ‘Breaking Abbey’ using some of the cast members.

The Real Deal

Some of the furnishings used in the show are Highclere castle’s own. The castle possesses many antiques including a mahogany desk and chair in the Music Room. These were in fact once owned by Napoleon! “They were bought by the third Earl of Carnarvon in 1821 after Napoleon’s death,” Lady Carnarvon said. “The desk is probably from the same period, and both pieces went with him into exile at Longwood house on St. Helena,” she said, referring to the island where Napoleon died.

Some Things Are Out Of Date

Production designer, Donal Woods, has revealed some secrets of the set. The bells that are used by the residents to summon the servants have been in existence since the very first episode. They are one of the most popular attributes among guests who visit the set. However, according to Woods, they should not even be there! After World War I, most manor homes switched their servant calling system from analog bells to electric lights.

Reunion With A Difference

Co-stars Lily James (Lady Rose) and Sophie McShera (Daisy) were reunited in 2015 after acting on the series in Disney’s Cinderella movie. In the movie, their roles were very different, even reversed. Lily went from a Lady to a servant, whilst Sophie played an aristocrat. Lily said,”It’s such a hoot that Sophie is one of the stepsisters. She is so brilliant and it’s great to see her with a bit of make-up on and wearing fancy dresses, because in Downton she doesn’t exactly get to dress up!”

Mr. Carson The Magical Dancer

Mr. Carson, the butler of the house, had some interesting pastimes. He sang and danced on stage as part of a traveling theater group called the “Cheerful Charlies.” After his love Alice Neal chooses Charles Grigg (his dance partner) over him, he banishes him from his life and throws away all his letters. Interestingly, in real life, Jim Carter, who plays Mr. Carson, also has an interesting side job. He is, in fact, an amateur magician.

No Time For Emotional Goodbyes

After airing for over five years, filming the series finale for Downton Abbey was surely an emotional one for both the cast and crew. Throughout the six seasons, the ballroom at the Ritz hotel in London was a frequent choice for many of the scenes. Whilst all the cast and crew members shed a tear and said emotional goodbyes after filming and watching their final scene, the hotel bosses were ready to kick them out! We wonder which important person had reserved the ballroom after them!

Pain Is Beauty

Aside from the bad smell, the costumes were also uncomfortable. Having garments from the 1900s meant the woman wore corsets. “In the first series they were wearing those ­really tight, severe, S-shaped corsets and they had real problems,” said chief ­costume des­igner ­Susannah ­Buxton, “They were so tight cast ­members couldn’t even eat in them.” In addition, the male actors weren’t satisfied. “Stiff collars are a pain the neck, quite literally,” Hugh Bonneville explained in The Chronicles of Downton Abbey: A New Era.

EBay Saves The Day

Although many props are custom made for the series, some are not as authentic. When Mrs. Patmore needed an electric mixer, only the real thing would work. But finding a mixer from that time period was an almost impossible task. Fortunately, eBay saved the day. For $90, they were able to track down a classic mixer from San Fransisco. Production designer Donal Woods is able to find everything from all over the world with the help of eBay.

The Downton Abbey Bandit

It seemed the show had it’s very own bandit! A superfan from  Columbus, Ohio was arrested in 2015 after he stole multiple DVD and Blu-Ray sets of the series from several local retailers. It seemed the man had a great obsession with the British drama. However, it was deemed that he had previously been arrested for many other crimes and was intending to resell the DVDs and Blu-Ray sets to feed his heroin addiction.

Authentic Accents

Alistair Bruce was Downton’s historical advisor and overlooked the show to make sure everything reflected the 1900s spot on. From posture to hair to props to behavior, he oversaw the entire production. One thing he picked up on was the cast members’ accents and advised the more accurate, the more annoying. “We decided not to make the actors have precisely the same accent that was used by aristocratic people at the time. Had we inflicted that on the viewer I don’t think anyone would have watched.”

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