For the better part of a decade, millions tuned in for a dose of TV bliss with the series “Downton Abbey,” an English period drama about the upper-class Crawleys and their working-class servants.
By the time the series ended in 2016, every actor in the cast had become a star – which was a challenge for creator Julian Fellowes when it came time to shoot the “Downton Abbey” movie.
“They were doing shows on Broadway, and movies and series in Hollywood, and plays in London and God knows what,” Fellowes said. “And I think that was a logistical nightmare.”
Fans will find all their favorite characters, upstairs and down, preparing – and plotting – for a royal visit.
Michelle Dockery, also known as Lady Mary, told correspondent Elizabeth Palmer over tea that some fans more than fully embrace the imaginary world of Downton. “It’s almost like they act around you like you are royalty,” she said. “That’s what I find very amusing at times. They see us and they think we are the characters. It comes with the territory of being with a show that is this enormous.”
And that people believe in, or want to believe in.
“Ground Zero” of the fantasy is the building which stars as Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle outside London. Recently its owner, the 8th Earl of Carnarvon, and his wife, Lady Carnarvon, were judging a Downton-themed costume contest, where commoners channel their inner aristocrat.
Here, public passion is fueling private enterprise. For a fee, visitors can tour the magnificent rooms and the castle grounds where the Crawley family drama unfolds.
“I dare say that the silhouette of Highclere is perhaps now more famous than that of Buckingham Palace,” said Palmer.
“It has become very famous throughout the whole world,” said Lady Carnarvon. “But I wouldn’t want to myself in front of Her Majesty the Queen!”
Actually, word is the Queen is a fan – as are millions of Americans, like these who spotted Hugh Bonneville (the actor who plays Lord Grantham) at Highclere.
The appeal of “Downton Abbey,” Bonneville told us, is universal: “I go back to when I first read the first script, and these characters popped off the page at me. They were engaging, and they were vivid.
“And more to the point, I wanted to know what happened next. It was a page-turner.”
But not everyone was initially sold on the show. “The notion of costume drama, certainly in Britain, was being written off,” said Bonneville. “We couldn’t even get anyone to interview us.”
That didn’t last long. Soon, the series was a triumph, and its characters household names.
Lesley Nicol, who plays the cook, Mrs. Patmore, said the series had changed her life. “Oh blimey, in so many ways. I don’t know how long you’ve got. But personally, professionally, ways I couldn’t possibly have thought could happen. The fact that I support a charity in China, which would never have happened if 160 million people in China didn’t watch ‘Downton Abbey’!”
Allen Leech made his name as Tom Branson, the ex-chauffeur who marries into the Crawley family.
Palmer said, “You must ask yourself why it has been such a blockbuster success?”
“Yeah, and I still just struggle to find an answer for that,” Leech replied. “Even Julian himself struggles to find an answer. He says, ‘You know, it’s like lightning in a bottle.’ If he could bottle it, he’d sell it, you know?”
Part of the answer is that Julian Fellowes’ script created a refuge from our turbulent times, a reassuring world where everyone has a place, from the lord of the manor, to Carson the butler, played by Jim Carter.
“It’s uncynical,” Carter said. “There are no men with guns. There’s no violence. It’s about romance. It’s also harks back nostalgically to a time when things felt more settled.”
That’s not to say the movie doesn’t innovate. There are a few new faces, including Jim Carter’s real-life wife, Imelda Staunton.
When asked how intimidating it was for her to join the cast’s “family,” Staunton said, “To be fair, when I arrived it felt very familiar because I have been living with Carson for quite some time!”
Her character, Maud Bagshaw, gets to cross swords with Maggie Smith’s Violet Crawley. “You know, with Maggie, if any of us had the lines that she has, none of us could deliver them like she does,” Staunton said.
“Downton Abbey,” the movie, has a bigger budget than the TV series, and it shows. But it seems money was never the magic ingredient. “A lot of it is luck,” said Fellowes. “You luck out, and you get the right combinations all down the line, and people keep coming back for more. And I really think it’s as simple as that.”