Exclusive: Visiting Downton Abbey

By Michele Manelis

Maggie Smith says the extra fame and attention from Downton Abbey "flattering, but awful".
Maggie Smith says the extra fame and attention from Downton Abbey "flattering, but awful".
MiNDFOOD's US Correspondent, Michele Manelis, recently visited the set of Downton Abbey during a day’s shoot for season six of the popular series .

An hour and a half’s drive from central London will find you at the border of Hampshire/Berkshire. A few moments off the freeway that recognisable winding pathway finally appears, and as if on cue, the familiar theme music (Did I Make the Most of Loving You?) finds its way into my head and lodges itself there as a background to the remainder of the day. In that instant, I realise I have entered the ultimate posh theme park for adults.

As an avid fan of the phenomenon that is Downton Abbey, walking through the sprawling manicured grounds (1000 acres of parkland) that lead towards Highclere Castle, excitement washes over me.

There’s a bustling film crew outside as they ready themselves for the day’s shoot of season six. Some of the actors are scurrying about, some in 1920s regalia, some still in modern clothing.

Entering through the grand wooden doors of the castle leading to the gothic entrance, I have to admit it’s difficult to contain myself as I’m greeted by Mr Carson (Jim Carter), who leads me to one of his favourite rooms, the Library. It contains more than 5650 books, some of which date back to the 16th century. Chatting briefly about the troubling English weather as one does, he says dryly, “Well, you are here in February. This is not Los Angeles.”

Simply put, Carson is exactly as you’d hope he’d be. “For the most part my favourite rooms tend to be downstairs, where I’m king of the castle,” he says. (The downstairs scenes are filmed in Ealing Studios, West London, so the kitchen and staircase are not on display here at Highclere.)

Carson leaves soon after to head to the State Dining Room where one of the famed dinner table scenes is set to commence. Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) tells me later, “Those scenes take forever to film.” I’m then shuffled into a holding area, where tea and biscuits await, along with the real lady of the house, the Countess of Carnarvon (whose husband’s family has resided at the castle since 1679).

“Actually, the castle has been here since 749 AD,” she explains. “And Downton shoots here from early February until mid July.” A few minutes later and out pops one of MiNDFOOD’s favourite actors, lady’s maid to Lady Mary Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt). She very generously let us photograph her in Los Angeles a few hours before winning her first Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress in a TV Series. “I was so shocked that I won. I had no idea,” she says. Froggatt’s not in character today and looks worlds away from her character’s severe hairstyle and maid’s uniform. “Let me show you around,” she says cheerily.

I follow her into the Smoking Room which features a painting (circa 1795) of the children of the first Earl of Carnarvon huddled around what is presumably the family dog, a decidedly vicious looking creature.

“It’s mad, isn’t it?” Froggatt laughs. “What is that dog doing in the picture?  I love it.” We walk through the green baize door leading to the Saloon, where the wall coverings are made of leather and ornate fixtures decorate the room. We venture outside in the rain and pass Daisy (Sophie McShera) and Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), who enjoy a genuine camaraderie and are as inseparable off-screen as they are on the show.

Entering a room set up for my brief chat with Lord and Lady Grantham (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern), she is in character and talks about how Downton has changed her life. “My kids call me Lady Mum,” she laughs. As an American, how does she find the British class system? “I find it quite funny, actually.” She turns to her onscreen husband, who adds, “I think it’s put quite simply: it’s shifted from people who had class and no money to people having money and no class.”

I then meet with Alastair Bruce, historical adviser and one of the Queen’s Heralds (his official title is Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary). He’s the show’s go-to on all matters relating to protocol – both upstairs and downstairs. “I’m there to make sure the medals sit the right way up on the uniforms, the body language of the cast is absolutely correct. That means no slouching at any time or hands on the table during dinner and certainly never in front of the Dowager (Dame Maggie Smith). It’s important that with anything and everything that happens at Downton Abbey, you feel that restraint; that corset on everyone’s thinking.”

Speaking of corsets, Dockery has a minute to chat. “I love in season five that Mary’s confidence is back and she’s embracing fashion and social changes. Lady Mary is always true to herself, and I like that.”

Luncheon is served (though not in the dining room on the show, which is being used for filming) and I’m treated to roasted sea bass, a quail egg and vegetables. A glass of Downton Abbey white wine complements the meal, and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) sits down for a quick chat. Much prettier in person than playing Lady Edith, Carmichael says, “I’m not recognised very often when I’m out, unless I’m with Michelle (Dockery). Even when she’s wearing a hat people know her; it’s those eyebrows that are so distinct. I think they have their own Twitter page,” she laughs.   

The biggest thrill arrives at the end of the day when Dame Maggie Smith and writer/executive producer Julian Fellowes walk by. Asking him why the beloved dame gets the best lines of the show, he says, “Because she says them better than anyone else!” Chatting generally about the popularity of the show, Smith is friendly, yet unsurprisingly as intimidating in person as she is on screen as the Dowager. She considers the question of what her favourite room in the castle might be. Raising one eyebrow, she quips, “Well, it’s difficult to pick one room, but the most useful room is the loo.” The rest of the cast who are floating about gather in one of the rooms with me to take a farewell photograph – a perfect way to commemorate my personal trip to adult Disneyland.


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