Sunday 29 May 2011

Grand drama :: Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey is jolly good Fellowes. And that’s very hard to deny.

I’m looking forward to curling up for a blissful escapist evening watching this sumptuous costume drama,

with misbehaving servants and repressed masters, a grand country house (Highclere in Berkshire)

& Maggie Smith as the scathing dowager in a role Fellowes wrote specifically for her ~ it’s got to be good!

Written by Julian Fellowes, who has an Oscar for Gosford Park

and a handful of stylish period pieces to his credit including Vanity Fair and The Young Victoria,

has become the man producers go to for tales of upper-class intrigue.

Downton Abbey

is the eponymous house itself, a sprawling, Elizabethan-style country estate and home of the Earl and Countess of Grantham. The inhabitants of the stately house encounter a succession crisis after the sinking of the Titanic.




The show stars Maggie Smith as the matriarch Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham and Hugh Bonneville as Robert, Earl of Grantham. Elizabeth McGovern plays Robert’s wife Cora Smith. Their three young daughters are played by Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael and Jessica Brown-Findlay.

The synopsis from PBS websiteIt’s 1912, and life in the Edwardian country house of Downton Abbey is idyllic and bustling for the Crawley family, aided by their cadre of servants. Robert, Earl of Grantham, his American heiress wife Cora, and their three daughters, along with Robert’s mother Violet, have lived largely uncomplicated lives. But the sinking of the Titanic hits home in an unexpected and dramatic way — Lord Grantham’s heir, James Crawley, and his son Patrick have perished. It’s personally agonizing (momentarily) for daughter Mary who was supposed to marry Patrick. On a grander scale, suddenly all the predictable succession plans have gone terribly awry, and unheard of questions now loom large — Who will be the new heir to the earldom? And what will happen to this distinguished estate, now in jeopardy? Mary’s grief is short lived as she sets her sights on another suitor, the Duke of Crowborough.

Julian Fellowes, chose the house – in real life, Highclere Castle, the home of the Earl of Carnarvon and his family since 1679 – for its imposing facade that carves an intimidating shadow across the sky.

”In a drama like this, which is about the last days of aristocratic England, this house seemed like a trumpet blast of that.

Fellowes seems uniquely positioned to bring to life. Apart from his rather diverse credits – acting roles in Monarch of the Glen and Our Friends in the North and writing Gosford Park and the West End hit musical adaptation of Mary Poppins – he is, by his own admission, ”the poor relation” of some rather good connections. His full name is Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, and his wife Emma is a Knight of the Royal Victorian Order, the great-great-niece of the first Earl Kitchener and a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent.

Fellowes’ perspective of Britain’s old world – garden parties, dukes, earls, viscounts and the strict, starchy traditions that accompany them – coalesced into the hit 2001 period mystery Gosford Park, at a meeting with the current chief of Carnival Films, Gareth Neame. Almost a decade later, Neame asked Fellowes if he’d consider returning to Gosford Park territory for TV. Fellowes had also been reading extensively about the American heiresses who came to Britain in the 1880s and ’90s and married into the aristocracy, a curious fusion of the US’s hunger for traditional connections and the desperate need of many decaying British estates for a transfusion of American cash.

”We know about these girls arriving and ensnaring their dukes and viscounts but what happened then?” Fellowes asks. ”Twenty-five years later, were they sitting in a house in Staffordshire freezing to death?” Before he knew it, he had the Earl of Grantham and his American wife forming in his mind. ”And when you’ve started to think about characters, you’ve actually said yes, even though you may not know it,” he says.

He also had a long-standing desire to use Highclere Castle as the centrepiece of a story, having tried unsuccessfully to use it as the location for an adaptation of Little Lord Fauntleroy he had produced for children’s TV and, many years later, when Robert Altman directed Gosford Park. ”Highclere makes this fantastic statement about aristocratic confidence,” Fellowes says. ”The people who built it weren’t in any quandary about what their role in the world was and how good it was to be an English earl. They knew it was pretty damn good. The whole system of aristocratic and soon-to-be imperial England is in that building. You go into the great hall, there is every coat of arms connected to the family, every bride is commemorated by her shield, there is a kind of self-confidence that the British haven’t really had since the war.

”The two world wars knocked not only the empire but the stuffing out of them.

The only country which continued to enjoy that self-belief is America.”

The rise of Downton, Michael Idato

Lord and master of Downton Abbey ~ Julian Fellowes Interview

Filming :: Highclere Castle in Hampshire was used as Downton Abbey, with the servants’ living areas constructed and filmed at Ealing Studios. The village of Bampton in Oxfordshire was used for filming the outdoor scenes, most notably St Mary’s Church and the village library, which became the entrance to the cottage hospital.

The first series cost an estimated £1 million an episode. The seven-part series, produced by Carnival Films for Britain’s ITV, was the biggest hit on British television last year. It delivered record ratings, with about 11 million people tuning in every week, and achieved the rarest honour a television program can: dominating the ”national conversation”.


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