A royal visit
Who does not know the TV series Downton Abbey about the 1920s and the aftermath of World War I and – of course – about the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff with the huge mansion at the scene of their intimate chats, intrigues, and stolen kisses. Highclere Castle, Newbury, is again the scene and so is its 1,000-acre estate, made by the famous 18th century landscape designer Capability Brown, with its cedar trees – some of them older than 250 years – giving the gardens extra grandeur. The English hills, the steam engine train crossing them, the mail coach and the cobblestone streets are delightful to the eye.
Two aristocrats, the earl and countess of Carnarvon, are still living in the castle that they used to hire out for weddings in order to be able to maintain their residence. Their worries must be over as today their mansion receives thousands of visitors a day, some of them taking tours that include a traditional afternoon tea and a tour guide to lead them through the mansion and gardens (£ 125 a person). No wonder the film theatre Tuschinski in Amsterdam was packed at the premiere of the film Downton Abbey, based on the TV series. A Universal Pictures speaker calls the series ‘a copious meal’ and he regards the film as ’the desert that is so delicious that you are glad you ordered it’.
For the film, Fellowes needed a dramatic device that would ‘bring all the characters together’, he tells Christiane Amanpour in a CNN interview (20 September 2019). He needed a central storyline. He had read about the visit to Yorkshire of George V and Mary. Suddenly it had struck him: ‘This is it’. He also remarks that Downton Abbey has always referred to actual events like the differences between classes, male and female rights, republicans and monarchists.
Both the Crawleys and their servants are preparing for this royal visit, all with determination. Not all with the same kind of eagerness, though. Does the royal staff want to take over at Downton? Are you kidding? Apart from the hustle and bustle of cleaning windows, polishing silver, and selecting the wines, there is enough food for romance, intrigue and mischief. And power, not only of the high class Crawley family, but also of their loyal and creative servants in the basement.
They are back
Is the storyline in the film thinner than in the TV-series? Who cares? They are back. We welcome Dame Maggie Smith again as the invincible Countess of Grantham who – with her unique sense of drama – exclaims ‘the nation should be brightened with glamour’. She certainly lights up the room as always. As Julian Fellowes in his CNN interview with Christiane Amanpour (20 September 2019) points out, he loves working with her as ‘Maggie always hits the button’.
Of course, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern as the Earl and Countess of Grantham are here again and so are Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael as their daughters Lady Mary and Edith. Penelope Wilton as Cousin Isobel is as witty as ever and has clearly decided to sharpen her retorts to the Countess. Furthermore, a new star enters the scene, the Oscar-nominated actress Imelda Staunton as Lady Maud Bagshaw, who happens to be married to Jim Carter, the famous butler, Mr. Carson at Downton.
A blanket to curl up in
Why do we love both the series and the film so much, Amanpour wonders. Fellowes responds that there may be several reasons for this. Although society was changing radically at the time, the 1920s may look like ‘quite settled’ to us, given that we live in such an ‘unsettling world’ ourselves. Both the TV series and the film show a romanticized idea of what ‘Britishness’ was and – to some – should be returned to.
Fellowes adds that Downton Abbey is about ‘the artificial relationship between you and the characters’. Do you want to relish seeing them again next week? According to Fellowes, both the upstairs and downstairs characters are ‘relatable’. Besides, the TV-series gave us ‘a blanket to curl up in on Sunday nights’, which Amanpour heartily confirms by replying that we all want to ‘snuggle in’.
During stately parades and glamorous balls and – naturally – in the Downton Abbey kitchen downstairs we find the ingredients that give a specific taste to the tongue: envy, rebellion, treason, class distinction, theft, rivalry, sexuality, pump and circumstance, trouble about an inheritance, but of course also bravery, loyalty, friendship, love and in the end, during a dance, all is well that ends well for both the Crawleys and their staff.
film: Downton Abbey
genre: costume drama
runtime: 122 min.
based on a TV series, written by Julian Fellowes film
director: Michael Engler
nominated for an Emmy Award: 69 times
three Golden Globe Awards scene: Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England (architect: Charles Barry)
distributor: Universal Pictures Amsterdam
cast: Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith, Robert James-Colliler, Joanne Froggatt, Jim Carter, Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, Simon Jones, David Haig, Matthew Goode