“Downton Abbey”: The Servants Are in Revolt and the Aristocrats Are in a Tizzy About a Visit by the King and Queen
“Blimey, the King and Queen are coming to Downton Abbey.”
And so begins “Downton Abbey,” the movie version of the PBS British television series that ran for six seasons from 2010 to 2015 and was inhaled like hot scones by diehard fans. The upstairs/downstairs gang reunited for the New York City premiere Monday evening at AliceTully Hall. (With the exception, sadly, of Maggie Smith, who plays the sharp-tongued Violet Crawley and unlike her Downton character prefers skipping fancy balls.)
Cast members attending the glittery, glitzy premiere — at which guests arrived in long gowns — included stars Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Kevin Doyle (Mr. Molesley), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Sophie McShera (Daisy), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), Imelda Staunton (Lady Bagshaw), Penelope Wilton (Lady Isobel), Simon Jones (King George V), writer/producer Julian Fellowes, director Michael Engler, producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge and composer John Lunn.
The movie begins in 1927 — two years after we last saw the Crawleys on the small screen — with the arrival of a letter with a royal stamp announcing the imminent visit of their Majesties King George V (Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) to the Great House. Both upstairs aristocrats and downstairs staff scramble to prepare for the august royal visitors. There are enough close-ups and swoon-shots of polished silver, glittery chandeliers, opulent gowns and Reynolds portraits to satisfy even the most voracious appetite for aristocratic finery and frippery porn.
Meanwhile, Robert Crawley and his Yank wife Cora, the Countess of Grantham, are in a tizzy over whether everything will be up to snuff for the royal visitors. Lady Mary begs retired butler Mr. Carson to oversee the estate because she thinks the new butler, Mr. Barrow (Rob-James Collier), is too inexperienced for the mammoth task.
While the Crawleys orchestrate an endless parade of receptions, dinners and balls — all requiring multiple daily changes of clothes muses Cora — the footmen, butlers and cooks spring into action to make everything happen. But when they’re told their services are not needed, because Royals travel with their own entourage of household staff (Who knew?), the ensuing rivalry results in a revolt by the Downton servants.
Another rivalry will feature Lady Bagshaw, the queen’s Lady in Waiting, played by Academy-Award nominated actress Imelda Staunton, with the Dowager Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith), trading delicious barbed zingers concocted by Julian Fellowes.
On the red carpet, Emmy-Award winning Downton composer John Lunn told me the iconic, melodious tunes we associate with the grandeur of the show remains, but that now everything is bigger and grander, including the orchestra, “which has doubled and features a string section of about 65.”
Following are highlights from the red carpet with Downton Abbey stars and creator:
Julian Fellowes, writer/producer of Downton:
The Knockturnal: Television shows have been made into movies with varying degrees of success. How did you avoid some of the pitfalls?
Julian Fellowes: I don’t know if I have avoided them… But I agree with you. I didn’t feel it was inevitable that we would make a film at all, because, as you quite rightly point out, there are lots of marvelous series where there was no film at the end. So it didn’t really occur to me until about a year after we finished that maybe there was a film in it, because there was still this sort of groundswell of interest in the series that kept going and going and going. And then I started to accept that perhaps there would be a movie.
The Knockturnal: How hard is it getting some 20 characters in a two-hour movie?
Julian Fellowes: Well, I mean, that was the job. Particularly, as they all had to have some narrative role, some narrative purpose and all of those had to be resolved.
The Knockturnal: What inspired the story of the King and Queen’s visit?
Julian Fellowes: I wanted an event that would involve everyone: family, servants, local people. Everyone would be excited by whatever this was. And then I was reading about a visit that the King and Queen paid to Yorkshire in 1912 and as I was reading it I thought, “That’s it, that’s what’s going to happen and everyone will be on their toes.”
The Knockturnal: There’s talk of another Downton movies to come. I mean, maybe it’ll never end.
Julian Fellowes: You think so? Possibly. And I’ll be carried to my grave still finishing off the last script.
Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith):
The Knockturnal: What can fans of Lady Edith expect from this film?
Laura Carmichael: She’s a happily married lady now, so that’s a treat. And yes, she’s a Marchioness, so she’s the poshest of the posh now, but she remains Edith in her behavior, very modern… So she and her husband are very independent. They’re adjusting to their lives as the Marquess and Marchioness, which brings a whole new world to her and some new challenges. She’s no longer able to do as she wishes, and so, it’s a challenge for her.
The Knockturnal: What was the most fun about playing your character and what was most challenging?
Laura Carmichael: I loved playing Edith. I loved everything about it… But I always think that as an actor, I always felt grateful that I was getting a really juicy storyline, so you have to not wallow in her pain… I felt like she was so modern and similar to me and I could relate to her, and I’m so touched when I hear other women say similar things to me.
The Knockturnal: What is your favorite Violet saying in your many scenes with Maggie Smith?
Laura Carmichael: I think that Violet really pushes you forward in her days when Lady Edith is wallowing and a bit sad and not knowing what to do. So I love those. There’s a funny bit where she tells my character, “You’ve got a brain and reasonable ability.” Very funny, Violet trying to give a compliment whilst also being Violet. It’s very Violet.
Imelda Staunton (Lady Bagshaw):
The Knockturnal: I hope you don’t mind my saying I have a crush on your husband? (Jim Carter, who plays (Mr. Carson).
Imelda Staunton: Who doesn’t?
The Knockturnal: What was it like working with him?
Imelda Staunton: Well we didn’t really work together that much. We traveled in the car about three days, just getting up very early in the morning. We were over-excited… And yes I held it over him that I played a Lady while he was only the butler.
Simon Jones (King George V):
The Knockturnal: So is it good being the King?
Simon Jones: Great! Of course his era was a bit more different. We didn’t have to fight through all of the photographers, you know. Because they would have to nowadays. And nobody was taking selfies or Instagrams in 1927. So they really had some kind of private life.
The Knockturnal: Do you have scenes with Maggie Smith’s Violet?
Simon Jones: Oh, yes. That was my favorite memory, actually. I can’t seem to remember the lines but I remember thinking, “My day is made. I can die now.”
Penelope Wilton (Lady Isobel):
The Knockturnal: Your exchanges with Violet are my favorite part of the show. I heard you got an equal amount of barbs this time around. Is that true?
Penelope Wilton: Yes, I get (her) back a few times, which is very rare. I’m usually the one who endures the zingers.
Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore the cook):
The Knockturnal: What was the most challenging thing about playing your character?
Lesley Nicol: Trying to look like I was proficient in the kitchen, because I’m not. The answer to that was, don’t do anything that people can catch you out, do you know what I mean? So I did what most chefs do in the end. I just did things very quickly. I’d stir things. I’d taste things. I’d shout, and that was it. And that amazes people, you know what you’re doing. It’s a trick. I didn’t do anything that requires skill because I don’t have any cooking skills.
The Knockturnal: You’re very glamorous tonight. Did you ever envy the upstairs cast members who got to wear those beautiful clothes?
Lesley Nicol: To be absolutely honest, maybe if I was younger maybe I would have, but do you know, I’m all about the comfort, really. And I used to wear flat boots, I didn’t have to wear those shoes or tight things, and it didn’t matter if I dropped my dinner down my front. Because they had to be so careful, and they never stopped changing all day long. When I got mine on in the morning, that was me for the day. So frankly, it was much easier, much more comfortable to be in my costume. So no, I wasn’t.
The Knockturnal: The headline for one of the reviews of the show said, “The servants are revolting.” Is that accurate?
Lesley Nicol: Well, that’s true. And long may they be revolting.