Walking up the long gravelled driveway to Highclere Castle, surrounded on both sides by vast countryside and rolling hills, you get a sense of how Hugh Bonneville, Dame Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern must feel when they turn up to work.
The first glimpse of Highclere Castle, standing proud and majestically among a soft landscape, is quite something. Benjamin Disraeli, put it poshly when he cried “How scenical! How scenical!”, upon seeing it for the first time. I said something more like, “wow.”
Maybe they’ve got used to it by now, those actors who get to come to work in a castle, maybe it’s a pain for them to drive two hours from the comforts and conveniences of London.
Somehow I don’t think so...
Highclere Castle is, of course, the setting for ITV1’s Downton Abbey – the hugely successful drama that enjoyed massive ratings (peakking at 11.8million), gushing acclaim (on both sides of the Atlantic) and a haul of awards.
The castle played an important role in reigniting our love of period drama, while Julian Fellowes’ script, packed with high-drama, romance, social politics and soap opera, was also essential. And now it’s back for a second series, hence my visit today.
As I reached the front of the ‘house’, where the modern-day equivalent of the Earl and Countess of Grantham - Lord and Lady Carnarvon - live, I was greeted by two housemaids in black and white pinafores and the lady’s maid. They curtseyed and welcomed me inside - it’s easy to see why aristocrats demanded such performances.
I started to wonder “how hard could it really be to get in to your role here?” Just being in such a formal English setting makes you stand up taller, speak more clearly and act less uncouthly. Did the cast of Downton Abbey really have such a tough job?
Of course not all of the programme is filmed here. The servants, including the butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter),the valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), the head housemaid Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt), the cook Mrs Patsmore (Lesley Nicol) and kitchenmaid Daisy Robinson (Sophie McShera) all spend a lot of time downstairs. Downstairs is actually a purpose-built set in Ealing Studios.
Speaking to three coaches worth of TV journalists (otherwise known as Downton Abbey fans), in the opulent library at Highclere Castle, Series Producer Liz Trubridge explained that in their “23 week shoot, 5 days were spent in trenches, filming battle scenes. Half of the series was filmed at Highclere Castle, while the other half was filmed on set at Ealing or on little guest locations.” Series 2 will finally arrive on ITV1 in September.
Executive Producer Gareth Neame promised they’ve all been “working as fast as they can”, they know how eager we are to see if Bates gets a happy ending, if Matthew and Lady Mary are ever going to get together and what on earth is going to happen now war has broken out.
As we listened in to the people who make the show telling us what is in store for series two, I realised Mr Bates was standing next to me. “Oh God” I thought, “does he need a seat? What about his gammy leg?” Reminding yourself that these people are actors is tricky when they’re standing in the place you last saw them on screen.
Lunch was sandwiches – cucumber, smoked salmon, egg and cress - followed by Victoria sponge cake and Pimms. I sat in the drawing room, surrounded by antiques I was too afraid to touch and two delightful men playing the piano and a string instrument.
As I looked out on to the lawn, there was the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and the Countess (Elizabeth McGovern) dining on the same traditional English food as me, while young girls in full Edwardian kit played croquet.
Looking more closely, something wasn’t quite right - the Machiavellian Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) sat by their side, along with Daisy Robinson (Sophie McShera).
This should have been enough of a wake-up call to remind myself that this was a press day and not me living inside Downton Abbey. The help would never share cucumber sandwiches with the Earl and Countess, would they?
In series 2 of Downton Abbey we’re blasted straight in to The Somme, while life at Downton is turned upside down. We see how the war impacts society and shakes up the social divides of the time like never before. Perhaps Thomas sharing a sandwich with the Earl of Grantham is not as unlikely as it would first appear...
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