Downton Abbey: A New Era – ‘It’s got such a big heart, this movie’
Britain’s favourite landed gentry are back for another decorously dressed, exquisitely mannered and engrossingly gossipy jaunt back in time. This latest feature film picks up the story in the late 1920s – just where they left us – as though they’d never been away
In September 2010, a series launched on ITV that marked the start of a new epoch. Arriving on our screens less than six months after the General Election that saw the end of Labour’s 13 years in office, Downton Abbey was a period drama in which we could marvel at the witty, wise and extremely wealthy inhabitants of a beautiful country house, who treated their servants and staff with a gentle hand.
The series was a phenomenon. Viewing figures were enormous, record breaking. In the wake of the global economic downturn, we turned to Downton for escapism – to see how the other half (and their staff) once lived.
We voted with our remote controls for a second term and continued to watch, even after dashing young Matthew Crawley (actor Dan Stevens, last seen skewering the Prime Minister on The One Show) was killed off at Christmas. For six series, as the country was ravaged by austerity, viewers flocked to Downton Abbey. Visitors to Highclere Castle, where it was filmed, did the same.
Why did it work? Creator Julian Fellowes is an expert at character creation. He brought everything he had learnt as someone born into the landed gentry and expensively educated, as a veteran of Cambridge Footlights, and from a writing career that included an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park in 2002. Downton Abbey followed the Gosford Park formula – sexual intrigue, mild peril, culture clashes and exquisite one-liners performed by fine actors. In this case, delivered with such relish by Dame Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess of Grantham.
The television series came to an end on Christmas Day 2015. But there were more stories to tell and more real-life history – following storylines that took in the Titanic, the First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic – into which Fellowes could weave the growing cast of characters. So Downton Abbey moved into the movies in 2019 with a film set in 1927 and featuring a royal visit. It was a worldwide success, making almost £153 million at the box office. Another film was inevitable.
Downton Abbey: A New Era picks up the action soon afterwards. Clouds could soon be on the horizon for the landed gentry – the Wall Street Crash and subsequent Great Depression are not far away. Will the new era involve a breakdown in the social order? Will it once again coincide with a political power shift off screen? We caught up with three original cast members – Elizabeth McGovern (aka Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham), fresh from playing Ava Gardner in Ava: The Secret Conversations at Riverside Studios, Dame Penelope Wilton (Isobel Grey – aka Lady Merton), who also stars in new film Operation Mincemeat with Colin Firth, and, representing downstairs, Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) – who called us via Zoom from sunny Los Angeles.
It’s got all those things people love about Downton. It feels like you are getting a warm hug. And I think that’s what everybody needs right now
Elizabeth McGovern: It’s a funny thing, because when it started, people felt a real nostalgia for the era that it took them to. And now I think people feel a nostalgia for the era that they were in when they first started watching the show. So it’s nostalgia, but it’s kind of morphed into a different thing because the world is changing so fast.
Joanne Froggatt: I think the second movie is even better than the first. It is funny, it is poignant, it looks beautiful – it’s got all those things people love about Downton. It feels like you are getting a warm hug. And I think that’s what everybody needs right now, after the last few years and with what’s happening in the world.
Penelope Wilton: What’s going on at the moment is just so upsetting and so terrible – in Ukraine, particularly – that it is hard to focus on anything else. But I think it will be diverting for a couple of hours. With everything going up, and fuel prices and everything, people are really up against it in so many ways so I hope it will give everyone a lift. It’s a highly entertaining story.
JF: Julian has always been very good at connecting the stories in the historical time with what is going on in our time. He tends to weave those parallels very subtly. I can’t say why, but the parallels are not economic or political necessarily in this one, but emotionally the parallels in this story are universal. It’s got such a big heart, this movie.
EM: I don’t get many chances to work with Simon [Curtis, her husband of 30 years, who directs the new film], so it was a privilege. I was nervous because it’s so difficult to come into something that is already up and running, but I was so proud of him. It had been years since I’d worked with him and he’s grown so much in confidence and expertise. I was really blown away watching him work. It was a really nice thing to be able to experience. He has a real history with so many people in the acting community, and has experienced the entire series so intensely through me, so he was well placed to slot right in. But he managed something very difficult – he imprinted his own personality on it. You can really see his warmth and sense of humour come through in the film.
PW: I’m not allowed to tell you anything about the new film – it’s all got to be cloaked in secrecy. But I think you’ll see in the next film what the family do when they’re up against it, with their finances becoming depleted. Because, of course, it’s terribly expensive. You couldn’t run a house like that one now. Nobody could. It would be impossible, especially now – how could you heat it?
EM: The new film? It’s basically more of the same! It’s everything that everybody has come to expect from Downton Abbey but I feel like in this one, the detail and richness and texture of the plot is at its best. Because the thing Downton Abbey does well, which is the clash of the old and the new, Julian’s found a very clever way of re-exploring that dynamic. It’s always on the horizon, this sense that modern life is slowly eating away at the life they’re enjoying. So that’s very much in evidence. I can’t really say, because I would be killed but there’s other heartbreaking stuff, foreshadowing the passage of time.
JF: I love the people and feel a real loyalty to their show and our team. We had a wonderful experience during the show so it’s an easy decision to keep coming back. We get to hang out with our friends and revisit something that has been such a big and special part of our lives. I also love revisiting Anna. It’s never a tough decision to step back into her shoes. Julian has put her through the mill over the years, which as an actor I’m very grateful for. I wanted to be an actor for the versatility, to be able to play different roles and challenge myself. But to have the opportunity to pop back and revisit that character in a movie is so dreamy, and something that very rarely happens in the TV world.
EM: My favourite memories are just laughing on the set with the actors. Before we had a concept, even what the show was at all, the simple times of just all being in the trenches with our sleeves rolled up working away at it. That the bit I like the most.
JF: The first year we were nominated at the Emmys, Michelle Dockery and I paid for our own flights to the US and stayed with Michelle’s aunt in LA. We hustled ourselves along as plus ones with the director and producer and had an absolute blast. We went to all the pre-parties, did our own hair and makeup, swapped clothes, and had the most magical week. Elizabeth McGovern was nominated for Best Actress so she sat at the front and we sat with the rest of our team going: “Wow, I wonder what it feels like to have a personal nomination. That must be crazy!” Cut to a year later, me and Michelle are back with personal nominations – and we’re doing the same thing but in a very different way, with the hair and makeup and stylist. We still had a crazy, amazing time but nothing will beat that first time because we were like kids in a sweet shop. Downton Abbey has given me so many wonderful memories. That’s why I’ll always feel loyal to it.
We’ve all gone through something together and grown up a little bit. So there’s a real sense of trust and respect.
PW: Maggie Smith and I have a very, very, very, very good relationship. And Julian wrote wonderful scenes for us – it added a sharpness to the whole thing. They really rubbed each other up the wrong way but finally came to admire each other, although they would never give in to one another. They have different views about things and both stick to their guns. So we got a lot of fun out of those sparring matches. I’d live in the hope that he would let me win, but she usually got the upper hand in the end.
EM: We’ve all gone through something together and grown up a little bit. So there’s a real sense of trust and respect. It’s really nice. Very unusual. I feel so proud of everybody. For the first couple of years, Michelle came to my trailer and I forced her to sing. Now Michelle and Michael [Fox, who has played Andy Parker since series five] are singing together, doing their own thing. There was always a big music element among the cast.
PW: It was a bit like a theatre company because there’s a group of people of all ages and you work with them over a period of time. So you get to know one another very well and also get very close to the crew. We have a driver called Orest, who is Ukrainian and is at the border at this moment, trying to bring his wife and his mother to safety. So we’re sending him messages. I’m hoping he will get through.
EM: My big issue? I have a real passion that people should be getting out and supporting theatres, supporting, dance, supporting live music. People are really suffering in those worlds. We learnt about first responders, about the primary care workers that are of such value to society. And we have to now look again at the value of live arts to society, and people’s spirit and mental health and that sense of sharing and community. So I’ve been putting my energy into getting people back out to support people who’ve suffered a lot over these last few years. I’m not talking about myself, I’m talking about artists who make their livelihood from live performances. That’s my thing at the moment.
PW: My big issue is the standard of living in this country. I was on Tottenham Court Road and people were living in doorways. I counted 10 tents outside Heals. When we hit the pandemic, we seemed to be able to do something about homelessness. It seems ridiculous that you can’t continue something that was working quite well. And I don’t think sending refugees to Rwanda is a good idea. It’s a terrible thing to do. It’s disgraceful. We’ve been let down tremendously by this government on a number of issues. The parties being one of the most obvious. They were very keen that everyone else followed the rules. And they should have followed them themselves. I think there will be a reckoning. It will come.
JF: How many homeless people could live in Downton Abbey? That is a great question. Wow. A lot – and it’s actually a really good idea. Although I think the family might have something to say about it. But thousands. Because it’s enormous. Including the whole estate, because there are other houses on the estate. I haven’t even seen most of the house because most of the upstairs is cordoned off even to us. But you could fit a village in there. Maybe a city.
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