An urgent telegram arrives in the English town of Downton. It is April 1912, and the message brings bad news: the Titanic has sunk, and with it, so has James Crawley, cousin of Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham and current owner of Downton Abbey. “It’s worse than a shame. It’s a complication,” a woman explains to a maid. “Mr Crawley was His Lordship’s cousin and heir to the title.” “I thought Lady Mary was the heir,” the anxious maid responds. “She’s a girl, stupid. Girls can’t inherit. But now Mr Crawley’s dead, and Mr Patrick was his only son. So, what happens next?” Thus began the successful show Downton Abbey in 2010. Twelve years after its premiere, the Grantham household has survived Spanish fever, the First World War and famine. It has seen romances, weddings and long-awaited births. Six seasons and one movie later, on April 29, a new chapter of the saga will be released in theaters. Now Lady Mary takes charge of the family home, reminding us that before Bridgerton came Downton Abbey–or, perhaps more accurately, without the Crawleys, there would be no Bridgertons.
Downton Abbey was a television phenomenon, and not only in England. As its creator Julian Fellowes told the New York Times in 2013, it went viral. Since its release on the British channel ITV, Downton Abbey was shown in more than 220 regions and reached an estimated global audience of 120 million people. In the United States, the show became the most-viewed show in 45 years on PBS, the public television channel. In its sixth and last season, according to Vulture, it brought in 9.9 million viewers, not a bad number compared to the audience for the final episode of Breaking Bad (10.3 million) or Mad Men (4.6 million).
Beyond the statistics, Downton Abbey went on to influence fashion, gastronomy and lifestyle trends. A 2012 article in The Guardian, titled “Downton Abbey inspires the fashion world,” details how the Edwardian style in the show’s first seasons influenced the recent collections of Marc Jacobs, an avowed fan of the series, and Prada. Vogue celebrated Lady Mary’s new bob haircut, analyzing how her look changed as her character grew more powerful and independent. Mirror published “Downton Abbey recipes so you can eat like the aristocracy in your own home,” explaining how to prepare the pistachio-stuffed chicken and artichoke and asparagus salad that the Granthams ate by candlelight. Architectural Digest advised readers on “How To Decorate Your Home like Downton Abbey.”
Despite its enormous influence, Downton Abbey has not been recognized alongside other great prestige television shows. That may be because Downton Abbey seems like a show to enjoy in secret. S Mode spoke with Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) about that past and future of Downton Abbey, the modern world’s fascination with the old aristocracy and Maggie Smith. The first question is unavoidable.
Downton Abbey started a trend twelve years ago that set the stage for Bridgerton: they are both shows set in a specific historical moment, which follow a family’s story and hook a massive audience while influencing different aspects of culture. Is it possible to distance them from the label of “guilty pleasures?”
Michelle Dockery: I don’t really like using that term. I don’t feel guilty about watching The Housewives of Beverly Hills. It gives people a lot of pleasure, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about it.
Laura Carmichael: Anything to give you escapism and comfort is great. What people love about Downton is this comforting feeling, like a warm bath every time you watch it. The world is scary enough, and you don’t always need to be reminded of it. In Downton Abbey, people are trying to do right by one another, even if they don’t succeed. People are trying their best.
Why do you think people are so obsessed with aristocracy? Do you think it’s a symptom of the times right now?
Laura Carmichael: I think it’s the same way people are interested in celebrities.
Michelle Dockery: People have always been sort of fascinated by this culture, the aristocracy versus the people. But with Downtown, what people love about it comes down to the writing. Julian Fellowes has managed to write these amazing characters that people feel are their friends. They keep coming back for more.
Do you feel Downton Abbey is a realistic portrait of women in their time, or does it always end up showing the best case scenario for them?
Laura Carmichael: In most cases in Downton Abbey, it always ends up with the best case scenario. I think that’s what people like about it. It’s so warm and so positive. Our characters do represent two really privileged women, but the idea that Edith has a job was true of lots of these women. There are examples of aristocrats who became writers. I love that that’s what Julian chose.
Twelve years have passed since 2010. What is it like to play the same character for so many years, and what have you learned from women like Lady Mary and Lady Edith?
Michelle Dockery: Being in the skin of a character for twelve years, they become part of you and you them. When we first started this out, we were in our 20s. Here we are, twelve years on, and we’re still playing them. We have such a good time. As sisters in the show, we just love doing things together. We didn’t get much to do in this film together like we usually do, but we’ve loved playing them and we feel we’ve grown up with the characters.
Laura Carmichael: One of the most striking things about these characters is the confidence that these women have in themselves. When we had only been rehearsing for the first season of the show for a few weeks, I remember the acting advice we were given was, “these women are the kind of women who walk into a room and make it their own.” And they are, because of who they are, because of where they were born, because of their enormous privilege. They haven’t learned it, they have it. That confidence is something all women can learn from.
Downton Abbey is a series in which women of any class can gain power. Upstairs, Lady Mary demonstrates that she doesn’t need a man by her side to run the family fortune. Her father, initially distrustful, ends up handing over the reins to her when she realizes that her modern worldview is the only thing that can save them from bankruptcy. In this film, Lady Mary will convince her family to accept the proposal of a film producer who wants to record a silent film in Downton. Lady Edith manages to be taken seriously when she tells her family that she wants to work. While working as a journalist, she meets the man who will become her husband, just as the label of “old maid” begins to weigh on her. . Lady Sybil, the youngest of the three sisters and a staunch defender of civil rights, ends up marrying the family chauffeur, generating a class conflict that ends up resolved in the friendly Downton Abbey way: Tom is accepted as one more family member, despite the fact that Sybil dies giving birth to her only daughter. Downstairs, Mrs. Patmore reigns in her kitchen and keeps even the chef of the Royal House away, Anna becomes the influential maid to Lady Mary, and Elsie Hughes manages the house with diligence and commitment. Above them all is the elderly Lady Violet, played by two-time Oscar winner Maggie Smith, a woman whose opinion remains central to the decision-making in Downton. All these women, above and below, have a common goal: to keep the house running. That may be why the series has not gained greater acclaim: what happens behind closed doors, in the kitchens, the stables, the drawing rooms or in the ladies’ rooms, has always been seen as lesser than what happens outside.
Could Downton Abbey still exist today? What would the family be like?
Laura Carmichael: This is one of the themes that Julian Fellowes always insisted on: “These types of houses don’t exist in the same way now.” That was one of the guiding principles: this is the story of a time and a place that can no longer exist, this world can not last, we have a clock counting down the end of its days. The world has changed, and those houses had many expenses that would make them impossible to maintain today. Most of them have completely disappeared. I don’t know. Maybe Lady Mary could think of a clever way to keep it afloat.
Michelle Dockery: I guess so. I remember one season they decided to open the house to the public and that was a complete disaster, but a lot of these houses end up being tourist spots, an attraction to entertain you and visit a beautiful town in England. I don’t know what would have happened to my character. Maybe now they would rent the house as a wedding and events hall.
What is it like working with Maggie Smith?
Laura Carmichael: It’s as amazing as you can imagine. I remember that the first day we had this acting legend in front of us and we were paralyzed, but she came up to us and said, “so, I’m your granny.”
Michelle Dockery: We were really nervous the day we met Maggie [Smith]. Right away she made everything so easy and really made us feel like we were her grandchildren.
Laura Carmichael: She is a very experienced woman with a lot of knowledge about how to do our job well. She was always encouraging us to improve, giving us acting advice or congratulating us. She is a very generous woman, she could have come, recited her part and left, but instead she always showed empathy and availability.
Michelle Dockery: Working with her is like taking a master class. Maggie always questions you and questions you, she asks you why your character is reacting in that particular way, she makes you question whether or not your character would have a certain response or reaction. And I think that is very valuable, to ask “why am I doing this?” I’ve taken that with me to each role I’ve played.
Laura Carmichael: Another thing about Maggie is that she’s always right. So when she says something she’s worth listening to. It’s her instinct.
Michelle Dockery: That’s true. There is a scene in the last film where Lady Mary has to tell Lady Violet that she is going to the cinema with Jack Barber, the film director who is shooting a film in Downton. So I have to go into her room and tell her that I am going to the movies with a man who is not my husband. And then Maggie said to me, “You really don’t need to go in, do you? Look out, tell me you’re going to the movies, I’ll tell you that then I’ll have dinner alone and you leave.” And we decided to do that, but she already knew she was going to question me, so we start shooting. I go in, I tell her I’m going to the movies and when I’m about to leave she asks me, “How’s Henry?”, my husband. And then Mary makes that “we’re done” face. And suddenly the scene becomes so much more interesting, because she’s interacting with her own character and she’s interacting with yours as well. It is a privilege to work with her.
After twelve years, would you be able to choose a favorite scene or moment from Downton Abbey?
Michelle Dockery: Personally, I loved the scenes where we were all together, you know, the typical scene where we’re all out for an important visitor, and you have all the family members on one side and the servants on the other. If I had to describe what Downton Abbey is, I would show that image: everyone lined up waiting for something in front of the house.
Is this really the end of Downton Abbey?
Michele Dockery: It never feels like it’s the end of Downton Abbey,
Laura Carmichael: We always say “see you next time” instead of “goodbye.” We will say “goodbye” if it is what we all want and if it is what the fans really want, but for now we don’t know.
Michelle Dockery: When we shot the first movie we didn’t imagine we’d do a second one, but I guess because we did well and people loved it, we felt like going back was a good idea. So, really, we never know.