Behind the scenes at Downton Abbey

Red-hot sets, fluctating waistlines (blame the canteen) and the 'Lord of the Manners' who doesn't miss a thing. Fiona Hicks visits the set of the world's best-loved period drama
When you think of Downton Abbey, which returns for a Christmas special and will soon start filming its sixth series, chances are you picture the resplendent Highclere Castle. Five years ago, this property was selected from dozens around the country to become the home of the fictional Crawley family.

‘We looked at photographs of at least 100 houses, and visited 40 all over the country,’ says Donal Woods, the show’s production designer. ‘Funnily enough, Highclere Castle was the first place we visited.’

Highclere has certainly become a character in its own right. Yet what most people don’t realise, is that much of the filming takes place in London. Ealing Studios – an unprepossessing set of buildings that resemble office blocks rather than a stately home – houses many of the ‘rooms’ that are so familiar to Downton fans. In fact, the entire downstairs of Downton Abbey is a set, which is resurrected here every February when filming begins.

The reason for this is quite simple, explains Donal. ‘Of all the houses we visited, all the below stairs had been turned into offices or tearooms. Even at Highclere, the kitchen is lovely but it’s filled with new cookers and fridges. People just can’t afford to leave them as servants’ halls.’

Downton-Nov28-03-590Clockwise from top left: the crew gathers on set at Ealing Studios to work out the production routine; Hugh Bonneville’s costume is adjusted mid-scene; historical adviser Alastair Bruce looks on with executive producer Liz Trubridge; the crew working at Highclere Castle in Berkshire, the fictional Downton Abbey, have some strange requests, such as wanting to light the candelabra underneath the Van Dyck oil painting
Visiting the set is a fascinating experience. The monochrome downstairs rooms (‘we always say upstairs is Technicolor and downstairs is a black-andwhite film’) may look pleasantly cool on screen, but in reality the studio lights make them very, very hot. And they’re star-studded, too. Mr Carson wanders through one room casually carrying his jacket, Mrs Patmore is chatting to a cameraman, and Daisy is asking an assistant for a banana.

What is even more captivating, however, is meeting the army of behind- the-scenes crew, many of whom are just as interesting as the characters they help to bring to life.

One such person is Alastair Bruce. Dubbed ‘Lord of the Manners’ by the newspapers, this military colonel is also a royal commentator for Sky, and has been Downton Abbey’s historical adviser since the beginning. ‘I’ve got what we call in the army an adjutantal eye,’ he says, with crisp enunciation. ‘An adjutant is someone who inspects soldiers before they go out on smart parade, and can spot if a button is out of place. I love detail.’


His job is to watch the scenes play out and draw attention to anything historically inaccurate. ‘I don’t always make myself popular,’ he smiles. This is because in the Downton era, social mores influenced everything.

‘I’ve just caused a bit of drama because they were filming a scene in which a teapot was placed on a wooden table.’

Alastair pointed out that the table would have been covered with a tablecloth, but the director insisted the contrast between the white crockery and the wooden surface was important to the shot.

‘They said they would put a doily down instead,’ says Alastair. ‘But over my dead body will there be a doily on Downton Abbey. Doilies are deemed to be divinely upper class, but they are anything but.’

In the end, a tablecloth was used. ‘There is always somebody who will notice these things,’ says Alastair, ‘especially my mum.’

Downton-Nov28-05-590Finishing touches are made to Michelle Dockery’s netting before filming of the point-to-point race begins

A typical day of filming runs from 8am to 7pm, but days can be much longer for some of the team.

Anna Robbins joined the show as the costume designer for the fifth series. With long blonde hair, an edgy fashion sense and a tongue piercing, she is the epitome of modern style, yet she’s a dab hand at creating the hundreds of vintage outfits seen on the show. ‘My assistant designer and I have a meeting at 7am to work out what we need to do for the day, and we probably don’t clock off until 10pm, sometimes later. A lot of big decisions are made late at night when you have a moment of inspiration.’

Anna does not mind the long hours though, describing the post as her ‘dream job’. With each of the principal women in the cast requiring up to 40 individual pieces throughout the series, she lives and breathes costumes. ‘The process can be quite quick,’ she explains. ‘Say we’re making a suit for Lady Mary: I’ll design it on Monday, shop for fabric on Tuesday and it will be on her on camera on Friday.’

With filming taking place over half a year, adjustments occasionally have to be made. ‘That is more for the men,’ Anna laughs. ‘The women maintain their clothes-horse figures well, while the men tend to fluctuate a bit more.’ One glance at the enormous on-set catering truck might explain why.

Downton-Nov28-06-590Fiona visits the ‘below stairs’ set in London. Inset: historical adviser Alastair Bruce inspects Barrow's medals

Another behind-thescenes lady is the softly spoken Liz Trubridge. The show’s executive producer, she has been there since day one. ‘Downton Abbey has expanded beyond anybody’s dreams in terms of scale and ambition,’ she says. The drama is now the most Emmy-nominated international show in history, and JJ Abrams (of Star Wars fame) has even come on a fan visit to the set. ‘When you work on Downton Abbey, people sort of want to touch you,’ laughs Liz. She lights up as she talks about sets and camera angles and editing, and obviously relishes her profession. ‘The cast and crew are like a family,’ she says. ‘Hugh [Bonneville] and Jim [Carter] definitely share the role of Dad.’

Downton-Nov28-07-176Everybody works 11-day fortnights in order to complete the episodes in time. ‘They’re long, long days,’ Liz admits, ‘so by the end of the shoot everyone is looking a bit dark-eyed, dreaming of pools and villas. But when you’re freezing cold or boiling hot on set, tired, possibly grumpy, just remembering that millions of people around the world are waiting for it… Well, that’s the most gratifying thing.’

It may be a purpose-made set, but it really does feel like a world of its own. And when you spy Mr Carson and Mrs Hughes, half in costume, giggling with the director, it’s evident that the magic of Downton is not just confined to the screen.

Series 5 of Downton Abbey is out on Blu-ray and DVD (Universal Pictures UK).