Why dinner takes all day at Downton: The unsung heroes behind the filming of the show reveal their secrets
14:02 GMT, 15 September 2012
As Daisy and Mrs Patmore cook in the kitchen or Mary and Matthew flirt in the library, just out of shot there hovers a whole army of costume people, make-up artists, scene builders, designers, producers, sound engineers, light riggers, camera operators, cooks and runners – all focused on bringing Downton Abbey vividly to life.
‘If you’re reading a letter in a scene it will be right in every detail – the paper, the handwriting, the date on the letter, the sentiments of the writer,’ says Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham.
‘I remember in one scene reading a newspaper at breakfast and they had created a perfect version of The Times for that date, so I was reading an account of the murder of the Romanovs after the Russian revolution.
You can't help but feel transported into another place and time, even when there are 30 technicians standing just off camera
You can’t help but feel transported into another place and time, even when there are 30 technicians standing just off camera.’
One problem for the third series was to reflect the new, brighter decade as 1920 dawns. ‘We’ve gone for lighter tones wherever we can after the Victorian gloom and the bleakness of the war years,’ says production designer Donal Woods.
However, it can only be done in subtle ways. ‘One of the difficulties,’ confesses Woods, ‘is that in country houses they never seemed to buy furniture after the 1890s.
At Downton the Earl, Robert, sees it as his job to keep the house as it is, so it’s difficult to introduce evidence of the new age. The lightness is subtle in some rooms, Lady Mary’s living quarters for instance.’ Outside it’s easier. In this series there are fewer horses and more motor cars.
And the arrival of Cora’s mother from America brings what Woods describes as ‘a great gust of the modern age. She has a very different energy, from the moment she arrives in a Cadillac, with white-wall tyres!’
The unsung heroes of the show should be celebrated
For costume designer Caroline McCall, the new age can be suggested directly through the characters’ clothes.
‘The constraints of the pre-war world were relaxed after the conflict, and this had a massive influence on women’s fashion. Women had a new independence. They could be seen out on their own. They had things to do. In dress, simplicity became the key.’
The shift from fuss to clean lines has been greatly appreciated by the actresses, who find the clothes much easier to wear. And this new spirit of feminine independence is followed through by Magi Vaughan, the hair and make-up designer. ‘In the 20s women did begin to use rouge, but very discreetly, because they didn’t want it to be seen.’
Downton Abbey is, of course, a universe of two halves, the grand above-stairs world of the family and the busy below-stairs world of the servants.
The above-stairs world is filmed on location at Highclere Castle in Hampshire, the country seat of the Earl of Carnarvon. The below-stairs rooms there now house modern kitchens and public exhibition spaces, so the servants’ world is filmed on a specially built set at Ealing Studios in west London.
The stairs leading up to the green baize door which opens into the upstairs realm are an exact replica of those at the castle – made out of ingeniously painted wood, rather than stone.
According to director Brian Percival, ‘Upstairs the mood is serene, so we use wider lenses and slower tracking shots. In the servants’ quarters we use longer lenses and hand-held cameras. It feels a bit more real, more naturalistic, almost like a documentary. We feel with them.’
The Crawleys’ bedrooms are also now created at Ealing. ‘That was one of the things we learnt from the first series,’ explains producer Liz Trubridge. ‘It proved very difficult to film in the Highclere bedrooms.
Despite the bustle, there's a great deal of camaraderie among the actor
'They were too small. It was awkward getting the crew in, and it was hard to control the temperature as you weren’t supposed to open the windows. At Ealing it’s much easier. The space is altered by set builders as it changes, say, from Lady Mary’s to Lord Grantham’s room. Each transformation only takes a day.’
The soundman has taped onto his elaborate sound-station, with its banks of monitors, flashing lights and dials, a large note saying ‘FRIDGE’. It’s to remind him to switch off the large catering fridge in the nearby modern kitchen during each take, otherwise its hum can be heard in the background. Outside, cleverly constructed hollow fibreglass pedestals surmounted by urns are used to cover up the modern floodlights that surround the house.
Working with real food is a constant challenge too. Lisa Heathcote, the series cook, has ingenious strategies to combat the inevitable problems of things wilting or melting. ‘It can take all day to film one scene around the dining-room table so it’s important to have things that last. We keep away from cream dishes and fish.’
For a meal for 18 people, Lisa has to cook some 70 servings with limited equipment
For the sake of historical accuracy, though, it is necessary to show a fish course at dinner. ‘We use chicken – or “chicken-fish” as we call it, usually in a sauce. It doesn’t smell, and they can even eat it.
‘Typically, a scene of the family eating in the dining room at Highclere might be filmed three weeks before the one showing Mrs Patmore and Daisy preparing it in the kitchen at Ealing. So we have to keep very careful notes – and lots of photos – of the dishes!’
For a meal for 18 people, Lisa has to cook some 70 servings with limited equipment. ‘At Highclere one day,’ she recalls, ‘I was cooking outside on a trestle table. The plates of dressed meat were all laid out, when Lady Carnarvon turned up with her dogs, and they made a dash for the meat. We had to fend them off!’
Despite the bustle, there’s a great deal of camaraderie among the actors. Between takes in the kitchen Daisy and Mrs Patmore start up a harmonious duet of the Three Degrees classic When Will I See You Again The friendships among the cast are not constrained by the hierarchies of the characters.
As Elizabeth McGovern says, ‘I certainly don’t sit around giving the three girls advice. They do that to me!’ ‘It’s wonderful,’ says Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith. ‘I love being part of the gang. Jim Carter does magic tricks at the bar. He made red balls turn into 10 notes! And in summer we all play croquet.’
Downton Abbey, tomorrow, 9pm, ITV1.