Photographs courtesy of ITV. Above: Phyllis Logan, Michelle Dockery, Jim Carter

Downton Abbey ‘pure escapism’

Downton Abbey is back, this time as a movie, after six highly successful series on TV, charting the progress of its occupants upstairs and down from the sinking of the Titanic to the general strike. Phyllis Logan is back too, at home in Chiswick, having been promoting the film in New York and Boston. She spoke to me about the lavish production and its blockbuster success.

It’s notoriously difficult to translate a successful TV series into a really good film. ‘Movie spin-offs of TV shows are almost never a good idea and this is no exception’ writes the Guardian’s critic. The New York Times describes the plot as ‘weak tea’. But, however grudgingly, all are united on the fact that the film looks and feels glorious, sumptuous, lavish. The music, the twenties costumes, the soaring drone shots of Highclere castle looking immaculate for the arrival of the King and Queen…

The plot revolves around a visit from King George V and Queen Mary. The year is 1927, Mr Carson is brought back for the occasion, provisions are ordered in, the silver polished, but excitement turns to outrage when the staff realise they are to be big-footed by snotty palace staff. A minor revolt ensues. Mrs Patmore v a poncey French chef; Mrs Hughes v some trumped up imposter who thinks she owns the place? No contest! The story is a bit ridiculous really, but who cares when you’re bathing in the soothing familiarity of Downton Abbey’s comforting furnishings and well-loved characters. Have these critics never heard of suspending disbelief?

It’s good to see Phyllis Logan given the opportunity to play up a bit. Housekeeper Mrs Hughes is normally a byword for propriety and caution, but when it comes to being usurped by a hatchet faced royal servant, she’s more than a match for her and she gets some great lines. I asked her what she thought of the film.

“It’s like an antidote to all the shit that’s going on” she says. “This is a frightening time. No one knows what’s going on. You can switch off for a couple of hours and be swept away by all the plush, lush scenes. It’s just a lovely way of forgetting the B word and relaxing”. She singles out John Lunn’s music for lifting the spirits and says the film looks even more spectacular than the TV series. She’s right, it does, and if you enjoy Downton Abbey it’s worth seeing the film on a big screen. Lord and Lady Carnarvon, owners of Highclere Castle, were at the New York premiere, says Phyllis. “The Earl said he’d seen perspectives on the castle he’d never seen before”.

What does she make of the reviews? “If you like Downton Abbey, it’s exactly what you’d expect” she says “it doesn’t pretend it’s going to be anything else”. And, she points out mildly, it’s knocked Sylvester Stallone and Brad Pitt’s films, out at the same time, into a cocked hat.  It took $31 million at the box office the first weekend, out-earning Rambo: Last Blood and space drama Ad Astra. Phyllis has been all over the world promoting it – Singapore, Hamburg, appearances here on Lorraine and Saturday Kitchen and then to the States for red carpet appearances. The cast have created a What’s app group, where they swap experiences. ‘What was it like getting back together again?’ and ‘what’s the reason it’s been so popular?’ are among the most frequent and anodyne questions. (I didn’t ask her either of those. Phew!)

I did ask her whether we will see more of Downton Abbey. We are reassured quite a few times in the film that ‘Downton will always be here’, the toffs reclining on the velvet sofas in smoking jackets while the workers beaver away below stairs and all’s right with the world. The last line of the film goes to Elsie Hughes, as she strolls arm in arm down the drive with Mr Carson, and it leaves the possibility of a return tantalisingly open-ended. “Gareth Neame (the producer) was asked about that and he didn’t say ‘yes’ but he didn’t say ‘no’ either” says Phyllis. Nor has writer Julian Fellowes. “Nobody’s discounting it” she says.

What next for Phyllis? Currently she’s recording a voiceover for an animated version of Paddington Bear for Nickolodeon. “Mrs Bird, a Scottish housekeeper. I wonder how they thought of that?!” It’s be lovely she says, when it’s finished. Then she’s off to Glasgow to make a film, playing opposite Timothy Spall in The Last Bus ‘A heart-warming tale of an old man whose wife has just passed away,  and with his free local bus pass travels to the other end of the UK- to where they originally moved from- using only local buses’. Let’s hope there are lots of nostalgic flash backs.

Read more stories on The Chiswick Calendar

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