Chiswick Cinema held an event to mark the launch of the new Downton Abbey film with Jonathan Maitland interviewing a panel of luminaries involved with the making of both the TV series and the films.
First we watched the film. The second full length feature film Downton Abbey – A New Era picks up exactly where the last one left off, in the mid 1920s. The Chiswick Calendar’s film reviewer Andrea Carnevali slightly damns it with faint praise by saying it will appeal to Downton fans. So I guess I’m a fan.
To be fair, I have watched all the episodes of all the series and now both films. I thought the first film was ridiculously far fetched and rather obvious, which no amount of lovely costumes and scenery could make up for, but this one was pacy and witty and fun. Just pure enjoyment. The audience was largely women of a certain age, who like me, laughed and cried in all the right places.
The truly remarkable thing is that to a man and woman, all the panel live within a mile of the cinema – actors Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) and Michelle Doherty (Lady Mary Crawley), director Simon Curtis, producer Liz Trubridge and designer Donal Woods. If ever there was a film Chiswick should claim as its own, this is it.
Jonathan Maitland hadn’t seen anything of the Downton oeuvre before. He also professed to finding it “moving and entertaining”.
Director Simon Curtis said:
“You always hope a film will come together. There are so many story lines. This adds up to more than the sum of its part, which doesn’t usually happen.”
The enduring popularity of Downton
Asked why Julian Fellowes’ drama was so popular, Simon – only involved with the series as a viewer until this film – said he thought it was the humanity with which he bestowed his characters that made it so engaging.
Liz Trubridge, who has been working on the Downton project from the start, added: “good stories, a fantastic cast and the feelgood factor.”
Phyllis Logan has also been involved from the start, playing the housekeeper Mrs Hughes from the first series. When she first was approached she thought:
“On paper this was bound to be moderately successful. Dame Maggie Smith was attached to it and so was Hugh Bonneville. Julian had won his Oscar for Gosford Park.
“I read a few pages of the script and thought ‘this is bloomin’ good you know’. I got so embroiled with the characters from the get-go.
“I thought ‘I know that kind of character. I know exactly what they’d do’. I was quite nervous because I thought ‘I really want to do this’.”
Part of the series’ appeal is the look of it. Liz Trubridge talked about touring England in 2009 looking for the right place to film it. They saw Highclere first but as the story is set in Yorkshire, they also looked at other houses.
“We didn’t want a Palladian Jane Austen house. We wanted something different.”
The luxurious look and the historical accuracy of the set
Donal Woods as designer, was charged with getting every detail exactly right. There is a funeral in this film, as one of the key characters dies. [Spoiler alert. The oldest character.]
People have been surprised the funeral did not involve a horse drawn carriage and copious amounts of flowers, but he told the audience, they found that by 1928 the smart thing was to have a car for the hearse and just a few bouquets of flowers in a stylishly understated way.
Every bit of furniture, jewellery and costume has been meticulously sourced. His research has even taken him to a lawnmower museum in Wales and the Post Office museum in London.
“His attention to detail is extraordinary” said Liz. “When we first filmed at Highclere I was trying to work out why the downstairs rooms looked so realistic and I realised it was because he had scuffed the walls so it looked lived in. Even the skirting board was scuffed.”
One of the main story lines in this film takes the family to the South of France. During lockdown they were having to think of alternate locations which could double for the French riviera.
“Liz was trying to persuade me that Gunnersbury house would be a possibility” said Donal, “but fortunately we got to go to France.”
Image above: Laura Carmichael and Michelle Doherty as Lady Edith and lady Mary
A life changing experience for Michelle Doherty and Laura Carmichael
Michelle Doherty said Downton had changed her life.
“None of us had any idea it would become so huge. I remember thinking it was an important audition. At the time I was living in a house with four girls that felt like a student house, though we were all a bit older than that. I remember exactly where I was then my agent told me and I had to sit down. It has changed my life.”
Laura Carmichael was plucked from obscurity for the role of Lady Edith. She had left drama school two years earlier and was working as a receptionist in a doctor’s surgery, being turned down for part after part. She too has found it life changing said Liz Trubridge.
Image above: Laura Haddock arriving on set as silent movie actress to film at Downton Abbey
The construction of Downton Abbey – A New Era is that there is a film being filmed within a film, an idea borrowed from Singing in the Rain. Dominic West and Laura Haddock (also west Londoners) join the cast as stars of the silent movie and take over the house, inevitably involving all its occupants. Their careers are on the line as talkies are just starting to be made.
“I really enjoyed the film within a film” said Michelle, “and the last 20 minutes. I sob every time.”
She refers to the death of Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham. (The film has been out for over a week. Everyone who cares will know by now!) Jonathan Maitland wanted to know who it was that had the courage to tell Dame Maggie Smith she was being written out.
“I wouldn’t be so stupid to break the news myself” said Liz. I was left to Maggie Smith’s agent. The great actress was very sporting about it apparently.
“Couldn’t I go earlier? I must be about 109 by now” is what she is reputed to have said.
The filming of the deathbed scene took all day, said Simon, and was particularly moving because many of the cast and crew had been together since the beginning of Downton and had grown together, playing a family in the drama but also bonding like an actual family.
Image above: Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter as Mrs Hughes / Carson and Mr Carson
Getting into character “like slipping into a hot bath”
The actors, who have now been working together for 12 years now, love coming back to their characters.
“It’s really easy to slip back into character. I love getting back into costume” said Michelle Doherty.
“It’s like slipping into a hot bath” said Phyllis.
I asked whether the characters ever invaded their personal lives because they have lived with them so long. “Yes”, said Michelle. She had been sharing a hotel room with Laura Carmichael and it was quite late. They wanted to go to sleep but the people in the room below were being very noisy.
“Right” she said, “I’m going down there” and marched downstairs to get them to shut up. Listening from above, Laura told her “you went full-on Lady Mary then”, which apparently had the desired effect.
When Phyllis asked her husband, actor Kevin McNally, sitting in the audience, whether she ever slipped into Mrs Hughes mode, he replied:
“When are you not Mrs Hughes?”
Downton Abbey – A New Era is still on at Chiswick Cinema.
Image above: Michelle Doherty and Maggie Smith as Lady Mary and Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham
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See also: All Andrea’s film reviews
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