Bidding farewell to Downton Abbey

As the much-loved show prepares to bow out at Christmas, Keeley Bolger looks back on the six series of the top-rating drama

Bidding farewell to Downton Abbey

T’S been something of a long goodbye. Ever since March this year, we’ve known that this series of Downton Abbey would be the last (that is unless the rumours of a spin-off film come good...)

But before we bid adieu to those upstairs and downstairs, there is of course a Christmas special.

As ever, the programme makers are keeping mum on the major plotlines in the grand festive farewell, but what we do know is that the episode will see Mary (Michelle Dockery) trying to build bridges with her sister Edith (Laura Carmichael) following their showdown in the penultimate episode.

Elsewhere, Henry (Matthew Goode) is settling into his new role as husband to Mary and stepfather to her son, George, but is struggling to find his place at Downton; Carson, the butler, (Jim Carter) is facing some personal challenges; actors Lily James and Matt Barber return as Lady Rose and Atticus Aldridge, while Miranda actress Patricia Hodge makes a guest appearance as Bertie Pelham’s mum.

But if this isn’t enough Downton to see you through, ITV and TV3 are screening a special Bafta Celebrates Downton Abbey.

Hosted by Jonathan Ross, the one-off special gives an insight into the drama with behind-the-scenes access to cast and crew.

There will also be a skit performed by Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, and a performance from opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa (who made an appearance in the fourth series), before Julie Walters presents the Bafta Special Award to writer Julian Fellowes and the cast.

To pay our own respects, we look back on the six series and pull together some on-set secrets before the show bows out:

  • Before the series was given the green light in 2010, Fellowes had his work cut out convincing the rest of the team that the title was the right one. “The main hurdle was that we couldn’t call it Downton Abbey because the public might think it was about monks,” he says, but of course, those concerns were unfounded.
  • Events from Fellowes’ own life inspired the drama. Among them are the deaths of his grandfather and uncle in the First World War, his family’s rigid sense of etiquette, and a relationship he had in his youth with a Jewish beau that mirrored the experiences of Lady Rose in the show.
  • The first house (or let’s face it, palace) the team saw was Highclere Castle in Berkshire, and they immediately fell for it. But just to be safe, location scouts looked at 40 other castles before plumping for their initial choice.
  • While the upstairs scenes are filmed at the opulent Highclere (where, according to Bonneville, “Everything is real and valuable”), the servants’ scenes all take place in Ealing Studios in West London, and the village-based segments are done in Bampton, Oxfordshire. It’s no surprise the show has brought in a whopping £22 billion boost to the UK tourism industry.
  • In addition to any bought pieces, the wardrobe team made 251 costumes for series six alone, to ensure the ladies of the house were true to the Edwardian era, during which time women were expected to change outfits up to five times a day.
  • Downstairs, of course, it was a different matter. “Anna wears two black dresses, that’s it,” says Joanne Froggatt, who has played Mary’s maid in all six series and won a Golden Globe earlier this year. Elsewhere, the make-up team has crafted more than 1,000 wigs since the series began.
  • During the making of the first series, Bonneville was given a special brown towelling robe to wear to keep warm while in make-up. On the back, it has a now faded sign saying: “Hugh’s the daddy.”
  • As for maintaining manners, the cast turned to their on-set expert, their affectionately nicknamed “oracle”, Alastair Bruce, for pointers. He’s the man who made sure they kept their backs straight, pronunciation crisp and hands carefully folded in their laps during dining scenes, if they weren’t being used to cut up food. They were also instructed to leave their hats on if their characters were paying a visit to someone’s home.

“Otherwise you’d have the most appalling hat hair,” says Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley).

  • Downton has been a launchpad for many of its young stars: Dan Stevens, whose character ‘Cousin’ Matthew came to a tragic end, made his Broadway debut opposite Jessica Chastain in The Heiress and has starred in a string of films, including last year’s Night At The Museum; Jessica Brown Findlay, who played youngest sister Sybil, picked up the leading role in BBC One’s Jamaica Inn and appears alongside Daniel Radcliffe in Victor Frankenstein, while Lily James has played Cinderella on the big screen and will appear in the upcoming adaptation of War And Peace.
  • Like Harry Potter before it, the great and good of acting have all clamoured for a cameo in Downton. Over the years, Nigel Havers, Anna Chancellor, James Fox, Theo James, Tim Pigott-Smith, Paul Giamatti, Shirley MacLaine and Richard E Grant have all popped up.
  • Thankfully, there has been no shortage of drama over the series. Memorable storylines include Lady Mary’s scandalous bunk up with a Turkish diplomat who dies after their night of passion; Matthew’s car crash death just minutes after meeting his son and heir for the first time; the shocking sexual assault on Anna; Anna and Mr Bates’ fight to prove their innocence after being accused of murder; and Lady Sybil’s tragic end after giving birth to her baby daughter.
  • The opening episode for series six saw the show’s lowest ever viewing figures in the UK for an opening episode with 7.6 million, while figures peaked at 10.5 million for the first episode of series four.
  • As well as also being a huge hit in Ireland and the US, Downton is the highest rating UK drama of the past decade across any channel. It holds a Guinness World Record for the highest critical ratings for a TV show. Shown in over 250 territories, it’s also the most nominated British show in EMMY history with 59 nominations and 12 wins.

Bafta Celebrates Downton Abbey will air on Monday, December 21, on ITV; and on December 23 pm TV3. The final episode of Downton Abbey will air on Christmas Day on ITV and St Stephen’s Day on TV3

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