It's High Time for Highclere

6th September 2019

Darren Royce catches up with the star of Downton Abbey, Michelle Dockery, as we celebrate the return of the period drama that became a global phenomenon…

Downton Abbey’s rebirth is providing a lesson in rich anticipation for a global fanbase of the most successful period drama ever created.

When it returns next weekend – this time on the big screen – Julian Fellowes’ project will have evolved once again, just like many of the actors whose status has been left impossibly high by their involvement. And yet, in almost every case, they came flocking back to be a part of what is now a UK drama institution, broadcast globally and roundly admired.

It’s not unreasonable to speculate that it was all in the plan for Fellowes, given that there was no significant endgame to the TV drama, and isn’t one to the film version either. “I haven’t killed off half the cast in a Coronation Street-style crash, so a follow-up is a definite possibility,” he admitted.

What is known about the movie is that a royal visit is on the cards. The imminent arrival of George V and Queen Mary provides a huge challenge for a house that has had its purse strings tightened, and is in need of remedial help in an attempt to return it to its former glory. Former head butler Charles Carson oversees matters on film, though the true mechanics of the operation, for real, meant over 150 scenes and almost two months’ worth of filming.

“The result is something truly special,” says Michelle Dockery, back to play the magnificent Lady Mary Crawley. “What I think all of us have missed in the time Downton has been away has been the ability it had to create drama out of such a wide variety of people and social classes. It was genius really in seeing this mish-mash of characters, settings and challenges all link in together in one life, and I think that’s really what engaged people. It’s like saying, ‘no matter where you are, what you do or what you aspire to, there is something here for you, because this is real life’, and people really bought into that. Ultimately, I think the approach was something new, and fast, and dynamic, and no-one had done that before in the same way.”

And it is that ability to shake up the period drama concept that is ultimately what has forged its success. In its tv version it used soap opera actors in serious drama, enveloped fast-paced storylines with longer-running ‘slow burners’, and even embraced an advert-interrupted Sunday night broadcast slot. All of these were moves staunchly against the typically sluggish BBC fare that had dragged this genre across British screens for decades.

As a concept, it proved that modern producers could cast drama of any subject to a thirsty audience if the presentation and delivery were strong. And while top-ranking celebrity fans of the ilk of Julianne Moore, Tom Ford and Gary Oldham have all clamoured over Downton’s beauty, its accessibility has crossed over as many varying social classes as you’d find present at Highclere Castle itself.

“I worked with Julianne on Non-Stop and every time I came on set she was tapping me up for information,” Dockery laughs. “I have always been in such awe of Julianne, and for her to be a fan of the show, it was just brilliant…”

Gary Oldman was another one. “It was at an event in New York and I was standing there with Laura Carmichael and he strode over and just launched into how much he loved the show. That was amazing. [And] I was blind-sided too by Tom Ford, before I even got to tell him how much I loved his clothes! He was like, ‘Great work on Downton!’ I know, as a proud actress, you’re meant to just brush these things off, but there are times when you just have to take the praise and be glad of it.”

While it was felt in 2015 that Downton as a tv entity had run its course, the way American audiences embraced the concept fuelled the prospect of a film version, and in Tinseltown reality is never far behind concept.

Consider as well the clamour to get access to ‘Downton Abbey: The Exhibition’. Its opening in New York followed Singapore’s lead, and while the recreation of Downton sets, from Lady Mary’s bedroom to Mr Carson’s pantry to the servants’ quarter provided an incentive to visit, what people were paying to see essentially amounted to a museum of early 20th century stately home artefacts. Regardless, the touring showcase proved hugely popular. Its next stop was Florida and this year it arrived in Boston.

“I think when America fell in love with Downton, that’s when we realised just how big the whole thing had become,” the 37-year-old actress admits. “You can’t really get any bigger than that, so much so that The Exhibition almost felt like it was at home even though it was several thousand miles away.”

Downton now joins an exclusive list of tv dramas that have been reinvented in film. From Sex and the City to Charlie’s Angels, Miami Vice to Mission: Impossible, The Addams Family to South Park, the opportunity very often proves itself worthy of outweighing the risk.

In this instance, Dockery believes the movie’s success will come down to scriptwriting expertise, just as it did with its tv predecessor. “Unless you have something totally solid in script and in plot, you have nothing. Julian Fellowes is such a remarkable scribe who can give 23 different characters full-bodied, soulful, profound and funny storylines – it is all a testament to his talent. He’s extraordinary.”

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