BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. – When “Downton Abbey” returns to PBS’ “Masterpiece Classic” Sunday it’ll bear a pedigree more prestigious than the earldom it represents. The second part of the Emmy-studded miniseries assails the aristocratic Crawley family with World War I and all the social changes that swept in with trench warfare.
It was a massive upset when the tea-and-crumpet highbrows took home six Emmys last fall: best miniseries, best writing and directing, best costuming and cinematography, as well as best supporting actress for Maggie Smith, who plays the dowager countess with haughty spunk.
When ITV in England originally ordered the show, it was still a crap-shoot, says producer Gareth Neame. “There’s always that thing where you’re developing something and you think this may never happen, this actually, the odds are this will never get made. And then you do get the phone call and somebody buys the show.”
The series is written by Julian Fellowes, better known, perhaps, as an actor in productions like “Monarch of the Glen,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” “Shadowlands.” But Fellowes is also a writer, most famous for the film, “Gosford Park,” which was an “upstairs-downstairs” mystery directed by Robert Altman.
Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of the “Masterpiece” dramas, says it all began when Neame invited Fellowes to lunch. “They went out to lunch to discuss a project that wasn’t really working, and Gareth said to Julian, ‘Would you ever think of doing a television version, some kind of a take on “Gosford Park” for television?’ And Julian said, ‘Let me think about that.’ He thought about it, and we all ended up reveling in the glory of ‘Downton Abbey.’ ”
The series is shot in and around Highclere Castle, an impressive 1,000-acre estate designed in 1842 and located in Hampshire on Britain’s southern coast. “I rang Julian,” recalls Neame, “I said, ‘I’ve never asked you where (the story takes place), what was in your head? Which real country house, which stately home were you thinking of when you wrote this?’ So he said, ‘Highclere.’
“In fact, he had asked Bob Altman to use Highclere for ‘Gosford Park.’ Bob Altman, who’s obviously got a lot more clout than me, he said, ‘There’s no way I’m filming that far out of London,’ thus saving himself a fortune. But unfortunately, I didn’t have that clout. Anyway I went down to Highclere. I thought, ‘This is fantastic!’ But we do everything very, very diligently. Then we started a six-month process going up and down the country, looking for the best place. We looked at dozens and dozens and dozens of different houses, and, of course, ended up coming full circle and decided that what he said in the first place was right.”
Dan Stevens, who plays the well-meaning third-cousin who’s meant to inherit the domain, finds working in that environment exceptional. “It is an incredibly imposing and striking building,” he says. “And it’s kind of wonderful. We have a unit base with all our trailers set up about 200 meters from the house itself. And you get into your costumes and makeup, you get ready, and then you have this sort of 200-meter walk up to the house and you’re running the lines in your head. And it’s a wonderful preparation for playing those scenes in that enormous house.”
While Neame acknowledges that “Masterpiece Classic” has surveilled British aristocracy like this before, this one is unique. “Very, very few of them are original writing,” he says.
“And I think it’s the combination of Julian Fellowes’ outstanding writing, written in a very contemporary narrative, with original stories, with this extraordinary ability (of his) to spin 20 spinning plates all at the same time. It’s very modern, contemporary storytelling, but in a period setting. And I think audiences love this sort of social interaction, the way that these people lived under a different code from the way that we live now, the manners and the rules … they’re somewhat absurd to all of us,” he says.
“But yet we’re quite intrigued by them. And I think when you see storytelling that is written so confidently about that world, and so well acted as well, it’s really delicious to see the way these characters all sort of organize themselves. So I would say the show is closer to something like ‘Mad Men,’ where you have a period setting, but modern writing, than it is to a lot of the former ‘Masterpiece’ productions like ‘Pride & Prejudice.’ ”