The new Downton Abbey film has again been written by Dorchester resident Julian Fellowes. Laura Harding meets the cast of the long-awaited sequel as they step into A New Era.
What better balm for a weary soul than a trip to Downton Abbey and back? Visiting the Crawleys again is like slipping into a hot bath or slipping into your favorite (1920s-style) slippers. Like seeing old friends or indulging in the most opulent of cakes.
It’s that feeling the cast of the hit ITV drama hope to bring to cinema when they return for a second stint on the big screen, Downton Abbey: A New Era, three years after the long-awaited first film, which made an office smash in 2019.
“Having worked together on and off for the past decade, never taking it for granted, we had slipped into a rhythm. Once we put the clothes on, you get into a certain rhythm,” the Paddington star said , Hugh Bonneville, who is back in his role as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham.
“But of course the pandemic changed that for everyone and so when we got together to do the reading and then the first day on set, I think we all really realized how much we had lucky in our industry to work, when so many thousands were not.
“And also I really appreciated the fact that we were on a show that was very well liked, maybe even more than ever, because we had received so many messages from all over the world, from people saying that they had revisited the show during lockdown, and that had been a comfort, and watching the show again reminded them of a simpler time, pre-Brexit, pre-Trump, pre-Covid.
“And so I think we all shared some kind of, if not a responsibility, an anticipation that we were doing something that would please many, many fans around the world and we wanted to improve our game and make it as good as possible. , so I’m crossing my fingers.”
The new movie Downton, once again written by Julian Fellowes, takes the family, as well as the staff who keep things running under the stairs, to 1928, at a time of major change.
The Dowager Countess, played by the fearsome Dame Maggie Smith, learns that she has been left a villa in the south of France by will of a man she knew many years ago, then half of the family decamps to the Côte d’Azur to investigate.
Meanwhile, Hollywood arrives at Downton when a film crew wants to use the big old house to shoot a silent picture.
While the old guard above and below the stairs thinks nothing could be worse than a bunch of horrible actors running around the square (ho ho), Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, sees the ‘advantage. The roof is leaking and the film will cover the bills.
Soon, the house is besieged by a large crew, including a director, played by Hugh Dancy, and two silent film megastars, played by Dominic West and Laura Haddock. But calamity strikes when the first “talkie” is released, forcing the Downton cast to find a way to bring their suddenly outdated film into the modern age.
“I hadn’t realized how quickly film went from silent films to talkies,” says Dockery, “and this is loosely based on the true story of this movie called Blackmail, which was originally a movie silent, then when talkies first came out, everyone was going to them.
“Also, I didn’t realize the impact it might have had on the actors at the time, so it’s so interesting to learn about the beginning of the movie and be a part of it as a character.
“I’m always really surprised by what Julian writes and I was quite surprised when I read that Mary involved herself in the film in ways she never could have imagined, but it was good suited to the character, it was something very new and very fresh.”
As Mary acquaints herself with the world of modern cinema, her sister, Lady Edith, played by Laura Carmichael, explores the new world of holidays in the south of France, as she joins the rest of the family to meet the current owners of the villa bequeathed to the Dowager Countess.
It’s the first time the world of Downton has traveled overseas and offered a whole new playground for actors.
“We were excited, obviously,” enthuses Carmichael, “because we got to go hang out in this beautiful place, but it was also really cool to see this part of the world at that time.
“Edith became interested in traveling with them so she could write an article about the rich and famous starting to have holidays and vacations in the south of France and it had become very fashionable, so you really see how fashion was going there and how the jazz era was there in France, so it was a lot of fun.”
“It was a way of opening up each character because they’re in this different environment, and it’s a more relaxed environment and things happen that wouldn’t necessarily happen at Highclere Castle (the place where Downton Abbey is filmed), so it was a wonderful device,” adds Elizabeth McGovern, who returns as Cora Crawley.
“And Cora shares a secret she’s been hiding for a very long time, and Robert loses his stiff upper lip.
“It’s the kind of thing that often happens to me when I read Julian’s writing – there’s more to the page than meets the eye, and it takes the whole team and everyone the actors come together for you to realize all the depth that’s really in this writing, which I don’t even know if he’s aware of when he’s writing.”
Downton Abbey: A New Era hits UK cinemas on April 29.