The wait is over: Downton Abbey returns on the big screen

It is a crisp, clear morning at Wentworth Woodhouse, the stately home in South Yorkshire. Built by the 1st Marquess of Rockingham, it has the widest facade in Europe and boasts at least 365 rooms (no one is certain of the exact number).

This perfect specimen of English baroque is the setting for the new Downton Abbey film – in which George V and Queen Mary tour the north of England (which also includes a visit to Downton itself, filmed as usual at Highclere Castle in Berkshire) – and today they are shooting a grand ball at the home of the Countess of Harewood in the film, attended by the royal couple and Downton's Crawley family.

Many of the stars of the much-loved TV series have returned for the film version of Downton Abbey.Credit:Universal Pictures

Inside the house, a production unit zigzags in and out of huge vaulted rooms with cables and film cameras, while extras in 1920s ball attire chat nonchalantly on makeshift chairs. Meanwhile in the ballroom – a giant marble space, adorned with deep-red damask wallpaper and enormous flower arrangements – Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton (two of the stars of the original series) slip through the lines of dancing couples in diaphanous silks, as a small orchestra plays a waltz.

Michelle Dockery has make-up applied during filming on Downton Abbey the film.Credit:Universal Pictures

Away from the action, Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary (the eldest Crawley daughter), is sitting in her trailer, feeling slightly in awe of the whole process. "It was during my costume fitting when it hit me. I got really emotional."

Downton Abbey made Dockery and many of her fellow cast members international names. The ITV series, which ran from 2010 to 2015 and followed the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants, was sold to 220 territories worldwide, achieved a global audience of 120 million and was nominated for 53 International Emmys. In America, it became the most successful British drama import of all time. It also set the bar for costume dramas, at least in terms of visual sheen.
Everyone expected that a film would be made, but it was quite a feat getting the cast together.

"It was like herding cats," says Dockery. "But I just love it. It's so familiar and doesn't feel like work."

Despite rumours to the contrary, Maggie Smith is back as the Dowager Countess, famous for her withering put-downs, as are Hugh Bonneville's paterfamilias the Earl of Grantham, his American wife Cora (played by Elizabeth McGovern) and his two surviving daughters, Lady Mary, of course, and Laura Carmichael's Lady Edith. Others involved include Penelope Wilton's sensible cousin Isobel and many of the downstairs staff: Jim Carter's stentorian Mr Carson and his wife, the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan); Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), the plain-speaking cook with Escoffier abilities, and her protegee, the occasionally mutinous Daisy (Sophie McShera).

A selfie moment for Downton Abbey’s much-loved cast. Credit:Universal Pictures

When I talk to Fellowes though, he is adamant that a film was never inevitable. Rumours circulated about a prequel, following Robert's courting of Cora for her money and subsequently falling in love with her, but nothing came of it.

"When we finished the series we didn't envisage a film. We had a lovely party at The Ivy and everyone cried, but that was it as far as I was concerned. Then, as the years rolled by, there was a sense that people hadn't quite finished with it, and eventually we formed an idea for a feature film."

The royal causes much excitement below stairs, but the staff soon find the monarch’s entourage taking over.

The Downton Abbey film, directed by Michael Engler, is set in 1927, just over a year after the series ended, and focuses on the Crawleys and their servants as they prepare for a royal visit. It causes much excitement below stairs, but the staff soon find the monarch's entourage taking over – including a temperamental French chef (played by Philippe Spall) and a pompous head butler, played by David Haig, who refers to himself as the "King's page of the back stairs".

Other new cast members include Simon Jones and Geraldine James as the King and Queen, Imelda Staunton (real-life wife of Carter) as Lady Bagshaw, lady-in-waiting to the Queen and a relative of the Crawleys, and Tuppence Middleton as her mysterious lady's maid, Lucy.

Fellowes was inspired, in part, by a book called Black Diamonds by Catherine Bailey, which details a 1912 visit by King George V and Queen Mary to South Yorkshire. As well as tucking into lavish 13-course dinners, which included puddings served in sugar baskets that took four days to weave, they also met local miners and toured pit villages. Although the film is set 15 years later, the King and Queen did make similar, unlikely tours around the country, as Fellowes explains.

"After the First World War there was a period of unsettled feelings about things – not least the monarchy. It had to re-establish itself as many members of European royalty had disappeared – the German Emperor, the Austrian Emperor, the Tsar of Russia. The structure had to be restated as having an integral role in society and they [George and Mary] were very successful in doing so. By 1930, the Crown was back at the heart of English life."

For Dockery, making the film was not only a chance to catch up with old friends, but also to further develop a character that the nation took to their hearts.

"Mary is so complex. We met her at 18 and she was this rebellious teenager – she was bored, and because she was a girl, she wasn't what her father wanted [an heir to Downton]. Ultimately he became very proud of her, though, and I think everyone really responded to that. Seeing her journey was what hooked people."

Now we see Lady Mary very much in control, happily married (to Matthew Goode's Henry Talbot) and more than capable of taking over the ancestral pile when the time comes.

"Julian writes really well for women and I think that has something to do with his wife, Emma [a descendant of Lord Kitchener]. I see a lot of her in Mary, just her expressions and things," she says.

The film's 1927 setting marks a period in Britain when country houses such as Downton were beginning to feel the austerity of the interwar years. Death duties had to be paid and households streamlined, which meant that many servants lost their jobs.

It is pompous bollocks, but if you are recreating the ‘20s you may as well get it right.

Meanwhile, the general strike of 1926 underlined a growing sense of solidarity among the working class. In the film, however, there are no such concerns, and that reflects the point that Downton is in many ways a fantasy.

One criticism of the original scripts was that the Crawleys were too benign as employers, that the relationship between master and servant was much more remote, without any of the Earl of Grantham's well-meaning paternalism. Fellowes disagrees.

"This notion that people were horrible to their servants is wrong. Most of us, if you think about it logically, and putting aside the moral view that that life should exist at all, would want to get on with the valet or lady's maid. When you see a character snarling at his butler, you think this isn't a way of life. None of us would want to be in a position of speaking to people you disliked."

If Fellowes is the arbiter of psychological accuracy, then Alastair Bruce is the gatekeeper of protocol. He was Downton's historical adviser at the beginning and describes himself, among other things, as the posture monitor.

He explains. "The cast tend to put their bums here on the seat," he says indicating the back of his chair. "But in those days, you didn't – you would sit at the front. Also, [people's] shoulders have fallen forward because everyone is on their mobile phone all the time."

Bruce also helps the actors with their diction and mentions the word "room". Many tended to accentuate the "o's" when it fact it should be shortened, so they sound very nearly like a "u".
"It is pompous bollocks, but if you are recreating the ‘20s you may as well get it right," Bruce adds. "Michelle would quite happily let me describe her evolution in life as a long way from Downton Abbey, but I have some pretty grandiose friends who can't believe this is the case. I am very proud of the fact that she now has this incredible poise – you never see a curve in her back – and her accent is on point."

Several months later, I ask Fellowes whether he has plans for a sequel (although in truth, certain scenes in the film suggest a full stop rather than a pause). "There is never any point in answering that," he says. "In this business as soon as someone says that's the last time I'll put on my ballet shoes, there they are, a year later, dancing Giselle."

Telegraph Magazine

Downton Abbey opens on September 12.

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