'Downton Abbey' Cast: It's More Fun Downstairs

Jan 3, 2013
Originally published on March 20, 2014 3:41 pm

With the third season of the sumptuously upholstered period drama Downton Abbey coming to PBS Masterpiece Classic on Jan. 6, Morning Edition's David Greene sat down with a half-dozen members of the cast to talk about what's in store.

For those who don't know the show, Downton Abbey is a grand English country house, a world choreographed by ritual and rank — where every person knows his place and everything is just so. It's home to an aristocratic British family headed by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, and his American-born wife, Cora.

But now, in the years after World War I, change is in the wind — rising and falling fortunes, social changes, characters adjusting to new roles both upstairs and down. Actors Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, who play the Granthams, joined cast mates Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Jim Carter and Rob James-Collier, who all play members of the house's sprawling staff, to talk class, character — and, of course, clothing.

Part 2 of this interview will be broadcast on Morning Edition on Jan. 4.


Interview Highlights

Elizabeth McGovern on the psychology of a rigid class system

"In today's world, we all live with the burden of feeling that anything is possible if we're only clever enough, smart enough, work hard enough. ... There is a ... disappointment if for whatever reason you haven't managed to earn a fortune or succeed in some huge way that you thought you would as a young person. And there's something, of course, marvelous about that — personally I wouldn't change that for anything; I wouldn't go back to the old way. But I think there was a comfort for people to a certain extent in knowing this is their role, this is their place. There's no pressure about it; you do the most wonderful job you can."

Hugh Bonneville, on losing the family fortune

"This was a world before financial advisers; if you had money, it made money — it was as simple as that, in that post-Industrial Revolution era. So this is the big crisis point for Robert and for the estate. But at the same time, he wants things to go back to — to the certainties that there were before the war."

Jim Carter, on Carson the butler's resistance to change

"He's like the fabric of Downton Abbey itself, really. He's unchanging. He thinks happiness is two footmen in the dining room, and women [servants] kept out of the dining room. So like Robert, they see themselves as the guardian of the traditions of the house and the honor of the house. He resists the forces of change. ... I think change is coming, but he can't cope with it very well. ... As Elizabeth was saying earlier, for some people, a static situation is a secure situation. That is his security. ... People like this are fairly institutionalized — as institutionalized as a long-term prisoner. Our lives are dictated by gongs and bells, and the rhythm of the day, [which] is dictated to us by the people upstairs. We live to serve them, and to make their world perfect, and Carson takes immense pride in that. ... And quite a bit of status goes with it, as well, so for a man of presumably fairly low birth, he's attained considerable status. And he'll protect that — and protect the family at the same time."

On the evolving character of Thomas, the malicious footman

Rob James-Collier: "The more I play Thomas, I've started to think about why he is how he is. And I think it's definitely rooted in his sexuality. We must remember this was a time when being [gay] was illegal, and it was also 'against God.' And it was a more Godly time back then. So you have society condemning anything to do with homosexuality, describing it as foul and twisted — and if society's being negative and aggressive toward you, I think it's only human nature to maybe react to that, as a defense mechanism, and be aggressive back toward society."

Joanne Froggatt: "He really explores Thomas' journey ... and you do really feel for him in Season 3. I think it's more explained why he is the way he is."

Carter on the details of life at Downton

"The art department and the props department do a fantastic job. ... Everything we use is genuine — the food is genuine. The menu is printed out in French, on the table in front of people for a formal dinner. And that's what they eat: mousseline of whatever-it-is."

Carter on Highclere Castle, which stands in for the fictional Downton Abbey

"We've put in the odd chair of our own, where theirs are too delicate. ... But everything is as you see it there. The big painting of a man on a horse at the end of the dining-room table is a genuine Van Dyck. It's the real thing."

On whether the costumes are uncomfortable

Joanne Froggatt: "Very. For the ladies, in Seasons 1 and 2, the corsets were very, very restrictive, very tight. So after 12 hours in one, you were really desperate to get it off and go home and put your jeans on. And I don't know how, as the housemaids, these girls did manual labor in these things. Because you can't bend in them. It's difficult to tie your shoelaces in one."

Carter: "The costumes, whilst they're uncomfortable to wear, they do dictate how you stand, how you behave. You can't slouch; you can't be relaxed in those costumes. And we have to remember at all times it was a very formal era; chair-backs were not for your back to rest on, they were for servants to pull out. You never slumped; you're always at attention."

On whether life is more fun upstairs or downstairs

Unanimously: "Downstairs!"

Bonneville: "No, we have plenty of fun upstairs — Elizabeth, what are you talking about? We get to shoot in a beautiful house, we get to play silly parlor games in between takes, waiting for the cameras to set up. But no, I'm sure there's a lot more banter and bread-roll-throwing in the kitchen."

McGovern: "This is just a rumor I hear."

Carter: "There's a formality to the scenes upstairs, which bleeds into the behavior [between takes]. You're spaced around a dinner table three feet apart, and being obedient English actors, we sit in our places waiting to work. There's not so much hurly-burly upstairs."

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Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Fans of the show "Downton Abbey" will recognize this voice.

LAURA LINNEY: I'm Laura Linney, and this is MORNING EDITION's "Masterpiece Classic."

GREENE: The actress introduces each episode of the period drama, which returns to "Masterpiece Classic" on PBS this Sunday for its third season. When Laura Linney stopped by for a recent interview, she left behind that opening welcome for our next guests, the cast of "Downton Abbey."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For those who don't know the show, "Downton Abbey" is a world choreographed by ritual and rank, where every person knows his place and everything is just so. The show focuses on a British aristocratic family, headed by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, and his wife Cora. It's set in the early 20th century, and following the First World War, major societal changes are rippling through the household - the family upstairs and the servants downstairs.

GREENE: We sat down with members of the cast to reflect on their roles and preview the new season. We'll hear in a moment from Jim Carter, who plays the devoted butler, Mr. Carson. But first, I wanted to start with the aristocrats at the top of the hierarchy at Downton Abbey. Hugh Bonneville, you play Lord Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern, you play Lady Grantham. You all don't do very much other than get dressed when you hear the gong of a bell. You eat, you drink, you socialize. I mean, does that - do you ever wish that you had a job or something?

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: I mean, I change clothes six times a day.

GREENE: You're busy.

MCGOVERN: And that is no means easy.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: You're very busy.

MCGOVERN: And I do my hair.

(LAUGHTER)

HUGH BONNEVILLE: No, it is a world that's removed from our world. Let's be honest. And I think there are very few aristocrats today who would live in such relaxed splendor as this generation did.

GREENE: I'm struck what you said right there. You said it's a world so different from our own world. I read something in the New York Times, a write-up describing things this way: How perversely comforting to turn our attention to a world where you will die where you were born and where the heroes are the rare overachievers who work their way up to butler from footman. Why, Elizabeth, is this comforting, in some way, to, you know, people today?

MCGOVERN: I think because in today's world, we all live with the burden of feeling that anything is possible if we're only clever enough, smart enough, work hard enough, that we can achieve any fluctuation in rank in society, and that there is a small disappointment if, for whatever reason, you haven't managed to earn a fortune or succeed in some huge way that you thought you would as a young person. And, I mean, there's something, of course, marvelous about that. I mean, personally, I wouldn't change that for anything. I wouldn't go back to the old way. But I think there was a comfort for people, to a certain extent, in knowing this is their role. This is their place.

GREENE: Your status is determined. You don't have to worry about...

MCGOVERN: Yes. There's no pressure about it. You do the most wonderful job you can.

GREENE: Yeah. Let's play a short scene from the new season. It's very early in the new season, so this is not going to be too horrible a spoiler, I promise. Our listeners in the United States are getting to watch. But this is Lord Grantham receiving some very unexpected, life-altering news.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) Are you really telling me that all the money is gone?

JONATHAN COY: (as Murray) I'm afraid so.

BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) The lion's share of Cora's fortune. I won't give in, Murray. I've sacrificed too much to Downton to give in now. I refuse to be the failure, the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out.

GREENE: You really start to feel your vulnerability at this point.

BONNEVILLE: Well, absolutely. And this is a world before financial advisors. And, you know, if you had money, it made money, and it was as simple as that in that post-Industrial Revolution era. And so this is the big crisis point for Robert and for the estate. But at the same time, he wants things to go back to the way - the certainties that there were before the war.

GREENE: I want to go downstairs. We spent time with both of you, Lord and Lady Grantham, upstairs at Downton Abbey.

JIM CARTER: We wondered when you were getting to us.

GREENE: I know.

CARTER: I mean, I'm standing here with this silver tray in my hand for an hour now, waiting to give you this glass of wine.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

CARTER: (as Carson) William, are you aware the seam at your shoulder is coming apart?

THOMAS HOWES: (as William) I felt it go a bit earlier on. I'll mend it when we turn in.

CARTER: (as Carson) You will mend it now, and you will never again appear in public in a similar state of undress.

HOWES: (as William) No, Mr. Carson.

CARTER: (as Carson) To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects that pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.

GREENE: Jim Carter, Mr. Carson, the butler, he seems least-adaptable to the changes going on around him at Downton Abbey and in the world.

CARTER: Yeah. He's like the fabric of Downton Abbey itself, really. He's unchanging. He thinks happiness is two footmen in the dining room, and women kept out of the dining room, resists the forces of change, which, I think, Carson, you're on the loser, there, mate. I think change is coming, but he can't cope with it very well.

GREENE: I like that you're talking to your character, there. That's (unintelligible).

CARTER: Yes, yes. Come on, Carson. (unintelligible) Oh, no, sir.

GREENE: But what makes him tick? Why so threatened by change?

CARTER: I suppose, as Elizabeth was saying earlier, it's - for some people, a static situation is a secure situation. That is his security. People like this would be fairly institutionalized, really, as institutionalized as a long-term prisoner. Our lives are dictated by gongs and bells and the rhythm of the day that is dictated to us by the people upstairs. We live to serve them and to make their world perfect, and Carson takes immense pride in that. He has tremendous pride in the service that he gives. And quite a bit of status goes with it, as well. So for a man of presumably fairly low birth, he's attained considerable status. And he'll protect that, and protect the family at the same time.

GREENE: Did you have to learn actual skills of etiquette for these roles? I mean, you know, which fork to use and how to starch a shirt, tie a bowtie. I mean, were there lessons, a schooling for you?

CARTER: All that is - we're spoon-fed that kind of information, thank God. But the art department and the props department do a fantastic job, and the authenticity of everything we use is genuine. The food is genuine. The make - the menu is printed out in French, on the table in front of people for a formal dinner. And that's what they eat: mousseline of whatever-it-is.

GREENE: And the building, it's a real house, a real castle, that...

CARTER: Yes. Highclere Castle - I mean, we've put in the odd chair of our own, where theirs are too delicate for someone like Hugh to sit on.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: I don't know why that came out, there. Sorry. But everything is as you see it there. The big painting of a man on a horse at the end of the dining-room table is a genuine Van Dyck.

GREENE: It's the real thing.

CARTER: Yeah, it's the real thing.

GREENE: The voice of Jim Carter, who plays the loyal butler Mr. Carson on "Downton Abbey." We also heard from Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, or shall we say Lord and Lady Grantham. They were not the only cast members who stopped by. Tomorrow, more voices, from the lowly kitchen maid to the conniving valet. Until then, you can test your knowledge of the inner workings of "Downton Abbey" with a quick quiz at our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.