8 Surprising Secrets From The “Downton Abbey” Set
Don't let the Dowager Countess get bored.
On the set of Downton Abbey, tucked within a nondescript soundstage in a sleepy London suburb, one can leave the bedroom of Lady Cora, countess of Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern), and in just a few quick strides, be standing in the sitting room for Downton's head of household Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan).
As many fans of the popular Masterpiece Classic PBS series already know, the upstairs-downstairs separation is reinforced by even more drastic geography behind the scenes. Highclere Castle, a stunning historic British manor in Hampshire, is used for upstairs scenes, while the downstairs ones are shot at Ealing Studios in London. But as BuzzFeed News discovered on a tour of the Ealing soundstage last summer, there are at least a few posh spaces mixed in with the utilitarian sets.
Along with Cora's bedroom, the office of the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) is just a few feet away from the storage room that houses a vast trove of muddy, smelly riding boots — a detail that might make the Countess apoplectic with revulsion. Sure, it's efficient for filming purposes, but it is still jarring to transition from the lovely, colorful living spaces of Downton's upper class to the stark world of the servants in just a couple steps. As production designer Donal Woods explained to BuzzFeed News, that is very much by design. "If you want shorthand for the look of Downton it's a black and white film downstairs, and it's a super technicolor film upstairs," he said.
Here are more fascinating behind-the-scenes details about the show BuzzFeed News learned from the Downton set.
1. The giant rack of bells is one of the set's most well-known attributes, but it's also one of the most out of date.
2. Lady Cora's bedroom also serves as the bedroom for Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), and Rose (Lily James).
By changing out a couple walls, and moving the fireplace, windows, and door, the same basic space serves as the sleeping quarters for all four of Downton's women. Woods said the bedroom floor plans aren't created willy nilly. "It's really the same as Highclere, in terms of where we geographically put everything."
3. The Dowager Countess' apartment is filled with papers, letters, and decorative touches in part because Maggie Smith doesn’t want to get bored.
4. Mr. Carson is a big fan of Dickens, Shakespeare, and poet Robert Browning.
5. Mrs. Hughes does not fool around when it comes to her evening glass of sherry.
The private space for Downton's head of household — called her "sitting room" — prominently features a rather impressive looking sherry and tea set. "I think we bought it, but it wasn't terribly expensive," said Woods. "It probably was expensive at the time, I should think. It would have been essential for a small sherry at the end of the day with Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes. It's either tea or sherry for those two."
Sometimes you can also see a calendar in the background, which Woods’ team found in an antique shop. “They're quite common,” he said. “It drives the poor continuity script ladies mad. ‘What day is it? Is it Tuesday?’”
6. The floors are real, and really complicated.
7. The kitchen's oven is made of wood, and its stove consists of functioning hot plates.
The seemingly cast iron oven that anchors Downton's vast kitchen is actually made of painted wood. "Everybody comes in and goes, 'Oh, where'd you get this?'" Woods said with a chuckle. "No one quite believes that the oven is made of wood." He even knocked on the door to underline his point.
The actors can, however, actually cook on the stove. "We got two hot plates, which really work," said Woods. "They're crepe plates, so you can actually boil a real kettle, and real steam comes out of it." The wall behind the stove even comes out so cameras can shoot over the food as it's cooking.