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8 Surprising Secrets From The “Downton Abbey” Set

Don't let the Dowager Countess get bored.

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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.

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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 The giant rack of bells is one of the set's most well-known attributes, but it's also one of the most out of date.

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The bells used by the upstairs residents to summon the servants have loomed over the downstairs dining room since the very first episode of Downton and they have proven to be incredibly popular among guests who visit the set. "There's a bell-maker in Derbyshire who normally sells one bell a week, and suddenly we wanted about 30," said Woods. "He nearly collapsed."

But, according to Woods, the bells shouldn't be there at all. After World War I, most manor homes switched their servant calling system from analog bells to electric lights, he said. "You just clicked over with a dial, and [the light in the servants' area] went from white to red. And you think, Oh, I'm wanted in the study. But everybody loves these bells so much, we haven't changed them."

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.

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"Maggie always asks to have something going on," said Woods. "It's quite difficult — a Dowager of that time and age wouldn't have really done much, really."

As a compromise, Woods filled the Countess' desk with bundles of correspondence to at least give the suggestion of how she fills her hours. "They'd have written a diary, written letters," he said. "I think sometimes Maggie wishes she could do something. But, they're quite restricted."

If Woods couldn't make it seem like the Countess' life is currently filled with activity, he could at least suggest that her past was. "She would have traveled a lot — probably around the world," he said. "So we tried to make it a broader, more eclectic feel, rather than just a solid English room." In turn, the Countess' apartment is decorated with an assortment of furniture and objects with Chinese and Indian design flourishes.

4. Mr. Carson is a big fan of Dickens, Shakespeare, and poet Robert Browning.

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Carson's (Jim Carter) office is lined with bookshelves that hold quite a collection of British literature, which Woods' team found at the monthly Kempton Market. "He's an educated man," Woods said of Carson. "He had a slight military background, and likes the order of things, and would read the right books and be correctly informed — but never got to make it in the world."

The office — which is technically called Carson's "pantry" — is filled with small personalized touches, including working inkwells which Carter often uses when his character needs to do some paperwork. There are also several photos of cricket matches, an homage to Carter's real-life interest in the sport, and a giant mounted fish on the wall. "We thought he'd have caught that, perhaps in his teens, and had it stuffed [as] his prize fish," said Woods.

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.

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The flooring on most sets is cheap, but there were enough shots of the floor of Downton's downstairs quarters that Woods' team decided to make the it look and feel far more like the real thing. They used irregular slabs of real Indian sandstone, which are laid out in an somewhat haphazard patchwork akin to how it would have been in the era.

After Season 1, the set was cleared and put into storage, but no one bothered to record where, exactly, those custom-cut stones were located for Season 2. "The same guys came back and thought, Oh god. We should have numbered it. This is so complicated!" Woods recalled with a laugh. They haven't made the same mistake again.

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.

8. And whenever Woods' team is stumped, they turn to eBay.

Nick Briggs / Carnival Film & Television Limited 2014 for MASTERPIECE

One of the plot points in Season 1 was the alarm Mrs. Patmore (Lesley Nicol) experienced after having to buy an electric mixer, which proposed something of a challenge for Woods' team. "We didn't know what it looked like," he said. "We thought we'd have to make the mixer, actually. I thought, Oh my god, who's going to have a mixer from 1918?" So they searched on eBay. "The first one comes up for sale. $90. It's someone in California; I think San Francisco. So we just rang him up, gave him a credit card, [and] it arrived in a box, cleaned up, thank you very much! You can, these days, find things all over the world."

Downton Abbey airs on Sundays at 9 p.m. on PBS's Masterpiece Classic.

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