Jim Carter, Kevin Doyle, Imelda Staunton and Michael Engler
Going Back to Downton Abbey
by Jay S. Jacobs
Downton Abbey was served at the Philadelphia premiere party for the movie of the beloved TV series.
Show favorites Jim Carter and Kevin Doyle, new cast member (and legendary British actress) Imelda Staunton and director Michael Engler met with fans, doing a quick Q&A at a party at Stratus Bar on the rooftop of the lovely Monaco Hotel on Chestnut Street, before retiring down the block to see a preview screening of the film at the Landmark Ritz at the Bourse.
The Downton Abbey fanatics were out in force, many dressed in period clothing, eating hors d’oeuvres served by waiters dressed as butlers and bartenders dressed as scullery maids. A sense of anticipation pervaded the rooftop bar, waiting for the stars and the film. The show has obviously become a phenomenon over the years. So, what is it about the show that has inspired this kind of adoration?
“No idea,” Kevin Doyle, who plays valet-turned-teacher Joseph Molesley, good-naturedly laughed to me before doing the Q&A, “I’ve been asked that hundreds and hundreds of times. I have no idea. I don’t know if it’s a fascination with the period, or the aristocracy.”
“There’s no simple answer to that,” agreed Jim Carter, who plays Downton butler Mr. Carson. “Nobody has ever been able to come up with a simple explanation. It’s a combination of many things. It’s almost a romantic view of the past.”
“First of all, I think whoever you are in the world there is a way in,” surmised Michael Engler, an American filmmaker who directed several episodes of the series and now was behind the lens for the movie. “There is a character – or characters – that you can relate to. Aside from things that everybody can relate to, there’s all these odd little things about what life was like. It is fascinating to learn about, to see how other people dealt with things.”
“People like to go back to the safety and comfort of it,” Carter continued, “to a time when things seemed to be that everyone was in their place and satisfied with their place in life. Life was simpler. The upper crust was shown to be incredibly benign. The working class loyal and hardworking.”
“I think we’re looking back with rose-tinted glasses,” Doyle told me. “It wasn’t as easy as it looked. It’s also just the characters. The characters and the storylines. I think that’s it. It could be set almost in any period and any place. It’s the mixture of those characters which make it memorable.”
“Everybody is looking for love,” Carter said. “It’s about romance. Daisy the maid [Sophie McShera] is looking for love. Lady Edith [Laura Carmichael] is looking for love. Carson finds love. It’s a mixture of all of those things. It’s relaxing. It’s comfortable. You can simple down with it. Like I’ve said before, it’s like getting into a warm bath. We can relax with this.”
Now, the cast of Downton Abbey – or at least the ones who live downstairs – are drawing another bath. The TV series, which finished filming in 2015, has become a movie. Due to popular demand, the actors are returning to characters that they loved for six years.
This state of affairs was more surprising for some than others.
“We knew early on they were going to make a movie, so we were expecting it,” Doyle explained. “It was just a matter of getting us all back together again, which is quite a feat.”
Director Engler thinks that statement may be stretching it a tiny bit. “Not really knew,” he said. “Never really knew, and I certainly didn’t know that they would necessarily ask me to do it. It started to become clear at a certain point that the fan excitement for it didn’t seem to be dying out. So, if Julian [Fellowes] could come up with a story that he was excited to write, then I think everybody felt like they would make the effort to get together.”
Not only did they make the effort to get together, they picked up some new cast members on the road back to Downton. Perhaps the biggest name is British actress Imelda Staunton, who has played such classic roles as Miss Umbridge in the Harry Potter movies, her Academy-Award nominated lead role in Vera Drake and dozens of other roles on stage, screen and television.
However, it was not quite that big a leap for her to join the inhabitants of Downton Abbey. She felt at home “very quickly, because I’m married to Jim,” she laughed. “I’ve been with it for as long as he has. So, I felt very comfortable, but still very special. Very relaxing. Everyone was very welcoming, as you’d expect them to be. It was easy.”
Wow, married. How long have they been together?
“35 years,” Carter stated.
“And it took six years to get into this show,” Staunton said good-naturedly. “I had to work pretty hard on that.”
In fact, after I spoke with them, Staunton explained to the fans that they had made Downton Abbey a family tradition for years before she joined the cast for the movie.
“I didn’t have much choice, but yes,” she teased. “No. It was lovely. Sunday night, family entertainment. Our daughter was about 15. The three of us would sit down and watch it very happily. It’s a feel-good thing. Let’s face it, that’s what we all need, certainly now. This movie came around at absolutely the right time.”
Ironically, after waiting all these years to work together, Carter and Staunton didn’t really get to do any scenes together. It was a matter of classes. Their paths didn’t really cross. She was upstairs with the upper crust; he was downstairs with the servants.
“That’s how it is” Staunton teased.
“At home as well as at work,” Carter good-naturedly acknowledged.
“We wanted to travel to work together about three days and got quite over-excited about that,” Staunton explained. “Then, really, he’s at one end of the dining room and I’m at the other. I didn’t even get a glass of red wine out of him. He knows his place.”
Doyle certainly was happy to return to his role for the film as well. “It was a treat. It’s an absolute gift of a part.”
So, when did Carter and Doyle realize that they were part of a complete pop-cultural phenomenon? Carter allows the ubiquity of Downton Abbey sort of snuck up on them. When it originally ran in England, it did well, but wasn’t a huge success. It wasn’t until the show crossed the pond to the United States that it “took off like a rocket.” He knew he was in uncharted territory when he came to the US for a press tour for the second season – and people at the hotel recognized him by his eyebrows.
Doyle realized he was in a stone-cold hit when he appeared at the Screen Actors Guild awards and lots of the big stars – people that he was in awe of as a fan – started asking him if they could get selfies with him.
“Suddenly I was confronted by a thousand fans staring at me while I was staring at them,” Doyle said.
When talking to the fans, Carter told a story about that first US press tour. “We went to a reception at the British ambassador’s residence in Washington,” he said. “The great and the good of Washington behaved disgracefully, as if we were a boy band… A very large boy band. A senior citizen band. Then at 10:00 at night, we were whisked in a fleet of black, shiny cars to a private tour of the White House presented by the Obamas.”
The crowd whooped.
“Yeah, I remember those days,” Carter smiled, and the crowd laughed. “I feel the same. It was Michelle Obama’s favorite program. We thought, this is something special now.”
Of course, it was so special that it has attracted some of the great actors in Great Britain over the course of the series, and now of course for the movie. So, what is it like to work with some of the greatest thespians on the planet?
“Umm… intimidating,” Doyle told me, good-naturedly.
Intimidating, perhaps, but also very rewarding.
“I started as a theater director,” Engler said. “It was really very gratifying, because it was like my days in the theater, where they really want to work through scenes together. They like being challenged. They like being in a process where they’re experimenting and playing around with ideas.”
And Dame Maggie Smith, one of the greatest actresses in history? A woman who has had a celebrated acting career that has stretched over six decades. Someone whose career is so celebrated that the Queen gave her the female equivalent of a knighthood. Is it intimidating to work with her?
“Yes. Maggie can be intimidating,” Engler said. “But she’s also delightful and funny and smart. It’s only intimidating really because she is so good that you clearly want to do your best and come as prepared as you can be, not because she’s difficult.”
“Oh, she’s a sweetheart,” Doyle concurred. “She’s a pussycat.”
By strange coincidence, while making a movie about the royal family visiting Downton Abbey, a member of the royal family visited the set.
“The Duchess of Cambridge, who is a big fan,” Doyle told the crowd.
“Kate Middleton…,” explained local Philadelphia anchorwoman Rosemary Connors, who was moderating the discussion.
“The Duchess of Cambridge,” Doyle corrected. “We don’t presume to use those names. She was a big fan of the show. She was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. She insisted on coming to see the sets. We guided her around. She meant to stay for about an hour. She ended up staying all through, to the trepidation of security.”
So, what were the most memorable moments on set?
“Oh, now…,” Carter mused, excited.
“Your wife is next to you,” Staunton teased.
“Seeing my wife across the field with 100 horses was very memorable to me,” Carter acquiesced, then said seriously. “No, what I loved most, and it’s in the trailer so it’s not giving anything away, but I did have a walk up the gravel drive towards the castle. In my head, I’m Clint Eastwood walking up there. I mean, clearly, I’m a fat, old butler in a bowler hat, but in my head I’m Clint Eastwood. That was my moment.”
Staunton didn’t have to think a second for her favorite moment.
“Sitting on a stage working with Dame Penelope Wilton and Dame Maggie Smith,” Staunton said. “It doesn’t get better than that.”
Now that the Downton Abbey movie is on the books, there is just one more question. Will there be a sequel?
“When the series ended, everybody thought, ‘This is great, who knows, maybe there could be a film if it made sense,’” Engler said. “Then it started to seem like it was a steady groundswell. Everybody was willing to get together. This was a big, hard thing to pull off. Just to get everybody together after all this time in this same tight period of time. So, who knows? Never say never. There are no plans. It’s nice that people still love us so much that they want more.”
Copyright ©2019 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: September 21, 2019.
Photos ©2019 Deborah Wagner.