The World of Downton Abbey
The World of Downton Abbey: Up, Down & On Set
For The World of Downton Abbey, author Jessica Fellowes shares insights into the actors' experience and the production work behind the scenes that make the upstairs/downstairs distinction so seamless, successful and enjoyable.
Continuity Scenes in the servants' quarters and attic bedrooms were filmed at a set built at Ealing Studios, 60 miles away from Highclere Castle. The result? Some interesting continuity challenges: "For example, Thomas might be filmed leaving the kitchen with a plate of food for upstairs and would then appear two weeks later in the dining room!"
On the Set Joanne Froggatt (Anna) observes, "Upstairs is definitely quieter than downstairs! There are a lot of us in the servants' hall and it can get rowdy...It's like [Season 1 director] Brian Percival said, 'a swan on the surface with the legs flapping wildly beneath.' The scenes upstairs are calm, controlled, correct, and downstairs it's too busy for politeness — the pressure is heightened. We're beavering away downstairs, so when we go upstairs it's like putting your head above water."
On the Set Actors upstairs, however, do not experience the same effortless luxury as their characters. A single dining scene of a few minutes can take 10-12 hours to film, allowing for three to four takes per person. For Dan Stevens (Matthew), that means watching what you eat: "If you decide you're going to eat, say five mouthfuls of chicken, then by the end of the day you've had about 70 and it's cold and congealed."
Dialogue and Voice According to the production's dialogue coach, Penny Dyer, "The real difference in speech with a period piece is not so much the pronunciation of the words but that the height of the ceilings and the size of the rooms affect the voice. For example, those who work below stairs probably grew up with large families in a cramped household, scrabbling for space beneath the low ceilings, so their sound is pushed sideways."
Dialogue and Voice For those upstairs, the opposite is true. Jessica Brown-Findlay (Lady Sybil) explains, "I found myself speaking louder in the rooms because they were so much bigger. You felt 'I'm right' just because you were someone whose opinions would be heard."
Dialogue and Voice Rob James-Collier, whose character Thomas takes him upstairs and down, sums it up: "Below stairs I can relax a bit more in terms of posture and the way I speak. It's like putting on a telephone voice, when above stairs. It's definitely more measured and you just naturally want to adopt the postures."
After Hours The two sets, Highclere Castle and Ealing Studios created a sort of de facto upstairs/downstairs division among the set. Actress Zoe Boyle (Lavinia Swire), describes the experience among the actors at Highclere as similar to working in a theatre company: "We're all staying in a hotel nearby and we go and have supper and a glass of wine together. It's got a real company feel. Maggie is hilarious — she has us all in stitches."
After Hours For Siobhan Finneran (O'Brien), whose scenes take her between Highclere and Ealing, downstairs wins out. "I loved being at Highclere, it's an amazing place, but I just loved all the scenes around the table in the servants' hall. Because we all get on very well there's such a good atmosphere there."