In this episode, Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) and director Michael Engler take you behind-the-scenes of that shocking moment.
But Robert's health isn't the only thing worth talking about...This week, love is in the air. Our Downton roundtable discusses Mary and Edith's escalating romances.
Jace Lacob (Jace): Masterpiece Studio is brought to you by Audible. For a free trial, go to Audible.com/Masterpiece.
Cora: What is the matter?
Robert: I’ve been having some pains in my chest.
Carson: Are you quite well?
Robert: Oh yes. Just a bit of indigestion.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to Masterpiece Studio.
The pressure’s been building for quite some time...
Robert: I’m dreading this dinner tomorrow.
Cora: So are we all, but we have to get through it.
Jace: ...but I don’t think anyone was fully prepared for this. Today, we’re talking about one of the most shocking moments in Downton history-- Robert vomiting blood all over the dinner table, and his guests.
Hugh Bonneville: My main concern was that I should be able to splatter Elizabeth McGovern sitting opposite me, because I thought it wouldn't be fair after six years if I (laughs) didn't at least get some blood on her.
Jace: We’ll continue our conversation with Hugh Bonneville, focusing on that jaw-dropping scene, and his final days as Lord Grantham.
We’ll also check in with the episode’s director, Michael Engler, for the behind-the-scenes story of Robert’s dramatic dinner.
But Robert’s ulcer isn’t the only thing worth talking about. This week, love is in the air:
Bertie: I suppose you’ve guessed how much I like you.
Edith: You don’t know me.
Bertie: I know you enough to think about you all the time when we’re apart.
Edith: That’s very sweet.
Jace: We’ll get the lowdown on Bertie and Edith, Mary and Henry, and Carson and Mrs. Hughes from our Talking Downton roundtable:
We’re joined by two of our commentators:
Melissa Kirsch, author of The Girl's Guide and contributing editor at SheKnows.com. And Melanie Hoopes, a storytelling coach and writer for Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing.”
Jace: Can I just say, “Oh, my God.”
Melissa: Oh, my God.
Melissa: You know, we knew that Lord Grantham was sick, right? Like we had established that. We were ready for him to fall ill. We were not ready for him to projectile vomit at Neville Chamberlain.
I mean, is this, is there something symbolic in this? It's like Lord Grantham stands up and vomits blood all over Downtown Abbey. You know, like what is this? Like...
Jace: Is the end of an era?
Melanie: There's so many of these images that are showing us that Downtown is kind of turning, losing its color.
Jace: There's something-- Something is in the air at Downtown.
Melissa: Yes, definitely changing.
Jace: Not just change but sort of an ending.
Jace: There's a sense of resolution hearing that this old life is coming to an end.
Melissa: Also, you know, as far as like packing so much into one scene, you know, Mary had to overhear that people had been lying to her about Marigold. And, you know, we know that hell hath no fury like Mary Crawley when she has an inkling she has been lied to.
Jace: Speaking of Mary though, I love Mary and Henry, and I love Tom as matchmaker and go-between between the two of them.
Melanie: Yeah, I feel like Mary and Henry, it's inevitable. I mean I love that Tom is kind of guiding and pushing them, but I feel like centrifugal force, they’re just gonna end up together and completely, fully blended.
Jace: I do love Mary at the pub.
Melissa: That is the scene in the pub where Tom basically says, "Get a room, you two." You know like, “Why don't you just admit you want to hang out?”
Tom: You are funny.
Mary: What do you mean?
Tom: The way you have to keep making reasons for why you’ll meet. You to watch him drive, you to have dinner with a friend. Why don’t you just say: “I’d love to spend more time with you?’"
Melanie: But that's their dance. I kind of want them to just do their dance.
Melissa: Right, you want the flirting.
Jace: You want the courtship.
Melanie: I do. I could draw it out for years. Take your time, people.
Jace: We only have four episodes left though.
Jace: Other couple this week: Edith and Bertie, who actually kiss in a very gorgeous scene in Edith's London flat. And I love the two of them together, too.
Melissa: I really feel the sort of realness of this love, I would say between them. The way that they have sort of fallen for each other, the way that he watched her getting the magazine out and running around, and sort of was impressed by her, and helped her.
Melanie: The helping is a wonderful thing, and I do feel like if this sticks, he will be again, just like Tom, a wonderful helper in the transition for Downton. I feel like he is-- you know because he’s an agent I just feel like he’s also going to be very useful to the family.
Jace: You know, I love seeing that Carson is just as persnickety in his marital life as he is in his professional life…
Melissa: Oh so painful.
Jace: ...And he really needles his new wife about everything from the knife needing sharpening, to her choice of bubble and squeak as an accompaniment for lamb.
Melissa: Could we have predicted that Carson would need to be mothered by his wife?
Melanie: We do know that she has a very strong character. I do predict the blow up is going to happen where she’s...she’s gonna snap.
Jace: So she sharpens that knife basically.
Melissa: Exactly. As Mrs. Patmore says, "I think the correct reaction is to say ‘Men’ and sigh."
Robert: Can’t we stop this beastly row?
Cora: I only wish we could.
Robert: Because I... I... I’m so sorry, I -
Dr. Clarkson: Thomas on his left side.
Isobel: Give me your napkins!
Clarkson: Everyone step back!
Jace (coming in over the chaos): In the wake of the astonishing conclusion to this week’s show, we’re bringing you the second part of our conversation with Lord Grantham himself, Hugh Bonneville:
Jace: We're gonna jump ahead now to Episode 5, which was crazy. But did you anticipate that the something that was coming was of this magnitude?
Hugh Bonneville (Hugh): Well when Robert had his stomach (laughs) his stomach ulcer problems towards the end of Season 5 and, you know, Robert thought the writing was on the wall for him and it turned out to be an ulcer and it all died down. And so when I first read it reappearing in Season 6, I thought, “Oh my goodness. This is a tired horse who's running here.” And I thought, “Oh it's going to be so obvious. He's gonna die in the final episode. That’s going to be the end of his story and the end of Downton.” And so when this particular incident came up in Episode 5, I thought it was a wonderful-- I wrote to Julian when I read it and said, “I think this could be a great moment of telly.” Because, it’s one of those pieces I had to read twice. I couldn’t quite believe it.
And certainly the reaction that we've had from people has been, you know, they're sipping their cup of tea and they splutter it as this happens because they didn’t-- They were patting themselves on the back, thinking, “Oh I know, yes, he's going to, you know, have a heart attack later on in the series.” But actually halfway through, this sudden eruption.
Jace: It's a really gruesome and unexpected twist that is brutally shocking. And you talked about sort of the initial reading of it, but can you just put me more into your mindset when you turn the page and get to that scene, what actually went through your head?
Hugh: Well I thought it was great because you've got this plot rumbling about the village hospital, and the fact that, you know, Robert needs the help of the local hospital is significant. We don't dwell on it and make any big political points about health provision. But it's...it was great, because it comes out of this formal setting where you think the plot is actually going in one direction and it's gonna be a big discussion with Sir Neville Chamberlin and suddenly you get this moment where it just literally all erupts.
We rehearsed it very thoroughly in a soundstage at Ealing a few weeks before we shot it. And the main challenge was trying to get the consistency and the color of the blood right. So we had a medical physician on hand to describe the way that blood pools when it's an ulcer that's bursting in the stomach. And so therefore it would be a very dark color when it first comes out, but the second gout of blood would be a brighter red because it's now pumping. So we spent quite a lot of time well in advance just trying to get that right, the consistency and the color.
And then on the day, we had-- ‘cause it took about an hour to reset the tablecloth so the rest of the cast were very nervous on my behalf, because I didn't wanna muck it up and get it wrong. Anyway, we had three cameras on it and we did it in two takes. And it was fine. But it was thanks to having some very good preparation that it didn't take all day.
Jace: How what was the actual practical effect?
Hugh: (laughs) Giorgio, our makeup guy, was under the table with a cup of red blood, two different cups of red blood. And we went up to the point just before I chucked it all up. And he handed me one cup. I, you know, put it in my mouth and then (makes noise), and then did the same with the second cup. And my main concern was that I should be able to splatter Elizabeth McGovern sitting opposite me, because I thought it wouldn't be fair after six years if I didn't at least get some blood on her. And on the second take, I managed to.
Jace: Amid the horror of it is a beautifully human moment when Robert thinks that he's dying.
Cora: I’m here, darling. Don’t worry I’m here.
Robert: If this is it, just know that I have loved you very, very much.
Cora: This isn’t ‘it,’ my darling. We won’t let this be it.
Violet: Here’s some water.
Dr. Clarkson: No. No water...
Jace: What was it like filming that particular element of it, given the sort of blood aspect?
Hugh: It was very-- It was as you say, it's rather a touching moment because Robert is confronted with his mortality. And who knows what's gonna happen in the minutes and hours following that moment.
So I think it's quite telling that in the moment of crisis, the truth comes out. And it is that he's always loved her.
Jace: Now Julian has said that you were his first choice to play Robert. What were the conversations, those early conversations like with Julian?
Hugh: It was very simple actually. We had been doing a movie called From Time To Time, which does star half the cast (laugh) of Downton Abbey. And I just asked him between setups one day, you know, what else he had on the go? And he said, “Well there's four or five things that I'm doing,” and described a couple of them. And one of them was Downton. I said, “That sounds really great.” It's, you know, one of those few environments where you can legitimately see a complete cross-section of society living and breathing. And so I said, you know, “I'd love to read it if and when it's ready.” And he said, “I do have you in mind for it.”
And as it happened when the script arrived about 10 months later, I was on the cusp of agreeing to do something else, but I loved Downton. And so I was in that rare position of saying well you better offer it to me now. (Laughs) Or I'm doing this other thing. And so they did. And this is before it was cast. And I said, “Who else are you, you know, thinking of?” And they said, “We're offering it to Maggie Smith.” And I said, “Good luck with that. She'll never do it.” And the rest as they say is history. (Laughs)
Jace: But did you have any inkling at the time that this would become what is has become? A worldwide cultural phenomenon?
Hugh: No. Not at all. One looks back in the same way that you look back on the storylines of Season 1 as being that world before the war where everything seemed to be more settled and safe. And there was a certainty about life. We had that same sort of innocent confidence in (laughs) Season 1, because no one knew about us. No one cared. We were just another film unit doing something, somewhere. And then the first episode was aired and the ratings started going through the roof. And by the second season, we were pulling paparazzi out of trees and, you know, having to shred scripts and all that. And so here we are six years later, which none of us would have thought.
And we were going-- We were due to finish last year, but Julian asked us to do one more arc, because he felt he couldn't quite bring it into land in a satisfactory way. He said it would feel too rushed. And so we agreed to stay on for one more. So it's been a very, very happy, you know, joy of a show to do with people I'm very, very proud to call friends. And the opportunities it's given us to be in a hotel room in New York with you, Jace.
Jace: I mean I have to say Season 6 is my favorite season since probably Season 1. What will you miss most about playing Robert Crawley?
Hugh: Gosh, that's a very good question. I don't know what I will-- I don't think I had a vast amount in common with him. I often say that if we met at a party, we'd have a nice chat for half an hour, but then I'd run out of things to say, ‘cause I don’t really share a lot of his lifestyle; I don’t hunt, shoot and fish. I think he's a kind man at heart, a character who has, I keep using this word, “compassion,” and trying to see the positive in other people on the whole. I shall miss that. I shall miss that quality.
Jace: What was your final day of shooting like? Can you set the scene a little bit?
Hugh: It was a scene between Lady Mary and myself and Carson and Mrs. Hughes. And it was Michelle and my final scene. So we were sitting there reflecting on the fact that our first scene had been together six years ago. And so that was quite poignant. And then Michelle gave this brilliant speech. And I could feel it was my turn coming up. And so when it did, when they turned to me, I just said, “What she said.”
It was a cop out.
And then actually rather sort of dully I then had to get into a pickup shot of me walking across the room in a bedroom scene with Elizabeth. Elizabeth wasn't there. I had this 1st AD lying in bed pretending to be Elizabeth. So my final shot was this one line walking across a room.
And then when I got back into the makeup trailer, and I'd been fine, you know, I hadn't sort of-- I thought, “Oh well, that’s just...that’s six years over, that's fine.” And then it was simply when I sat down in the makeup chair and I look around in the mirror where they've lots of reference pictures from 1926, '25. And I had a little speck of dust in my eye then. I thought “Wow, that's over now.”
Jace: Now that time has passed and you have wrapped. The final season's airing here in America, what are your emotions in terms of the show being over?
Hugh: It's like saying goodbye to a friend that you know, you've been through an awful lot together. We've all experienced a lot both on and off camera. We're all still pals and that doesn't happen very often. And but it was the, you know, it was the right time for the show to finish. So it'll be like a, I suppose, like a country I've loved experiencing. And, you know, seeing all the different facets of it. But it's time to go home now.
Jace: There's a speck of dust in my eye. Hugh Bonneville, thank you so much.
Hugh: Thanks, Jace. Thank you very much.
Jace: Michael Engler is Downton’s sole American director and he’s no stranger to big television dramas -- in addition to Downton Abbey, he’s also worked on Nashville, Empire, Six Feet Under, and many more.
I sat down with Michael to hear what went into creating one of the series’ most high-stakes scenes.
Michael Engler (Michael): Thanks for having me.
Jace: Could you talk a little bit about shooting that scene and what went into preproduction?
Michael: Well, first of all, there was a lot of discussion with the a technical advisor, a doctor who helped us really understand, first of all, what was happening exactly, what would have been happening with him. And also, given the period, given that it was 1925, how he would have been treated in terms of what the doctor would say, what the doctor would think to do is very different in some ways than what we know now or would do now.
Jace: These dining room scenes are traditionally shot on location at Highclere but did the blood splatter necessitate shooting it elsewhere or recreating that dining room set?
Michael: No. It necessitated several layers of a rubber and plastic sheeting wrapped over the top of the table. And we had to change the rug in there, which is a famous and extremely beautiful rug. And so once we had taken care of all of those things, they were comfortable with it. Then, the fact that we were using material and fake blood that would wash out and we kind of proved that to them on a couple of things.
Jace: How difficult was it in terms of direction to jump from the horror of the rupture to the emotion of Robert and Cora’s love?
Michael: It was so easy. I mean, the thing is, sometimes those moments, the moments that you worry most about, the delicacy of it, the emotion of it, everything, they take care of themselves because having just done that, having just witnessed it and her being sprayed by it and shocks by that and then running around and him bleeding and coughing up more blood, sometimes, those things, they take care of themselves because it’s more like being there than you’ll imagine it will be or then it would be if a lot of visual effects were being used. So you know in a way, it’s easy for them to imagine what it would be like for her to be holding him at the end.
I think-- I have to say there was an unawareness of it being their final season together. I think in some ways, they were already experiencing, “What would it be like, what's it going to be like when my husband of the last six years, I don’t see him anymore and vice versa?” I think very naturally, they have much affection for each other and so I think it was naturally very easy for them to play that scene.
Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey gifts, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers. And for more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content, check out the Masterpiece Studio podcast at pbs.org/Masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.
Masterpiece Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob, and produced by Nathan Tobey. Kathy Tu is our editor. Rachel Aronoff is our production coordinator. Special thanks to Barrett Brountas. The executive producer of Masterpiece is Rebecca Eaton.
Masterpiece Studio is brought to you by Audible.
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Jace: I have sworn off port because of this.
Jace: Have you done similar?
Hugh Bonneville: Actually no. I haven’t.