This weekend, fans of the show “Downton Abbey” will get one last trip back to the elegant estate as the “Downton Abbey” movie hits movie screens all over the world. The hit “up-stairs, down-stairs” series and now film is set in the early twentieth century and was created and written by Julian Fellowes. I caught up with actors Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, better known as Robert and Cora Crawley the Lord and Lady Grantham, to reflect upon the show’s surprise success and their thoughts on heading back to Downton for, perhaps, one final time.
The show, “Downton Abbey”, was such a surprise success all over the world. With the premiere of the new film, did either of you have any sort of premonition that it would blossom into the cultural phenomenon that it has become?
Hugh Bonneville: I had it in my contract that it had to. Obviously, none of us had any awareness that it could. To the extent that even our own TV channel that commissioned the show, ITV in the UK, wasn’t keen on interviewing us or anything or helping us publicize the show. Because the perception was that this sort of period drama wouldn’t really fly or had any chance of getting off the runway. We might do a season, maybe two. There was very low expectations so it’s been an extraordinary feeling being here ten years later celebrating the show’s success in this way.
Elizabeth McGovern: It was such a strange sudden thing, to. I remember the first year I was sent on my own to try to promote it in America, it was on PBS which was really like coming through the backdoor. It wasn’t the first choice where you’d want to transmit any show, but we had this little period drama. I remember you couldn’t get all that many interviews, but the one I had was some morning talk show. The woman sat down and said, “So, what was it like working with Dame Judy Dench?” She totally got it wrong (laughs)! Then it was the next year that I went back to do it again and it seemed like everyone was obsessed with the show in such a space of time.
It’s almost like people slowly finding out about an obscure band?
Hugh Bonneville: Also I remember our friends at PBS Masterpiece telling us that what was beginning to astonish them or sit up and take notice was the fact that so many young people were watching it in that first season. I think, particularly, young teenage girls really got into the sisters and really identified with them. They wanted to spend time with these, if not role models, then these catty sisters they could recognize and identify with. It started to snowball from there. They realized the demographic was broader than was anticipated. You might think that a traditional PBS Masterpiece audience would be grownups or people that are in their senior years. Suddenly, there were teenagers and it brought a whole new breath of energy to the station and the support for the show started to spread through social media. The youngsters were gossipping online.
What were your memories of receiving your first scripts from Julian Fellowes all those years ago?
Elizabeth McGovern: I have a very distinct memory of our first read-through. Everybody was sitting around what had to be a ginormous table to accommodate us all. There was not very much discussion. I don’t think people had met each one another ahead of time. A lot of people had met each other over the years. We just started to read and it was so entertaining. I just remember thinking, “God, this is happening”.
Hugh Bonneville: I have a very vivid memory of reading it. This was before anyone was cast, I hadn’t even been offered the role. What really stuck in my memory was how vivid the characters were, immediately. They literally bounced off of the page. You could cover up the name of the character and you could tell who was talking. Which isn’t always the case. They all had distinctive voices and distinctive dynamics. By the end of the episode, I wanted to read more and there wasn’t anymore. I was really cross!
Did either of you have conflicted feelings around doing a film as opposed to doing one more season of the show? Or, moreover, were you conflicted about even revisiting Downton Abbey at all?
Hugh Bonneville: No, originally we were contracted to do three seasons and then they extended to five. We were all ready to wrap up with five and then we were asked to do a sixth. People ask what it was like to get canceled. It wasn’t canceled, it was extended! It was always a positive rather than a negative. I think the main feeling about the movie wasn’t should it happen, but could it? Because the logistics of getting us together was always going to be the biggest challenge. I said, “If everybody else is in, I’m in”. You trust Julian Fellows, our writer-creator, to look after the characters of the story. But the logistics side of things, that was the big hurdle.
Elizabeth McGovern: I think I was nervous about the idea of a movie. Because we had done something so special and people have a place in their hearts for it. There’s a danger that you are going to let them down or destroy that relationship. The idea scared me, but obviously, that’s why I’m not a television visionary. I couldn’t really personally see it, but they saw it.
Are you happy with this film being your last trip back to Downton Abbey? Would you return for another film or series if Julian asked you to?
Hugh Bonneville: Yes, if Julian says I’ve moved on and run out of steam with these characters. But I’ve got a secret feeling that he adores these characters, even though he’s got so many projects on the go. I think he knows this world so well and he cares about these characters so much that I could see him spinning another yarn.