Five series in, and Downton Abbey remains one of the most successful and captivating dramas on TV, with 120 million viewers worldwide. In our August issue, we catch up with its stellar cast of actresses.
Whatever their place in the story – upstairs, downstairs, or in a lady’s chamber – women reign supreme in this most triumphantly successful of television dramas. Bazaar meets the stellar cast of actresses as they gather together again for a fifth series of the globally acclaimed show
The room is suddenly alive. 'Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)' is pulsing through the speakers and the ladies of Downton Abbey have started to foot-tap and hip-sway and, in the case of Mrs Hughes the housekeeper, perform an impressive shimmy, arms swinging at her sides, not quite the full Beyoncé, but not far off. Except she isn’t Mrs Hughes today, she’s herself, the actress Phyllis Logan, and for once she gets to wear a posh frock and be in the same room as her mistresses, Ladies Cora, Mary, Edith, Rose. They have all (well, nearly all; just Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton are missing) been meticulously arranged for a group photograph in the drawing-room of Firle Place in Sussex. Logan to the left, Michelle Dockery (Mary) central, Lily James (Rose) elegantly stretched on the floor – nine women in floor-length gowns – and the sudden wave of movement is like a painting coming to life. Finally, they are still and – click – they’re captured.
When you see all these women together, you realise how, both upstairs and downstairs at Downton Abbey, it is the women who rule. Carson and Lord Grantham are officially in charge of their respective domains, but there’s a growing sense in both places that the women are staging a kind of benign takeover, finding their roles in a mid-1920s Britain that is very gradually warming to the idea that women might, after all, have something to offer beyond child-bearing and adorning a dinner table, that they might have something to say.
Today, at least, there is plenty to say, and celebrate. Clad in white towelling robes, the actresses wander the old house’s corridors with hair in rollers, nails freshly painted, on their way to having shoes fitted or make-up applied. The atmosphere is ‘bridesmaids pre-wedding’, collegiate with a touch of schoolgirl frenzy. ‘It’s like we’re on a spa day,’ says Sophie McShera, who plays the kitchen maid Daisy. ‘I think it’s simply because they gave us these dressing gowns; we’re easily pleased.’ She’s right. They’re having a grand time, chatting in corners and curled up on sofas as though they don’t spend week after week on set together. But actually they don’t; upstairs and downstairs are filmed separately: ‘Most of Sophie’s scenes and all of Lesley’s [Nicol, who plays Mrs Patmore the cook] are at Ealing Studios and then I’m at Highclere [with the other aristocrats] most of the time,’ says Dockery. To be together like this is unusual and special, like a family reunion.
‘It’s lovely to be back on the show again,’ says Dockery. ‘And because it’s the fifth year, we find ourselves reminiscing much more. There’s a sense of nostalgia this year because we’re that much further on. And some pictures from the first series make us go, “Oh my God! We were so young.” We’ve all grown up together in a lot of ways. It’s a lovely thing, really.’
The high spirits are infectious. McShera and Nicol are having their picture taken and putting on a show. ‘War’s-broken-out face,’ says McShera, and they both let their smiles collapse and turn hangdog, morose. ‘Dog’s-dead face,’ and they sink even further into melancholy. A conversation about favourite smells reveals Nicol’s love of hardware shops. The photographer asks the pair to look to one side, into the distance, and Nicol can’t resist melodramatically lifting an arm, like a soprano about to launch into song.
A little later, Nicol glows while talking about the Downton ‘company’, as though they’re part of a minor repertory-theatre group, not one of the biggest British televisual exports, now sold to over 220 territories and watched by an estimated 120 million people around the world. ‘Downton is like a big, silly family,’ says McShera. And you can see what she means: it’s home to actors of all ages and levels of experience working day after long day together for half the year. ‘I call Lesley “Telly Mummy”,’ she says, full of affection. ‘The youngsters are very grounded,’ says Nicol – there’s no need to keep egos in check, or tick them off for misbehaviour. ‘Generally speaking, they’re all very good.’ Anyway, the older ones clearly like to lark about just as much. McShera tells of a day on set recently when it was only women filming and ‘we were so naughty that day, just ruling the roost’.
For the younger actresses, working with the likes of Maggie Smith is a daily education. Not just in acting, but in how to be as an actor, how to behave. ‘I’m learning a lot,’ says Lily James, who plays Lady Rose, ‘about how to be one of the “good” actors. You’d hope that it’s natural to be a good person, and kind, but I’m learning how to deal with long, sometimes boring days.’ Michelle Dockery, who’s been on the show from the start, describes how she’s ‘grown with the role’. Her character, Lady Mary, always seemed sure of herself, but ‘it was a brashness that came from insecurity, whereas now it’s different, she’s very confident in her own skin, and I guess [that’s] the parallel, really, with my own life; I feel like I’ve reached a point now where I’m much more content and confident’.
Dockery has acted as a mentor of sorts to James, giving advice on how to deal with the various demands that come with a successful show – press, pressure, gossip, unflattering photos. James thinks she’s getting better at magazine shoots, but still has to steel herself for the red carpet. ‘You have to pretend a little bit… act like you’re super confident and sexy, when really you’re like, “My left tit’s hanging out!”’ Something’s clearly working: James recently played the title role in Cinderella, directed by Kenneth Branagh and to be released in 2015. McShera plays one of the ugly sisters: ‘It’s me and Holliday Grainger, and when I met her, and she’s really fit, I was thrilled.’ Downton has propelled the pair of them into a fairy tale.
They might be a varied tribe, the women of Downton, but they agree on one thing. In the form of Julian Fellowes, they have a writer who creates characters that continue to surprise, women who aren’t flippant stereotypes, only there to play wives or mistresses, but substantial individuals. There are no wilting damsels. ‘Everybody’s got a bit of backbone,’ says Logan, proudly. Lesley Nicol agrees: ‘The brilliance of Julian, really, is that he’s scratched the surface, allowed everybody to show their underneath stuff.’
‘He relates to the relationships of women and their strength,’ says Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna. She’s right – and it’s all because of his family. Fellowes has written before about the women in his life, a mother, grandmother and great-aunt Isie (an inspiration for Maggie Smith’s imperious Violet, the Dowager Countess), who were all fiercely powerful characters. ‘And I ended up married to a very strong woman,’ he tells me on the phone. ‘I think men are either comfortable with very strong women or not. Some men see strong women as reassuring and comforting, and others as threatening, and I come into the first category.’ He wrote Violet with Smith in mind before she was even confirmed to play the part: who else could deliver those asides with such skewering delicacy? And it is Violet, he says, who has resonated most with the show’s audience. He has been approached by an ‘enormous number’ of people who all say how much she reminds them of a mother or grandmother. ‘She’s a generic iconic character… women who had come through the war and had to hold it together. They became the totem of the family.’
‘Julian writes so well for women,’ agrees Dockery. ‘He’s got a very good way with families. We’re all very lucky that we’re playing roles that are very complex, not just two-dimensional and predictable.’ Lady Mary has developed into a formidable force, something of which Dockery is very much aware. ‘But,’ she qualifies, ‘she’s still got a complicated side to her which makes her more interesting. Now she’s a mother, and she’s lost her husband, and she’s really been through the mill. Now she’s at a point where she’s got to make decisions again about who will be the next husband and she’s enjoying that, and enjoying her independence. I love her attitude. She gets up and gets on with it and moves on.’
Five series in, and Fellowes shows no sign of stopping. ‘I would be amazed if there wasn’t another series after [this one],’ he says. There’s certainly enough material. The mid-1920s was a period of massive upheaval as the upper classes realised their lives would never return to their pre-war ease, and women and the working class saw society slowly open up. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, explains how Fellowes has a ‘sixth sense for character and… the politics of emotions, class, familial status’. It’s a good phrase, ‘the politics of emotion’, and it reaches to the core of what the show is about. This isn’t only a country-house saga, a soap with good costumes. These women are battling their way out of intensely restricted lives, and the experience is fraught. Whether it is Edith’s hidden pregnancy or the mysterious past of the new maid Baxter, the possibility of social collapse is alive in every woman’s life, whatever their position. Even Rose, who seems to live and love close to the edge and get away with it, is not secure. The high jinks of her flapper-ish existence conceal a more troubling truth: women were still expected to conform. As Claudia Renton, author of Those Wild Wyndhams, a biography of the three aristocratic Wyndham sisters whose lives spanned the period, says: ‘The glamour itself is dark, and vacant… this is freedom on reins. Bob your hair, be perky and sparky all you like, but watch you don’t go too far.’ Lucy Moore, author of Anything Goes: A Biography of the Roaring Twenties, agrees: ‘Just because huge social changes were taking place didn’t mean there wasn’t resistance to them: the flapper, for example, was seen as a dangerously destabilising creature and her jazz soundtrack was decried as immoral.’ Rose, like everyone else, is only ever one misstep away from ruin.
But the flipside of danger was opportunity. Before World War I, an upper-class woman couldn’t go out unchaperoned, except perhaps to ‘lunch in the Ritz with your mother’, Fellowes says. The war changed everything. Moore explains: ‘It made women, for the first time, active and autonomous participants in society; it was very hard to go back to the status quo ante, in gender terms as well as class terms, once peace had finally come.’ For a start, it became less exceptional for women to go to work. In the 1920s, says Fellowes, ‘if a posh woman was working at the National Gallery as an assistant… people no longer reached for their smelling salts’. It would be some time before most women gained true financial independence, but it was a beginning.
Women play just as significant a role behind the scenes at Downton as they do on screen. In the new series, the show’s executive producer Liz Trubridge tells me, there are two female directors: Catherine Morshead, who has previously directed on the show, and Minkie Spiro, who came over from Call the Midwife. Trubridge herself has been instrumental in Downton’s indefatigable rise since it began, five years ago, after a ‘very jolly time one summer’ spent hunting the perfect stately home with Fellowes and her fellow executive producer Gareth Neame. Now her role is managing the show’s success, overseeing casting and negotiating the international demand for the show and its actors.
Trubridge says that as far as producing goes, there are plenty of leading women in the industry. Directing is still dominated by men, but there are more and more women coming through. For the cast, however, Downton is almost unparalleled in its range and depth of roles for women. They are keenly aware that few shows offer similar opportunities, especially for older actresses. As McGovern says: ‘Women in their forties and fifties are very under-represented by all aspects of the media. There are not many stories out there, and that’s where Downton Abbey is so nice. Maybe that’s partly why people have embraced it as much as they have.’ Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, tells me a story of a French journalist who asked her the question anyone involved in Downton is endlessly asked: why is the show such a hit, what’s the secret to its triumph? Instead of answering, she turned the tables and asked him what he thought. ‘“Because it is full of women,” he said’ – Carmichael turns in a deft French accent – ‘and I was like, “God, you’re so right!”’
Fellowes can’t understand the lack of good female parts elsewhere in the industry. ‘So many of the legends of the industry are female,’ he says. ‘You have that period in the Thirties and Forties when, really, we remember Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and Rita Hayworth more than their male counterparts.’ But this, in a way, is exactly what he is exploring in Downton: the monumental effort that women have made for decade upon decade to move the world along. Not that it’s over. For Fellowes, it all comes down to a fundamental difference between the sexes. In his view, ‘Women grow up and men never do. There is always, in men, this kind of boy in the middle of him who must be nurtured and protected by the women in his life, and they must always make him feel that he is very talented or misunderstood or whatever.’ It’s not a very flattering picture of his own sex. But Fellowes’ point is that women, through sheer necessity, have learned to play countless different roles in life, half of them invisible to the naked eye. ‘And in that sense,’ he says, ‘even today, in 2014, being a woman is a performance art.'
The new series of Downton Abbey will air on ITV this autumn.