Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey

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I don't think you can ever expect a show to be as popular as Downton has become. It's got humour in it, it's got love stories, it's got sadness, you know, and that's what we enjoy watching.

ROSS COULTHART: Downton Abbey is the Yorkshire country estate of the fictional Lord Grantham and his heiress wife, Kora. A time when the world was on the cusp of great change. But in this stately home it is a world clinging to tradition. Upstairs was a life of inherited privilege. Downstairs, a life where everyone knew their place.

Joanne Froggatt: As a housemaid you weren't allowed to meet men or have men back to the house. And if you were found cavorting
with any member of staff then that was absolutely not allowed.

ROSS COULTHART: Joanne Froggatt plays Anna, the head housemaid. Anna and the crippled valet Bates provide much of the simmering
love interest in the series.

Joanne Froggatt: It's just so lovely that people have really taken to their characters because Brendan, that plays Mr Bates, and I just love playing Anna and Bates. We did from the off. Our scenes are just so beautifully written and it's really nice to have a real slow burn for a love story. And it's not plain sailing. 'cause everything in our day moves so quickly.

ROSS COULTHART: Jo, promise me this, I can't bear it, all the way through the first series - the tension was palpable. Does it happen with Mr Bates in the second series?

Joanne Froggatt: Well...

ROSS COULTHART: Joanne's answer - later. Of course, the other star of Downton Abbey is Highclere Castle.

Lady Carnarvon: This house represents a sense of place. It's been here for 1,300 years, people have lived here. The gardens have been here for 1,300 years. And there's a sense of order and place within the house. Come and have a look at the library.

ROSS COULTHART: Wow, what an enormous room.

Lady Carnarvon: It's a wonderful room. You'll recognise it, definitely, from Downton Abbey.

ROSS COULTHART: Oh, absolutely. This features very prominently.

Lady Carnarvon: And that's quite reassuring in a world which is governed by five minutes and BlackBerries.

ROSS COULTHART: Where are we going through here?

Lady Carnarvon: A little secret door.

ROSS COULTHART: Oh, a secret door!

Lady Carnarvon: The children love it so I guess men will too.

ROSS COULTHART: I'm being taken on a private tour by the real lady of the manor...

ROSS COULTHART: Oh, I recognise this room.

ROSS COULTHART: ..the eighth Countess, Lady Carnarvon.

ROSS COULTHART: It's beautiful. And where do you sit?

Lady Carnarvon: I always sit over here and my husband sits there.

ROSS COULTHART: Gosh, with all your ancestors looking down over your shoulder. I love the fact that this is the home of the chap who discovered Tutankhamen's tomb...

Lady Carnarvon: Yes.

ROSS COULTHART: ..Lord Carnarvon. Sat here with Howard Carter,
the explorer.

Lady Carnarvon: Absolutely.

ROSS COULTHART: Are there books of theirs here on the shelves?

Lady Carnarvon: It's arranged like a normal library. I have so enjoyed reading some of those books and dipping in and thinking, "My goodness, Lord Carnavon, "this must have inspired him to go to Egypt." So I have done that. It was one of my sources for my research.

ROSS COULTHART: Lady Carnarvon has just published a book about the history of the house.

Alistair Bruce: In here, you've got the servants' hall. Now, in the servants' hall this is where they lived their lives, they eat, they met to discuss what had been going on. And they loved the gossip from upstairs. They lived for it because that was the centre of their lives. They existed to look after the family so everything that affected the family was the core of their lives.

ROSS COULTHART: If Downton represents a time when standards were maintained, the man who maintains them on set is Alistair Bruce...Well, you advise, don't you, on what you call 'protocol', what we'd call etiquette, on Downton Abbey? ..a herald to Queen Elizabeth and an advisor to the series.

Alistair Bruce: Downton Abbey would have the knives and forks laid out. You wouldn't have a spoon and fork at the top,

ROSS COULTHART: Alistair keeps an eye on everything from how the dining table is how the actors sit.

Alistair Bruce: They sat in what were called carving chairs. And carving chairs which had backs were not designed for you to lean back on. The back of the chair was so that the footman had something to push in and pull out. You would sit in with your body absolutely straight so you'd sit upright like that. And you'd just turn to you right and turn to your left. And you didn't do that because it's rude to the person there. And women, when they hold their bodies properly look so much more beautiful than they do if they're like that. You can be a beautiful woman like that. But if you do that you look fantastic! I don't know why people don't do it more! Protocol was second nature.

ROSS COULTHART: And this was because it mattered, it really mattered?

Alistair Bruce: It was because it mattered for people to conduct themselves in the manner that everybody else was conducting themselves. And it was all about standards and I think that there was an expectation on the family to behave in a very proper way in order that it was worthwhile for the staff to look after them. And the staff were terribly snobby.

ROSS COULTHART: The success of the TV series has reinvigorated Highclere Castle. Not so long ago it was slightly shabby and costing a fortune in upkeep. Now Highclere is booming as tourists flock to experience the real Downton and dress up for the occasion.

Helen Porter: Do you all recognise the entrance hall where we're coming in through is where they welcome Matthew Crawley the very first time in the first series? What's stunning about this is
you've got this incredible gallery.

ROSS COULTHART: So what is it about Downton Abbey? Is it nostalgia for that era?

Helen Porter: Everybody that comes on our tours, they all hanker for...they all say that modern life is too complicated. And too stressful. And when they see these kind of period dramas they are hankering after that simpler, perceived simpler life. It's this small community where everybody knows everybody else, where you are living close together and you have a support network.

ROSS COULTHART: The world of Downton Abbey, Edwardian England was a time of acute class consciousness - everyone knew their place. Now, for our friends here today, it's an opportunity to indulge in a piece of fantasy, to dress up, But the critics charge that the reality of Downton Abbey - the world it represents - was often very different.

Alison Light: My grandmother and two of my aunts were all servants and they hated it, absolutely hated it. They never had a good word to say. My grandmother was born at the end of the 19th century. You know, she looked back on her days in service as a kind of servitude.

ROSS COULTHART: Historian Alison Light says while Downton Abbey is a wonderful drama, it glosses over the ugly truth of servant life in Edwardian England.

Alison Light: There's lots of evidence for how mean and petty and vindictive the British ruling class could be, which shouldn't surprise Australians. If you fell ill, you'd probably be dismissed. If you got pregnant, it was instant dismissal. Even the dear old aging nannies, often made a great deal of in nostalgic films, they were usually just booted out, you know, not kept in the attic.

ROSS COULTHART: So the whole notion that being in service was being part of a glorified welfare state, was that real or was that just bullocks.

Alison Light: Yes, that's complete nonsense. There are lots of stories of people complaining about how badly they paid. How they expected you to feel, because of the glamour of working in a vast establishment, that should be enough for you, not getting any rise in salary for 20 or 30 years.

ROSS COULTHART: But not everyone is so 'down' on Downton. From the Queen's man, a different perspective.

Alistair Bruce: If you lived at Downton, you sort of existed
within a welfare state. If I'm working as a horny handed man
of toil on the farm in Downton I know that I will always have
a house to live in and I will never go without food because I'm part of the estate's community. And ultimately I look to Lord Grantham who will look after me and his descendent, the next Lord Grantham, will look after my descendants. That was something that worked throughout Britain. It wasn't always easy
but it was there.

ROSS COULTHART: In series two, the stately peacefulness of Downton Abbey is shattered by World War I. The world was in a dream before the war but now it's woken up. So this is the room
that was the operating theatre in the First World War?

Alison Light: It is. You'd never guess now, would you? It was full of the most extraordinary equipment by today's eyes with an operating bed here and chests of very basic medicines by what you expect in today's hospitals.

ROSS COULTHART: The fictional depiction mirrors real-life events. During the war, the fifth Lady Carnarvon, Almina, transformed the grand house into a working hospital. This bedroom became an operating theatre.

Alison Light: This was actually a proper working hospital with 30 nurses, a doctor and it took men back from Flanders,
from Gallipoli, from really horrendous battles when they were hardly able to wonder whether they should live or die.

ROSS COULTHART: Do you feel that Downton Abbey accurately represents that era?

Alison Light: It presents a face of it. I think I'm actually more proud of what Highclere was and what Lady Almina did
because they went out and contributed so much to so many people's lives. And Almina saved men's lives. She gave so much.
And she was not interested in some of the pettiness which creates a great program. But I feel our family looked outwards.

ROSS COULTHART: Fact or fantasy, it's all back for a second series this year. All that awaits. Is there any possibility that
Mr Bates and you might finally...

Joanne Froggatt: There's a possibility. Series two, there's a possibility. Like I say, they certainly move their relationship forward in their relationship. But, um, again, there's a few spanners in the works.