Creators of ‘Downton Abbey’ speak at Boston premiere

A promotional poster for 'Downton Abbey' (2019) is pictured. via IMDb

The Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline hosted the Boston premiere of the much-anticipated “Downton Abbey” (2019) movie on Tuesday, which opens in the U.S. this weekend.

In addition to the early screening of the film, the Coolidge Corner Theater also hosted members of the “Downton” team for a special Q&A about the creative process and bringing “Downton” to the big screen. Moderated by Coolidge Corner Theater Director of Development and Marketing Beth Gilligan, the lineup consisted of Julian Fellowes, creator of the series and writer/producer for the film, producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge and actresses Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore). Actress Laura Carmichael (Edith) also made an appearance before the screening.

Neame stressed that while “Downton” thrived as a television series for six seasons, its cinematic storytelling made a movie adaptation feel like a natural next step. “It always had a very high production value, television built for the big screen. It wasn’t a sort of precinct show where it’s going to be the office one week and home the next week. It was all cricket matches and Buckingham Palace … so we thought it could really fill the big screen,” he said.

While “Downton” is and always has been very cinematic, Fellowes also touched on some of the difficulties of creating a two-hour experience that brought back as many characters as possible without overloading the script. Series like “Downton” use the episodic structure to let multiple stories develop over the course of several episodes or even a whole season, so writing a script that would function as a standalone movie while still including “Downton’s” iconically layered story effect was, according to Fellowes, a challenge. 

“Everyone who’s in it,” Fellowes said, “has to have a narrative reason for being there, and I also obviously realized that all of the stories must be resolved within the film. And we’ve always had at Downton this thing of lots of stories going on simultaneously, that was the style of the show, which we were very keen would continue with the film … and there was a certain amount of kind of shoehorning it in, and I felt that we had as many of our characters in the film as we could service. And one or two people have to get left out, which was a sadness, actually, because some of them were marvelous.” 

Fellowes joked, “In the end, there’s a kind of limit to how many people we can get into the lift.”

Nicol and Logan chimed in on the reunion of the cast.

“Getting to do this story again was like going home. We kept in touch with each other — it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen each other in years and years, but putting the costumes on, and of course we had Julian on … it was just a joy to do it,” Nicol said.

“A credit to Julian that he not only writes wonderful stories, but he also writes wonderful characters,” Logan added.

While the “Downton Abbey” series seems to focus mainly on the ruling class of 1910s and ’20s England, it also succeeds in drawing particular attention to the trials and tribulations of the serving class as well, interspersing their stories with the more sumptuously rendered ordeals of the British elite. The film continues this tradition of portraying a historical moment that is changing rapidly for everyone, no matter their social class. In particular, a portion of the film explores head butler Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier) grappling with his sexuality in a time that persecuted him for it. Thomas was revealed to be gay during the series; in the movie, he enters an underground gay bar before the police raid it and arrest everyone inside. Fellowes mentioned that he and the filmmakers deliberately intercut this scene with a stately dinner scene to drive home the otherworldliness of this culture. “This was not a fun culture,” he stressed, “this was a dangerous culture, and you were living on the edge all the time.” 

Fellowes spoke of the timeliness of Thomas’ role during the Q&A, saying, “what I did feel about having a gay character was that we’re in a very gloom and doom period of a moment; everything’s terrible, everything’s awful, but some things are much better than they used to be.” 

Fellowes explained that when Thomas’ sexuality was first revealed during the series, he had received messages from fans appalled at the suggestion that homosexuality was illegal at that point in history. “I was getting letters from people saying, ‘Are you seriously trying to suggest that to us that homosexuality was a crime in 1913?’” he explained. “1913? It was a crime in 1963! And I thought it was useful, particularly now, that we should be reminded of how far we have come.”

Fellowes, Neame and Trubridge discussed the opulence and historical accuracy of the show, referencing the “Downton Abbey” exhibition at the Castle at Park Plaza in Boston, which closes Sept. 29. They explained that they had a historical adviser on set, Alastair Bruce (now the Governor of Edinburgh Castle), who informed them on all the historical aspects of the show. Liz Trubridge said, “As Hugh [Bonneville] would say, if he doesn’t know, he does a jolly good job of making it up.” In addition, Trubridge said that they brought a retired butler from Buckingham Palace on set to advise them on some of the large dinner scenes.

This lavishness and attention to historical detail not only translate well to the world of cinema; they seem to be what have made “Downton” such a worldwide cultural phenomenon. “I think we do, perhaps, have a certain nostalgia for that more polite generation in the world,” Fellowes said. So, while “Downton Abbey” may be far from revelatory, its depiction of a world in historical upheaval — a world that’s also filled with glittering parties, lavish dresses and rich detail — harkens back to a time that, it seems, we all might be a little nostalgic for.

“Downton Abbey” opens on Sept. 20. Maggie Smith crushes it.


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