Downton Abbey's Producer Reflects on the Show's Sets—and Shares What to Expect from the Movie

CQ chats with Gareth Naeme about Highclere Castle, above and below stairs, and more.

Aerial photograph of the Earl of Carnarvon's Highclere Castle, Hampshire
David GoddardGetty Images

Over the course of six seasons, Downton Abbey made us fall in love with its cast of inimitable characters: the delightfully acerbic Aunt Violet, the dashing Matthew, the earnest Daisy. But as much as the inhabitants of—and visitors to—Downton drew us in, so, too, did their surroundings. You could argue that over the course of the show's run, there was no more central character than Downton itself, played, if you will, by Highclere Castle, a Jacobethan estate in Hampshire, England.

"It’s a show all about this one environment, and everyone is interested in all the activities, but it’s all happening in this house," producer Gareth Naeme tells CQ. "we very much intended the house to be seen as a character."

And, lucky for those fans who are waiting with bated breath for Downton's debut on the big screen this fall, that won't change. "That continues into the movie as well, this very strong sense of place," Naeme promises. Ahead of the movie's premiere in September, CQ caught up with Naeme to reflect on the series and hear what's in store for Downton in its film debut.

Downton will look largely the same.

Though the series begins in 1912—the first episode famously opens with news of the Titanic sinking—and the movie picks up in the 1920s, viewers will notice very little change to the famous home. "The Abbey itself didn’t change very much from a design point of view throughout the series," Naeme says. "It benefited from increased technology, be it a gramophone or telephone or refrigerator, but the actual styling below and upstairs barely changed at all."

Instead, producers relied on glimpses into the world around Downton and changes in costume to reflect the changes in era. "Fashion was a big way we signaled that," says Naeme. "What was great about the era we were in is that all the ladies started off wearing corsets in the style of the Edwardian dress, but then by the 1920s, the corsets are gone and there are these more masculine, boyish looks to some of these frocks. And then we went places where you saw the modern world, like jazz clubs or restaurants, or when Edith worked at the magazine."

Downton served as a point of contrast to these, an unwavering symbol of what Naeme calls "the apogée of aristocratic England" in the mid-to-late 19th century. "The Abbey was always this sort of this rock."

Downton Abbey
In aA scene from the Downton Abbey film, the Granthams join a parade to welcome the King and Queen.
Ben Birchall - PA ImagesGetty Images



A royal visit sees the house all done up.

Though its interiors retain their sense of history, the film will see the staff at Downton pulling out all the stops to ensure it looks its best, as the home is graced with a visit from King George and Queen Mary. "It’s really the most important occasion that’s happened there over many years, so they have to really up their game and make the place more beautiful than ever before," says Naeme. "It’s just spruced up and looks better than ever before."

It's an apt occasion for the Abbey's move to the big screen, where its interiors can be seen in even more detail. "If you think of Downton as being one of the best looking, most beautifully executed shows, you imagine it’s now on big screen, it really has filled the big screen, and it looks even more lavish than it does on television," Naeme promises.

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The Downton Abbey cast.
PBS

Producers brought in royal experts to ensure accuracy.

Though the plot of Downton Abbey is, of course, fictional, its producers have earned praise for creating drama that remains true to its eras (more on that below). In fact, the royal visit in the movie was inspired by a real one the King and Queen took to a home n Yorkshire in 1912.

A royal visit involves a whole new set of rules, and movie producers worked with many advisers—including a former footman to Queen Elizabeth—to ensure such practices were accurately portrayed in the film. "One of the things people always loved about the show was there was a very strong sense that the protocol of it all was very correct," Naeme says. "A visit from the king and queen draws a whole different set of protocol, so it was good we had someone who had worked at Buckingham Palace who had that specific expertise."

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The kitchen at Downton.
PBS

Downton's servants quarters were recreated to a T.

Similar precision went into creating the downstairs at Downton, which, unlike the upstairs rooms, which were shot on location at Highclere, are actually a set. "The whole below stairs, we created," Naeme says, "because it didn't really exist anymore."

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Set designers made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the below stairs, drawing contrast between it and the upstairs. "As you'd know from seeing any real historic house, it’s remarkable that no expense would be spared on how they would decorate a state room," Naeme says. "And almost no expense would be spent at all on downstairs. Once you go through that door, it’s the plainest of plain walls, all scuffed. That’s one of the things our art department did was to make sure you even had all the scuff marks you get on skirting, foot marks on doors."

Downton producers change film style based on parts of the house.

To further emphasize this difference, producers dictated that even the style of filming be different between upstairs and downstairs. "You’ll always notice, both in the series and the movie, that the style of photography that’s used upstairs with the family is altogether more elegant and sedate and choreographed, while downstairs you’ll see more use of handheld cameras and it’s a bit rougher and edgier," reveals Naeme.

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The family in one of the "upstairs" rooms, shot at Highclere.
PBS

Mary questions Downton's future.

In the movie, Mary has taken over running Downton from her father, and she struggles with maintaining a historic home in a more modern era. "By the time you come into the 1920s, there’s a lot more challenge on these families financially and on what the purpose of these big stately homes was," says Naeme. "Mary looks to the future and she continues to ask questions about whether it’s all worth it. Does the future have a use for places like Downton?"

It's a question that comes full-circle in the history of real-life Downton: Highclere castle. The estate had been largely forgotten before the show, which revived interest in it—and, indeed, in historical preservation as a whole. Show creator Julian Fellowes was honored with an award from the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art last year for the attention his work draws to historic homes. It's a responsibility that Naeme shares.

"At the start, we were just trying to make a show to entertain people, but as a result of the success of the show globally, I have felt that we can really be a source of good for keeping interest in these extraordinary historic homes," he says. "The are an extraordinary historic asset. Almost all of them are open to the public and they're fascinating, so it’s a great way to spend a holiday."

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