Nine things that I found fascinating and inspiring on set at Downton Abbey
When I was seven years old, I removed the back of our family’s transistor radio to see what was there, and was fascinated by what was behind the pretty veneer. That was the beginning of my life-long fascination with understanding “How things work.”
I love seeing behind the scenes, and may explain part of my fascination with inspiration, metaphysics and psychology. Whenever I see something great and successful, I am always curious to know what goes on behind the scenes – the inspiration and thinking, the emotional climate, attitudes, thinking, the love – that makes it work so well front of house.
I am very blessed to be friends with Liz Trubridge, the executive producer of the TV series Downton Abbey, and you can imagine how excited I was when she invited me to visit her on location to see behind the scenes how they did their thing and how it all worked. So I went to the Criterion Restaurant on Piccadilly Circus on February 24th where they were filming a particular scene. It was two days before my birthday on 26th February so felt like a wonderful gift to be given. She then invited me to Ealing Studios two weeks later, and that is where we had our photo taken in Carson’s Pantry.
I got to sit in the producer’s chair and watch the monitors to see the scene being prepared, rehearsed and filmed. I spent two and a half hours at the Criterion being utterly fascinated by the whole process.
Here are nine particular things I noticed and was fascinated by:
- The sheer complexity of it all
26 weeks of filming, a third of the scenes shot at Highcleare Castle, a third shot in the studio at Ealing and a third of it shot at various locations, a thousand scenes to be planned, each filmed from several angles to be edited together in post-production. Continuity to attend to, transport and logistics, people, equipment, costumes to be designed and created, props, permits and goodness knows what else to organise. And all this for eight episodes, eleven hours of television for us to enjoy. My mind boggled with the sheer complexity of what had to be thought about, planned, organised and executed, and Liz amazingly oversees it all.
- A series of collaborations of amazing expertise
The whole is created through dozens of people’s elements of expertise, personal passion and brilliance. Everyone had their particular piece of the jigsaw and their niche of knowledge and expertise, each did what they loved, and there was an atmosphere of equality and respect for each other’s experience and expertise. I was particularly struck by Alastair’s role. He sat in a chair marked “The Oracle” and his role is to ensure the historical accuracy of the production. “You need to take the bread rolls off the tables,” he said, “In the 1920’s they would not have bread on the side plates.” Then he let Liz know, “No, they wouldn’t clink their champagne glasses together when they make a toast. In the Criterion, the glasses would be made of crystal and they would just smash so easily.” Wow. Then there is hair and make up, lighting, sound, photography, scenery to recreate, continuity and catering. Liz’s job is to listen to everyone and then bring all this together into a “seamless” – at least most of the time – whole.
- The incredible attention to detail
One of the successes of the series has been an incredible attention to detail that adds to the authentic feel of it. Several people are tasked with seeking out and buying authentic props and items from the era. In the art department, documents are painstakingly reproduced so as to look like originals from the period. Clothes are found, and if not found, designed from scratch and created to match the era. Furniture and kitchen items are made in the studios to look like originals. The love that goes into the authentic portrayal of that period astonished me.
- Everyone sees the whole in different ways
As the scene was being shot, everyone huddled around the monitors to get a cameras eye view of the scene, but it quickly dawned on me that everyone was noticing different aspects of the scene. Hair and make up were looking for shining skin and stray hairs. Wardrobe was looking at the wrongly hanging straps on the actresses dress. Alastair was watching for the glaring bread rolls and the clinking of the glasses. The director of photography was looking at the lighting. Sarah in continuity was looking for inconsistencies with previous takes. Everyone had a different awareness, and but Liz holds the vision, and holds the awareness of all of it, sees the whole and knows how she wants it to look and feel, and her job is to orchestrate all of the different views to create the vision she holds.
- The tedium and repetition of it
The actors had to say the same lines, dozens of times, in rehearsals, in takes, then filming the scene from different angles. The supporting artists were standing or sitting around for long periods before they were required to be on set. There is so much standing around and waiting. How did they keep their energy and enthusiasm up? How do they not worry about fluffing their lines after all that waiting? It dawned on me that part of being a professional is enduring some of boredom, and simply being able to stay present to what needs to be done in each moment and treating each moment as fresh and new.
- Encouragement to be their best
When I asked Liz about her role in the whole production, she told me, “I hold the vision. I see myself as being an enabler, helping people contribute their best to what we are creating and the great stories we are telling. As a result many people have been with us right from the beginning.” She told me this just two weeks into production for the fourth series. I suspect there is a very strong link between Liz creating an environment where people are allowed to be and do their best, and the fact that Downton Abbey has become one of the most successful TV series in the world, ever.
- A glamorous result often requires a lot of unglamorous activity
My energy had begun to flag after two and a half hours (I am still recovering from hepatitis, so I am forgiven!) but I know that when they wrapped for the day at 6-45pm, some of the crew would be packing and unpacking equipment back at the studio and would not finish their day until around 11pm. And I know their day started with another scene at Kings Cross St. Pancras station in London that started at 6 am. A long old day in a freezing London, and a vast amount of energy invested.
- We don’t see the rehearsals and preparations
I came away with the massive reminder that whenever we see any great or inspiring performance on in business, the stage or screen, rarely do we consider the “behind the scenes” work, rehearsals, activity and practice that has gone in to what we see “front of house.” Eleven hours of television will take months and hundreds of thousands of hours of work, discussion and decisions. I came away with a new and renewed awe and gratitude for those who bless us with excellence in any field, as I was reminded how much “unseen work” is invested in what we do see.
- Moments of magic
Somehow, all the planning, stopping, starting, and waiting around leads to something alchemical and magical being created. All the different strands were orchestrated to come together and make something that is greater than the sum of the parts. Everyone had their part to play in the magic. All the planning and hanging around suddenly comes together and creates what we witness and enjoy on the screen, but observing it from the distance, it seemed hard to imagine it would all come together. I honour Liz’s vision and confidence and her experience to know that it all will all come together in a beautiful way.
Thank you Liz for a peek behind the scenes and into your world, for you and your team’s gracious hospitality, and I look forward to another opportunity.
Oh, and by the way, I am not sure, though, whether I ever managed to put the radio back together again properly, but I don’t think anyone ever noticed.