Downton Abbey Keeps Calm and Carries On, Part One

March 21, 2018


On Thursday, February 8th we headed off to see the Downton Abbey exhibition at 218 West 57th Street (between Broadway and 7th Avenue). This show brings back memories of the remarkable TV series that portrayed the aristocratic Crawley family and their domestic servants from the years 1912 to 1926.


After paying a fee ($31) one enters the three-floor exhibit and is greeted by an image of the butler, Carson who is played with great majesty by actor Jim Carter. “Downstairs was very naughty,” he notes later on. “There were some very naughty people – not that I would name names…in fact, everybody was naughty except me.”

Before I go any further, I’d like to say, “Do yourself a favor and buy the Downton Abbey catalog ($20) at the gift shop. It is one of the best I’ve ever seen – just beautifully executed in every way. I will be quoting from it because there are lots of juicy bits that I’m dying to use.”


Gareth Neame, Executive Producer: “It was over dinner one May evening in 2008, that I first discussed the idea with Julian Fellowes of creating a TV series about an English country house with its family and servants in the Edwardian era.” My comment: The original release in the U.S. was 2011. We all wept when the series ended after six seasons.

Julian Fellowes, Writer and creator of Downton Abbey: “I was always drawn to the interdependent nature of the life being portrayed, where everybody -- the servants, the employers and the family members – all rely on each other to get through the day.”

Fellowes is very low-key about his role as “the writer” – I remember discussing the series with friends when it first appeared. We were all stunned when we learned that Fellowes was the one and only writer for the entire season. The man’s talent is dazzling.


The scope of this series is so vast that I’m only going to cover the displays that were of prime interest to me. Let’s start with the recreation of the kitchen – which is simply huge and has one of the longest worktables I’ve ever seen.

On the right in the kitchen, Mrs. Patmore, the cook and Daisy, the kitchen maid – photo courtesy of Downton Abbey

Mrs. Patmore, the cook (played by Lesley Nicol) had a short fuse and no wonder. There were up to eight meals a day to produce. This kept the family and servants well fed. For special guests the cook would meet with the lady of the house to discuss the menu, which often consisted of five courses.

The cook and her maids worked the longest days, keeping their own hours and even eating apart from the other servants. The kitchen was a hot, busy place to work. And then there’s this: “Downstairs, we’d get really bad costume envy if suddenly an upstairs character was around,” says Daisy, the kitchen maid (played by Sophie McShera).


Oh my heavens! The recreation of the Downton Abbey dining room took my breath away. I just stood and stared for the longest time. Then I started counting: Nine pieces of cutlery for each person, four glasses (all marked with the Crawley crest) and 14 place settings – staggering grandeur.

An incredible table setting in the dining room – courtesy of Downton Abbey

And the formality! Carson and the footmen remained in the dining room, standing silently by the wall. Seven courses were not unusual for a white tie dinner. Diners were served “a la Russe” – the footmen brought the dishes around. Each person at the table helped themselves from the left.

According to Mr. Carson, the butler, “You are a footman and a footman wears gloves.” Photo courtesy of Downton Abbey

When asked if he enjoyed the dining room scenes Hugh Bonneville, the actor who plays the aristocratic Lord Grantham, the patriarch of Downton Abbey says, “It’s no secret that any actor’s heart sinks when he opens a script and sees an interior dining room scene. I remember one scene that took three days to film.” Next week: more on Downton Abbey.


Shaun Nelson-Henrick

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