It was miserably cold and wet and muddy,” recalls actor Dan Stevens who, as Matthew Crawley (above), went from middle-class Manchester solicitor to heir apparent of the sprawling Downton Abbey in the first series of the much-loved period drama, and now finds himself in the trenches of the First World War for series two.
“The whole experience of filming in the trenches was extraordinary and overwhelming and very, very difficult. Until we got there I found it impossible even to conceive what life could have been like, then we got on set and the atmosphere… the horrific conditions…”
The trench scenes, which feature in the new series of Downton Abbey starting next month (the first series begins this Sunday on ITV1 Scotland), were filmed over five days in a field just outside Ipswich that, for the past eight years, has existed as a reconstruction of a British trench during the First World War. It was built following directions found in the British Trench Building Manual of 1916.
At the other end of the field, beyond the re-created no-man’s-land, lies another perfectly replicated trench, but one that is German. According to Taff Gillingham, who hires his “French” battlefield to film units and advises them on military accuracy, the two were very different, with German trenches built for comfort and permanence.
Such attention to detail is a hallmark of Downton Abbey, and the second series is as meticulously researched and accurately rendered as the first. When Matthew Crawley joins the war effort he becomes part of the Duke of Manchester’s Own regiment. Despite being invented for the series, the College of Arms designed a badge for the regiment that sits on the lapel of Crawley’s service khakis, which were, of course, made from original patterns.
“I’ve been doing a lot of research into what life was really like on the front,” said Stevens during filming last month. “I’m reading a book by John Lewis-Stempel called Six Weeks – the average life expectancy of a soldier of my class fighting on the front line. It is disturbing not only because of what these guys went through, but also because my chances of surviving the war are not looking good. I haven’t seen the scripts for the end of the series yet – every time I see [series creator] Julian Fellowes I try to smile.”
Understandably, the scripts for the new series are being very tightly guarded and even halfway through filming the cast weren’t privy to how the love triangles are resolved, the latest direction the entail has taken, and – most importantly – who makes it back from the front and who doesn’t. All the actors can do is hope that Fellowes has a soft spot for them and that the scripts keep on coming.
But everything Matthew Crawley learnt in adapting to life at Downton Abbey will surely serve him well on the front line. His heart was hardened, his spirit enlivened and his mettle tested, all of which may possibly help him get back to the comfort and finery of Downton Abbey safely. And of course there is his love for Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Despite their ups and downs, surely the course of their relationship will have to run more smoothly this time around?
Stevens is giving nothing away. All he knows is that he has been signed up for the Downton Abbey Christmas special, “Whether I actually make it to Christmas in one piece – or at all – remains to be seen.”