Highclere Castle has always been one of the most compelling characters in Downton Abbey. The fictional home of the Granthams near York is actually only an hour outside London in Berkshire. And in this series the drama has moved even further south-east.
London has been hogging the limelight, largely thanks to Lady Edith’s risqué romance with smooth-talking married magazine editor Michael Gregson. Since they locked lips under a potted palm in a Piccadilly restaurant in the first episode, the Big Smoke has represented everything that is chic and alarming about the Roaring Twenties: everything that endangers the Granthams’ darling Downton.
Re-creating that decade isn’t always glamorous, as locations manager Mark Ellis reveals. Below, he walks us through the byways and hideaways of Downton’s London. Did he enjoy broadening his search into the metropolis? “I just see it as a challenge, although I do dread opening up the script and Highclere is in flames! Or if there’s a flood or a bomb drops on the castle…” One suspects the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, owners of Highclere Castle, might have something to say about that, too.
Location of Michael Gregson’s flat
Lady Edith’s lover’s flat is in London’s Notting Hill on a tree-lined street where the white stucco-fronted Victorian villas now sell for millions. The building the production had in mind had never been used for television before and placating the local residents’ committee and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s Film Office proved to be Ellis’s toughest challenge to date. Then he had to bring in furniture and redecorate. “They had to do a good job because everything is filmed in HD nowadays,” he tells RT. “We haven’t repainted it yet. They’re going to let me know in December if they want it painted back or not.”
West Wycombe Park
Doubles as Lady Rosamund’s home
The Earl of Grantham’s sister, Lady Rosamund Painswick, lives at 35 Belgrave Square, which is one of the grandest and largest of London’s 19th-century squares. It remains one of the most expensive districts in the world. Nowadays 35 Belgrave Square is empty, so Ellis filmed the interior scenes at West Wycombe Park, a National Trust property in Buckinghamshire. “It looks out onto beautiful fields, so we put up new curtains so the viewer can’t see,” he says.
St Pancras Station
Where Michael meets Lady Edith’s train
The restored redbrick, neo-gothic façade of St Pancras Station has long been a favourite with film and TV producers. It can be glimpsed in Shirley Valentine, the Harry Potter films, Bridget Jones’s Diary and Batman Begins, and more recently in BBC2 drama series Parade’s End and BBC1’s The Apprentice.
While filming inside the station, Ellis had to be careful to ensure no lights shone on the tracks to dazzle the train drivers. The noise was also a constraint: watch the scene again and you notice that Lady Edith says very little to Michael Gregson until they leave the platform.
Lincoln’s Inn Fields
Backgound to Rosamund, Edith and Rose’s evening strolls
Laid out in the 1630s, London’s largest public square was home to King Charles II’s mistress, Nell Gwyn – and the offices of solicitor Mr Tulkinghorn in Dickens’s Bleak House. The period houses make it the perfect backdrop, but its popularity with film-makers is also down to another, more pragmatic reason: parking. “Downton is a circus,” says Ellis. “You may find the most amazing location, but if you can’t get the 18-ton camera truck in, the costume and make-up trucks, the lights… you can’t shoot there.”
Lady rose’s tea dance in York
The tea dance Lady Rose went to in episode two, dressed as a maid, was actually shot in a Victorian music hall in east London. Hoxton Hall has been a gospel church, an air-raid shelter, a café for pensioners, a playgroup, a theatre, a wedding venue, an art gallery and a youth arts centre. “It was great taking Downton to Hackney rather than swanky Mayfair!” says Ellis.
Lady Edith and Michael’s first kiss
The Piccadilly restaurant where Michael Gregson wined and dined Lady Edith in episode one of this series has catered to London’s high society since it opened in 1874; Edgar Wallace, Sir Hugh Walpole, GK Chesterton and Bertrand Russell were all regular lunchers in the early 1920s. For Downton locations manager Mark Ellis, the tricky bit was blocking out the neon of Piccadilly Circus: “Reflections appeared in the period car window and we had to rig huge screens to deflect them. It was very windy so the crew had their work cut out!”
The Savile Club
Downton’s Lotus Club
Lady Rose first flirted with jazz singer Jack Ross in episode four at a jazz club in Mayfair – filmed at the Savile Club. HG Wells, Thomas Hardy and Rudyard Kipling were all “Savilians”. To this day women aren’t allowed to be members. However, a real-life Lady Rose might have danced there: men are encouraged to bring wives and female acquaintances to socials.
The Langdon Down Museum
Downton’s Ritz Hotel kitchen
This museum of learning disability in south-west London commemorates the work of Dr John Langdon Down, a Victorian physician who pioneered the study of Down’s Syndrome. For Downton’s purposes, it stands in as the kitchen of the Ritz hotel where in episode five footman Alfred endeavoured to impress fearsome French chef Escoffier. Just out of shot is a 15ft model ship weighing three-and-a-half tons, which had stood in the middle of the otherwise perfect tiled basement. “We had to get a specialist removal firm to move it inch by inch, says Ellis. “My goodness, it was nerve-racking!”
Downton Abbey series four concludes on Sunday at 9:00pm on ITV