It’s a familiar scene from Sunday nights – elegant women gliding down Downton Abbey’s sweeping staircase on the arm of a male suitor, ready for an evening of conversation, dinner and dancing. Lady Mary and the Crawley clan, however, are nowhere to be seen – and with good reason. Highclere Castle, the magnificent Berkshire estate that’s the drama’s beating heart, is having an evening off from filming to host the Queen Charlotte’s Ball, an annual “coming out” event for a handful of lucky debutantes.
“I just thought after the scene with Lady Rose being presented at court in Downton, it would be quite fun to bring the ball here for an evening,” explains Lady Carnarvon, who lives in the castle with her husband, son and two step-children. “I think there’s romance and a desire to dress up in all of us.” Lady C clearly includes herself in this, thinking it would be fun to borrow for the event the tiara made for Downton’s Dowager, Maggie Smith.
The 14 girls begin the evening in wedding dresses and tiaras (they later change into a ball gown of their choice for the “waltzing”) before taking it in turns to curtsey in front of the Queen Charlotte cake, a nine-tier extravaganza meant to symbolise their virginity. Special mention here must go to the trio of American debs who performed a “Texan dip,” an extreme form of curtsey that involves kneeling chin to floor, arms flung out wing-like behind them.
Each girl is accompanied to the ball by a “deb’s delight”, a male escort, handpicked by the organising committee for his high society credentials. “There were a few disasters in the past when we didn’t know where some of the boyfriends had come from,” explains Jennie Hallam-Peel, a former “deb” who now chairs the London Season, the organisation behind the event. “They got horrendously drunk, one or two of them being sick and we couldn’t have that. So they’re either brothers or cousins of debutantes, or godsons of parents who can vouch for them.”
It’s hard to believe that debutante culture still exists in an age where gender equality is such a socially and politically charged issue, but a glance at the girls mingling excitedly in the castle’s high-ceilinged saloon with their parents suggests that a certain sector of society (wealthy, country-dwelling Brits and mega-rich foreigners) will never tire of its lavish traditions.
Hallam-Peel insists that tonight’s girls are worlds away from the aristocratic young women who historically attended the ball (launched in 1780 by King George III and held more or less annually since) to be matched with moneyed bachelors. “It’s totally different. When I did the season, I was probably one of three girls going to university,” she explains. “By the time my daughters did it, everyone was going to university. I took over in 2001 and thought, ‘We’re going into a new millennium. We need to completely redefine the meaning of this or get rid of it altogether.’ ”
And so she launched an “international protocol academy” where 30 carefully selected students (girls are interviewed alongside their parents) spend 12 months being drilled in everything from “international office etiquette” to how to host the perfect dinner party to the logistics of starting a charity. At the end of the year, the debs who have “raised the most for charity” (and whose parents are willing to pay the £500 a head ticket price) are invited to the Queen Charlotte’s Ball.
Isn’t Lady Carnarvon concerned about alcohol-fuelled teens and 20-somethings running riot in her Grade I-listed home?
“Napoleon’s desk is tucked safely away,” she chuckles. “And we have a decibel limiter so if someone’s a really loud drummer, I’m afraid they’re going to get cut off.”
Back in the saloon, Highclere’s labrador, Bella, is eyeing up the Queen Charlotte cake as the debs shuffle back and forth, calling for last-minute adjustments to their dresses. Lady Carnarvon weaves around the room, fetching drinks and sharing anecdotes without the slightest hint of strain at welcoming yet another stream of strangers into her home.
Doesn’t she ever long to have Highclere to herself? She laughs. “I’d much prefer to go to someone else’s party but I love Highclere and I want it to be shown at its best. I want the guests to feel the wow factor.”
Downton Abbey is on ITV tonight at 9.00pm