“I’m the most unpopular person on the set,” declares Downton Abbey’s historical adviser Alastair Bruce when RadioTimes.com meets him.
“Everybody is geared up and ready to go. The director knows how he or she is going to block the scene, the actors arrive with their hair all in curlers, everything is ready to go and I say, ‘No. It can’t happen like that, it needs to be like this.'”
Army Reserve Officer (soon to be Brigadier) Bruce is responsible for making sure hit ITV drama Downton Abbey is as historically accurate as it can be. He describes himself as a “policeman of protocol” and is constantly on set keeping an eye on proceedings to make sure nothing modern makes its way into a scene – such as the (much chuckled about) water bottle that spoiled a promotional photograph of Lord Grantham and Lady Edith in the run-up to the last series.
“The water bottle! That water bottle gives me nothing but pleasure because it was nothing to do with me. I was not there. When the stills team take over, the presumption is that I am not necessary,” he says. “But I think that if that’s it – if that’s what’s been nailed on my nose, and, hell, it’s a big nose – then I’m not too upset about that.”
“My role is really to be the guardian of the period,” he continues. “I suppose a lot of experts who turn up on film sets get sat at the back. It’s rather like having a framed insurance certificate at your place of employment. It’s there. You feel reassured that it’s there, but you never look at it. You never refer to it.”
His experience has been very different. “I find what’s been marvellous with Downton Abbey is that…they are genuinely keen to get the history right.”
“The producer backs me up. If I think something should be done then I generally go and whisper it in the producer’s ear. I know that my interruption will be manifest and it will lead to the shape of the final project.”
When it comes to Bruce’s whispers, they could concern anything from an inaccurate prop to incorrect posture, to a missing blanket…
“In this last season we had a bedroom scene and – this may seem completely irrelevant to you – they had an eiderdown with a sheet turned over it and just tucked in, and I said, ‘There has to be a blanket. You cannot film a sheet without a blanket’. I went to see the producer who said, ‘Get a blanket.’ And it delayed it for a considerable time. To be honest, it’s quite difficult to see that the blanket’s there! But it is there and it is correct.”
“I wasn’t that popular that day,” Bruce admits. “You know the atmosphere where long-trusted colleagues don’t really bother to speak to you? I had that that day.”
You can’t imagine anyone managing to stay annoyed with Bruce for long, though. He’s impeccably poised and polite. He confides that it’s the younger members of the cast struggle most with embracing the protocol of the past.
“If I may pick on young men, because I’m having to turn them into footmen who are almost balletic, young men tend to walk a bit…,” he says, jumping up and impersonating a teenage swagger, “and just we don’t want any of that.”
“I have to wipe that out and turn them into footmen, into the people they need to be. I think they find me quite aggravating.”
One person who no longer needs Bruce’s lessons in posture and poise is Lily James, who plays Lady Rose.
“She wins my sitting-down award,” says Bruce. “It took some time. We worked on it. If there’s a bit of shudder on landing they haven’t sat down right but she can sit on a low chair absolutely poised. It’s so beguiling to see it. She just looks glorious!”
Series five is released on Blu-ray and DVD today (17th November), and also features documentary The Manners of Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey returns for a Christmas special later this year