Break out the tissues – the end is nigh for Downton Abbey, a wrench for millions of us and, not surprisingly, for the cast and crew. I had the pleasure of serving tea to butler Mr Carson and his betrothed, Mrs Hughes, who both slipped elegantly and easily into their real-life personas of Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan and thoroughly enjoyed being waited on for a change.
“I was taken by surprise on the last day,” Carter reveals over a cuppa. “Unusually, the final sequence was the last thing we filmed. It was quite a muted little thing – candlelit, News Year’s Eve – there was a bit of sentiment about. The director said, ‘Cut! That’s a wrap for all the servants of Downton Abbey,’ and as ‘company uncle’ I thanked the crew, then I choked up… I filled up with tears, completely out of the blue.”
His eyes water as he remembers the moment. “Phyllis was a soggy mess – she was hopeless, as I knew she would be. But the guys on the crew were weeping. Big hairy guys… It was like a theatre company more than a TV job.” Downton’s housekeeper doesn’t demur. “August 12 is emblazoned in my head,” smiles Logan. “It was quite poignant – Auld Lang Syne and all that. Daisy the kitchen maid (Sophie McShera) was the first to go – she was crying during an actual take, but had her back to the camera. When Big Jim went, we’d all had it!”
They’re memories that speak volumes about something at the heart of this remarkable television success, which recently received a Bafta for its contribution to the industry; a company and crew comfortable with themselves, a brilliant script and an audience of millions glued to it for six years. “It took me back to the days when we first started. It reminded me of rep, back in the day,” says Logan. “There were strong bonds with the crew,” chimes Carter, “not just ‘Matey’ and ‘Darling’, which is so familiar in the business. That was a great benefit of it being a series. We were friends.” “A lot of them had been with us from the beginning,” adds Logan. “I am slightly in grief. It was a huge and major part of my career.”
In addition to a talented technical crew they’d grown to love and respect, there was a magical company of actors. “Having Dame Maggie Smith, I knew it had huge potential,” recalls Logan. “When I read the script, I immediately wanted to do it!” It wasn’t just the established stars, either. Cara Theobold, who played kitchen maid Ivy Stuart, was still at drama school when she auditioned for the part, and Lady Edith was Laura Carmichael’s first role. Was there a hierarchy behind the scenes as well as on screen? “Our job is egalitarian. I worked with Laura as an equal. There’s no hierarchy,” insists Carter. “And we know some who might be a wee bit haughty!” laughs Logan. “Never me!” booms Carter. “They might think I’m a silly old fart!”
It’s obvious that the camaraderie goes beyond the set. “We do a ‘Downton Cabaret’ for charities – Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) does a saucy Bang Bang, He Shot Me Down. We have a splendid Downton Gossip Calypso and Phyllis is a bit of a jukebox,” smiles Carter. But at the heart of it all is Julian Fellowes’s script, ably assisted by his historical advisor, Alastair Bruce. “Alastair is a charming polymath with a puppy-like enthusiasm – we called him ‘The Oracle,’” reveals Carter. “He loves to get in on the action. I remember a dodgy moustache – Lord Chamberlain at the Debutantes’ Ball, wasn’t he?”
But the narrative, with its sweep and willingness to grapple with the “big issues”, is Julian’s. “He was clever to set it when he did, in a period of big social change,” says Carter. “There were some areas where you couldn’t go too deeply. If a black jazz singer had arrived in north Yorkshire in the 1920s, folk would have fainted, screamed or called the police!” For Logan, there were echoes of her own life story. “Mine was a very working-class background. I grew up knowing about ‘haves and have-nots’. But the Grantham’s are a very benign lot – not everyone was like that – some were quite dreadful to their employees. But I’m not sure how Downton would’ve played if it had been harder.”
Sign up to the Radio Times newsletter for the latest TV and entertainment news