It has been the theme tune to our Sunday evenings for the last six years. The thundering cellos, soaring strings, plucking double basses and the clinking chords of an echoing piano that herald the start of Downton Abbey have us instinctively drawing the curtains and nestling into the sofa.
But watching the score being recorded live by a 42-piece orchestra at the main sound stage at Abbey Road Studios, for the final episode at Christmas, no doubt generates different feelings for executive producer Gareth Neame, though he bats the suggestion away: “Ah, I’ve heard it all before!” he smiles.
The score by award-winning television composer John Lunn, brought to life every week by the Chamber Orchestra of London, is much more than a theme tune. It is a crucial part of the show’s success. It’s unusual, explains Neame, to have every episode of a series scored by a composer and recorded by such a big orchestra.
“Most British and American shows don’t use musicians at all,” he adds, “but John’s music is such an integral part of Downton, so we put the work, effort and expense in to have a lush sound.”
Laura Carmichael stands on the balcony while the conductor watches the episode on a screen, rousing his orchestra to play the music that has been written to accompany it.
“It’s so magical,” sighs the actress, who plays Lady Edith. “I didn’t think I would be so emotional, I thought I’d be fine but I haven’t been – I’m welling up! I remember after the first series, Michelle [Dockery, Lady Mary] and I both confessed to each other that we’d downloaded the soundtrack. It was just such a huge moment for us to have this successful series and the music is so evocative of that for me.”
“It’s one of the last things we do before an episode is ready,” explains Neame. “The music doesn’t just add atmosphere, you’re getting storytelling. If you’re very familiar with the show, you’ll notice that every character has their own theme, as does every storyline.”
“Unsurprisingly, mine are all sad,” adds Carmichael “Quite stringy… Today they’re scoring the final scene, with Sam [Bond, who plays her aunt Rosamund] and a person who I can’t name. It was a night shoot – we started at 1am and shot until 6am. Michelle was doing the clapperboard, Gareth was dressed as the maître d, and all of the crew were in costume.
“The last moment of Downton is a close-up on me, at 6am, trying to remember all the lines. It was a lot of pressure trying to keep it together but when they shouted wrap and we all had champagne, it was magical!”