'Downton Abbey': Not Much 'Hurly Burly' Upstairs

In the second part of his interview, David Greene talks to members of the cast of Downton Abbey. Its third season begins this Sunday on PBS.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yesterday, we brought you into the aristocratic world of "Downton Abbey." OK, cue the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF "DOWNTON ABBEY" THEME MUSIC)

GREENE: The show returns to "Masterpiece Classic" on PBS for its third season this Sunday. The British period drama follows the family of Lord and Lady Grantham, along with their faithful servants.

JIM CARTER: Our lives are dictated by gongs and bells, and the rhythm of the day. It is dictated to us by the people upstairs. We live to serve them, and to make their world perfect.

GREENE: That's Jim Carter, who plays the loyal butler, Mr. Carson. He stopped by our studios recently, along with other members of the "Downton Abbey" cast. We'll hear first today from the actress Sophie McShera, who plays young Daisy. She's at the bottom of the hierarchy in the household, toiling in the kitchen under the watchful eye of the cook, Mrs. Patmore.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

LESLEY NICOL: (as Mrs. Patmore) Go to bed when you're done.

SOPHIE MCSHERA: (as Daisy Mason) I'll go to bed when I'm ready.

NICOL: (as Mrs. Patmore) What's happened to you? Have you swapped places with your evil twin?

MCSHERA: (as Daisy Mason) I'd like to know where the new kitchen maid is. That's what you promised. They've got a new footman. Where's the kitchen maid?

NICOL: (as Mrs. Patmore) I know, and I'm sorry. But I spoke to Mr. Carson tonight, and they won't be taking anyone new on.

MCSHERA: (as Daisy Mason) Except a footman.

NICOL: (as Mrs. Patmore) I don't know how Mr. Carson managed it because his lordship's put his foot down. But you're called my assistant now, and you've seven shillings extra every month.

MCSHERA: (as Daisy Mason) You've still kept me here with a dishonest representation.

NICOL: (as Mrs. Patmore) Oh, dear, have you swallowed a dictionary?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Sophie, how much preparation reading, studying did you do to get ready to play, you know, a young woman kind of in this place at this time?

MCSHERA: I cannot tell a lie.

(LAUGHTER)

MCSHERA: I...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Don't tell a lie.

(LAUGHTER)

MCSHERA: We have an amazing historical expert, called Alastair Bruce, who tells us loads that we need to know. But I'm not a bookish actress that's reading lots of books about maids - which maybe I should be, but I'm not. And so I kind of know what I need to know, to get by. And when I don't know something, I'll just ask Alastair because he knows everything.

GREENE: Rob James-Collier, you play Thomas, who, I mean, I just - he's one nasty character.

(LAUGHTER)

ROB JAMES-COLLIER: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "DOWNTON ABBEY")

MATT MILNE: (as Alfred) I asked Thomas, though, to get to my...

JAMES-COLLIER: (as Thomas Barrow) I owe you - what's this?

MILNE: (as Alfred) The stuff you gave me to clean the tails, burned a hole in them.

JAMES-COLLIER: (as Thomas Barrow) No such thing. I gave you some soda crystals, that's all. If you used them wrongly, it's not my fault. This is what comes of making him run before he could walk.

GREENE: Thomas is gay, in the closet; you know, seems so heartless, so manipulating, so often. I mean, is he misunderstood in any way?

JAMES-COLLIER: I think so. The more I play Thomas, I've started to think why he is how he is. And I think it's definitely rooted in his sexuality because we must remember, this was a time where being a homosexual is illegal, and it was also against God. And it was a more godly time back then. So you have, sort of, society condemning anything to do with homosexuality; describing it as foul and twisted. And if society is being negative and aggressive towards you, I think it's only human nature to maybe react to that as a defense mechanism, and be aggressive back towards society.

GREENE: It sounds like this is something you've thought about a lot, as you've kind of decided how to play the character.

JAMES-COLLIER: Well, we've got a lot of time between scenes. So I thought, instead of procrastinating...

MCSHERA: We think about a lot of things.

GREENE: Be productive.

JAMES-COLLIER: Be productive, and actually think about my character for once.

GREENE: OK, that last voice there was Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas. We brought the rest of the cast in, at this point. As we go on, you'll hear Jim Carter, who plays the butler, Mr. Carson; later, the esteemed Lord and Lady Grantham, played Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern. But first, Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, the level-headed lady's maid. Now you, our listeners, sent us some questions on Facebook, and we tried out this one.

How uncomfortable are these costumes?

JOANNE FROGGATT: Very. (LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Yeah?

FROGGATT: Well, for the ladies, seasons 1 and 2, the corsets were very, very restrictive; and very tight. So after 12 hours in one, you were really, you know, desperate to get it off, and go home and put your jeans on. And I don't know how, as a - housemaids, you know, these girls did manual labor in those things because they - you know, you can't bend in them. It's difficult to tie your shoelaces in one. So - but season 3, the - because of the fashion change, the corsets changed as well, because the shape changed.

GREENE: I imagine it's hard to act in them, too. I mean, it's...

FROGGATT: Um, yeah. I should imagine, it's a lot harder to act in one on the stage. You'd have to be very - you know, careful how tight you had your corset so you could still breathe and project, and everything.

CARTER: The costumes, whilst they were uncomfortable to wear, they do dictate how you stand, how you behave. You can't slouch. You can't be relaxed in those costumes. And we have to remember at all times, it was, you know, a very formal era. Chairbacks were not for your back to rest on. They were for servants to pull out. You never slumped. You're always - certainly, the servants, you're always on the...

GREENE: Yeah.

CARTER: ...yeah, always at attention.

GREENE: Sophie, you play Daisy. You wear a very dirty costume, down in the kitchen. Are you washing that thing, or is it...

MCSHERA: I am, yeah. Mine's not that uncomfortable because I've been wearing it for three years, so I've stretched it out.

(LAUGHTER)

MCSHERA: But yeah, it's getting washed. I know I - somehow, I've told the world that I stink.

GREENE: You are here to declare that that is not true.

MCSHERA: (LAUGHTER) And I went out with a costume designer the other night, and she's livid with me. She said, stop telling everyone we don't wash our costume. And they do wash them, but they are - sometimes we film really long days, and day after day after day. So, you know, sometimes it might not get washed for two days, maybe. Maybe that's what I meant.

CARTER: But there is a bit of fashion envy between downstairs and upstairs, isn't there. I mean, let's face it.

FROGGATT: Not at all, Jim. Not at all.

(LAUGHTER)

CARTER: Oh, I've heard you, as you wear the same black dress for three years; and the hemlines are going up, and the bustles are reducing, upstairs.

GREENE: You just want to put on the tails sometime and look formal, exquisite.

CARTER: Yeah.

FROGGATT: I have to admit, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: So we have two of you from upstairs, and four of you from downstairs. Who has more fun doing the filming? Where's the fun?

VARIOUS CAST MEMBERS: Downstairs. (LAUGHTER)

GREENE: GREENE: It seems to be unanimous.

HUGH BONNEVILLE: Well, we have plenty fun upstairs. What are you talking about? We get a suite in a beautiful house. We get to play silly parlor games in between takes, waiting for the cameras to set-up. But no, I'm sure there's a lot more banter and bread roll-throwing in the kitchen.

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: It's just a rumor I hear.

CARTER: And there's a formality to the scenes upstairs - which bleeds into the behavior, I think, really. You know, the...

GREENE: Your behavior - I mean, as people up there.

CARTER: As actors, yeah, because you're spaced around a dinner table three feet apart and you - you know, being obedient English actors, we sit in our places. We're waiting to work. You know, there's not so much hurly-burly upstairs.

GREENE: It just doesn't seem right to throw an egg at someone, as a joke.

CARTER: Not really. I mean...

MCGOVERN: It's not quite the same.

CARTER: Although Maggie Smith's a bit of a tinker like that.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Well, thank you all so, so much for stopping by. And we've all gotten to know you onscreen, and it's been really, really fun to get to know you in person.

MCSHERA: Thank you.

VARIOUS CAST MEMBERS: Thanks for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: That was Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Rob James-Collier, Sophie McShera, Jim Carter and Joanne Froggatt, the cast of "Downton Abbey." And you can see the new season on "Masterpiece Classic" on PBS, this Sunday.

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'Downton Abbey' Cast: It's More Fun Downstairs

Hugh Bonneville (left) stars as Lord Grantham and Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, the formidable butler of Downton Abbey.

hide captionHugh Bonneville (left) stars as Lord Grantham and Jim Carter as Mr. Carson, the formidable butler of Downton Abbey.

Joss Barratt/Carnival Films

With the third season of the sumptuously upholstered period drama Downton Abbey coming to PBS Masterpiece Classic on Jan. 6, Morning Edition's David Greene sat down with a half-dozen members of the cast to talk about what's in store.

For those who don't know the show, Downton Abbey is a grand English country house, a world choreographed by ritual and rank — where every person knows his place and everything is just so. It's home to an aristocratic British family headed by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, and his American-born wife, Cora.

But now, in the years after World War I, change is in the wind — rising and falling fortunes, social changes, characters adjusting to new roles both upstairs and down. Actors Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, who play the Granthams, joined cast mates Joanne Froggatt, Sophie McShera, Jim Carter and Rob James-Collier, who all play members of the house's sprawling staff, to talk class, character — and, of course, clothing.

Part 2 of this interview will be broadcast on Morning Edition on Jan. 4.


Interview Highlights

Elizabeth McGovern on the psychology of a rigid class system

Housemaids Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and Ethel (Amy Nuttall) are among the teeming staff required to keep an English manor running. i i

hide captionHousemaids Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and Ethel (Amy Nuttall) are among the teeming staff required to keep an English manor running.

Nick Briggs/PBS
Housemaids Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and Ethel (Amy Nuttall) are among the teeming staff required to keep an English manor running.

Housemaids Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) and Ethel (Amy Nuttall) are among the teeming staff required to keep an English manor running.

Nick Briggs/PBS

"In today's world, we all live with the burden of feeling that anything is possible if we're only clever enough, smart enough, work hard enough. ... There is a ... disappointment if for whatever reason you haven't managed to earn a fortune or succeed in some huge way that you thought you would as a young person. And there's something, of course, marvelous about that — personally I wouldn't change that for anything; I wouldn't go back to the old way. But I think there was a comfort for people to a certain extent in knowing this is their role, this is their place. There's no pressure about it; you do the most wonderful job you can."

Hugh Bonneville, on losing the family fortune

"This was a world before financial advisers; if you had money, it made money — it was as simple as that, in that post-Industrial Revolution era. So this is the big crisis point for Robert and for the estate. But at the same time, he wants things to go back to — to the certainties that there were before the war."

Jim Carter, on Carson the butler's resistance to change

"He's like the fabric of Downton Abbey itself, really. He's unchanging. He thinks happiness is two footmen in the dining room, and women [servants] kept out of the dining room. So like Robert, they see themselves as the guardian of the traditions of the house and the honor of the house. He resists the forces of change. ... I think change is coming, but he can't cope with it very well. ... As Elizabeth was saying earlier, for some people, a static situation is a secure situation. That is his security. ... People like this are fairly institutionalized — as institutionalized as a long-term prisoner. Our lives are dictated by gongs and bells, and the rhythm of the day, [which] is dictated to us by the people upstairs. We live to serve them, and to make their world perfect, and Carson takes immense pride in that. ... And quite a bit of status goes with it, as well, so for a man of presumably fairly low birth, he's attained considerable status. And he'll protect that — and protect the family at the same time."

On the evolving character of Thomas, the malicious footman

Rob James-Collier: "The more I play Thomas, I've started to think about why he is how he is. And I think it's definitely rooted in his sexuality. We must remember this was a time when being [gay] was illegal, and it was also 'against God.' And it was a more Godly time back then. So you have society condemning anything to do with homosexuality, describing it as foul and twisted — and if society's being negative and aggressive toward you, I think it's only human nature to maybe react to that, as a defense mechanism, and be aggressive back toward society."

Joanne Froggatt: "He really explores Thomas' journey ... and you do really feel for him in Season 3. I think it's more explained why he is the way he is."

Carter on the details of life at Downton

"The art department and the props department do a fantastic job. ... Everything we use is genuine — the food is genuine. The menu is printed out in French, on the table in front of people for a formal dinner. And that's what they eat: mousseline of whatever-it-is."

Carter on Highclere Castle, which stands in for the fictional Downton Abbey

"We've put in the odd chair of our own, where theirs are too delicate. ... But everything is as you see it there. The big painting of a man on a horse at the end of the dining-room table is a genuine Van Dyck. It's the real thing."

On whether the costumes are uncomfortable

Joanne Froggatt: "Very. For the ladies, in Seasons 1 and 2, the corsets were very, very restrictive, very tight. So after 12 hours in one, you were really desperate to get it off and go home and put your jeans on. And I don't know how, as the housemaids, these girls did manual labor in these things. Because you can't bend in them. It's difficult to tie your shoelaces in one."

Carter: "The costumes, whilst they're uncomfortable to wear, they do dictate how you stand, how you behave. You can't slouch; you can't be relaxed in those costumes. And we have to remember at all times it was a very formal era; chair-backs were not for your back to rest on, they were for servants to pull out. You never slumped; you're always at attention."

On whether life is more fun upstairs or downstairs

Unanimously: "Downstairs!"

Bonneville: "No, we have plenty of fun upstairs — Elizabeth, what are you talking about? We get to shoot in a beautiful house, we get to play silly parlor games in between takes, waiting for the cameras to set up. But no, I'm sure there's a lot more banter and bread-roll-throwing in the kitchen."

McGovern: "This is just a rumor I hear."

Carter: "There's a formality to the scenes upstairs, which bleeds into the behavior [between takes]. You're spaced around a dinner table three feet apart, and being obedient English actors, we sit in our places waiting to work. There's not so much hurly-burly upstairs."

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