In today’s post, Lady Carnarvon offers a behind-the-scenes account of what it’s like to open your home to a film crew—and the excitement and challenges that come along with it. Downton Abbey fans will love this revealing guest post, and Lady Carnarvon’s wonderful book.
Tune-in for the final episode of Season Two of Downton Abbey this Sunday, February 19th, 9:00 PM on PBS MASTERPIECE. More features and behind-the-scenes info about the series can be found at pbs.org/masterpiece. You can also now add Season 2 to your DVD or Blu-ray collection here.
From Lady Carnarvon: Downton Abbey is filmed on and off at Highclere throughout the spring and summer months. The next series is about to begin the process all over again.
The second “War” series was a huge challenge for all of us, as Julian Fellowes writing the story and script, wanted visually to demonstrate the effect of the First World War on the house. It is widely known that Highclere Castle was transformed into a proper hospital with 30 nurses, a resident doctor, and surgeons on operating days to look after patients coming back form the front. Julian decided to portray it as convalescent home.
During last summer I was writing about the “Real Downton Abbey”, the patients, the love and kindnesses, the loss and the aftermath. Lost in my books and devastating letters I would dive out of my sitting room in the heart of the Castle running straight into amputees, nurses and soldiers from the fictional drama - I was obviously going in search of tea to calm my own spirits. It was utterly surreal. Occasionally I played the piano in the evening in the Drawing Room to silent bandaged patient dummies on the metal beds who at least couldn’t complain when I kept playing the same bars. I did prefer not to find them in the dark.
En route for tea one afternoon I found the crew wanted to pretend to move furniture around to clear the way for the arrival of patients. They had started to ask if they could move things but began to do it all wrong. There are often useful mnemonics to remember and in that case it is to remember you carry a chair by the bottom but a woman in your arms. It at least made them laugh nor did they forget how to move chairs.
Our dogs thoroughly enjoy the arrival of the Downton crew. The first source of amusement is the back packs which are part of the scene for the technical recces. The dogs quickly associated them with sandwiches, they might have been lunch for the owner but may well be a morning snack for an adroit Labrador or spaniel. This is followed by the catering buses and then the waste food at the end of each day.
Highclere Castle has always had a reputation for superb cuisine and the best chefs - indeed I hope we serve excellent food today. I always felt sorry for all the Dining Room scenes in “Downton”, where the food is produced for camera first thing and sits here for ages whilst a scene is filmed. Almina Carnarvon, the 5th Countess, who ran the hospital served delicious food, home brewed beer, and whisky to such good effect that some of the patients wrote back to her later saying they now in fact needed to go on a diet. She felt that it was the whole treatment of body and soul that could aid a patient’s recovery. She rolled her sleeves up, gave her time, her smiles, and undoubtedly her money with complete generosity. I felt humbled to research about her, about someone who simply did all she could for other people – for complete strangers most of whom became friends and wrote that they owed their lives to her. What a legacy.