12 geeky things you might not know about Downton Abbey

Feature Louisa Mellor
16 Sep 2012 - 18:58

ITV1’s cosy Sunday night drama returned this weekend, so why not impress your friends with these geeky Downton facts...

Other half a period drama fan? You, not so much?

For all the sci-fi and fantasy geeks out there who, for reasons of marital harmony, find themselves parked in front of Downton Abbey every Sunday night for the foreseeable future, here are a few silly Downton tidbits that might just make your forebearance a little easier. If tenuous lists and incredibly slapdash Photoshop jobs are your cup of tea, then step right ahead...

1. Scully almost played Lady Cora 

In a rare example of an actor breaking the vow of good behaviour and advertising the parts they turned down, The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson divulged to TV Guide earlier this year that she had been offered but declined the role of Lady Cora Grantham, Lord Robert Crawley’s American heiress wife played by Elizabeth McGovern. We'd have thought that a few "FBI, freeze!" moments would spice up Downton no end...

2. Mrs Hughes was once the voice of a dystopian nightmare 

The voice heard these days ticking off gossiping housemaids and keeping the below-stairs lot in order was once the spokesperson for tyrannical government control. Listen carefully to the Telescreen announcements in the background of Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation, and it’s the dulcet tones of Phyllis Logan, aka Mrs Hughes the Downton housekeeper, you’ll hear spreading propaganda about dystopian Oceania.

3. Carson the Butler popped up in Flash Gordon 

Jim Carter, the man behind redoubtable Downton butler Carson, is recognisable for many screen roles, but two in particular take our fancy. The first? An early background role as one of a group of Azurian Men in Mike Hodges’ camp 1980 film Flash Gordon, and the second, opposite Val Kilmer as beret-wearing member of the French resistance Déjà Vu in 1984 spy spoof Top Secret. Both brilliant in their own way.

4. Its creator was in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles 

Julian Fellowes, or Baron Fellowes of West Stafford as he’s properly known to his Tory peer buddies, is not only the man who dreamt up Downton’s cosy Edwardian soap, but also an actor who’s played a number of upper class roles in his time. Of chief interest to us, is Fellowes’ brief appearance as Winston Churchill in geek favourite, Jim O’Brien’s The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles.

5. Lady Cora was Kick-Ass’ mum 

Matthew Vaughn’s 2010 adaptation of Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass remains one of the most entertaining comic book pictures in recent years, and the film’s fans may remember the very brief appearance of Dave Lizewski’s mother Alice before her untimely breakfast table aneurysm death. That actress? Lady Cora Crawley, aka Elizabeth McGovern.

6. Downton shares plenty of its DNA with Doctor Who 

Where to begin with the many, many links Downton Abbey has with the BBC’s Doctor Who? Let’s take the actors in common for starters. First up, Hugh Bonneville and Penelope Wilton (Lord Robert and Isobel Crawley) have both had recurring roles in new Who, as pirate captain Henry Avery and PM Harriet Jones respectively.

Delving back further into classic Who, one of Downton producer Liz Trubridge’s first production manager gigs was on 1984 Doctor Who serial The Caves Of Androzani and The Awakening. Downton’s costume designer, Rosalind Ebbutt, precedes Trubridge’s work on Who by a couple of years, having dressed Peter Davison and co. in 1982’s The Black Orchid.

It doesn’t end there. In addition to episodes of Torchwood, Downton directors Andy Goddard and James Strong have both helmed episodes of new Who, with The Next Doctor, The Impossible Planet, The Satan Pit, Daleks In Manhattan, Evolution Of The Daleks, Voyage Of The Damned, Partners In Crime and Planet Of The Dead between them.

And finally, Ealing Studios, where Downton’s below-stairs and servant’s quarters scenes are filmed, was home to (amongst many, many other things) years of Doctor Who.

7. Lady Mary is Death’s granddaughter 

No, we're not being rude about the Dowager Countess (perish the thought). Michelle Dockery’s second TV role was as Susan Sto-Helit in Sky One’s live-action adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather, a performance that cemented her status as a captivating screen presence with a voice that demands you pay attention. Cousin Matthew really didn't stand a chance.

8. Housemaid Gwen got lost on the way to that secretarial job 

…and ended up beyond the wall. Ambitious farm girl Gwen left service at Downton in series one to pursue a career in telephony, but actress Rose Leslie went on to something much more exciting: life as wildling freewoman Ygritte, a recurring character in season two of HBO’s superb Game Of Thrones. You know nothing, John Bates?

9. Bits of King Ralph were also filmed there 

The role of Lord Graves in 1991 comedy King Ralph probably doesn’t rank amongst John Hurt’s most memorable screen performances, but it is the part that saw him an inhabitant of Highclere Castle, the imposing residence which stands in for Downton’s titular Abbey in the series. Highclere also provided an interior location for Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut, and an exterior location for 1991’s Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. We’ll gloss over the fact that it’s also the place Katie Price and Peter Andre tied the knot if that’s okay with you.

10. The Dowager Countess is head of Gryffindor House 

Dame Maggie Smith’s stage and screen career needs no introduction, nor does it need pointing out to anyone who’s been awake at any point in the last decade that as well as playing the formidable Lady Violet, Smith had a key recurring role as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter series. For retro geek points though, her part as Thetis in the 1981 Clash Of The Titans also deserves a mention.

11. Mrs Patmore the cook used to be a giant talking beaver 

Children of the eighties should have no trouble remembering the BBC’s The Chronicles Of Narnia Sunday teatime adaptations, which began in 1988 with the best known of C.S Lewis’ stories, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. The budget in those days didn’t quite match the story’s imagination, which is either all part of the series’ charm, or a risible mess, depending on your perspective. Mrs Beaver, here played by Downton actress Lesley Nicol in what looks like a recycled Ewok outfit.

12. Downton shares a production designer with Roland Rat 

And last on this list of tenuous geeky connections, we quite enjoyed finding out that Downton Abbey’s production designer, Donal Woods, cut his teeth designing 1986 children’s TV puppet series Roland Rat. (For anyone having trouble telling Lady Sybil and the titular rodent apart, Roland's the one on the right).

The third series of Downton Abbey began on ITV1 on Sunday the 16th of September.

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