It begins with the familiar theme tinkling on piano keys…building to the pumping rhythm of a train...following a letter through palace hallways…railway stations…the theme and our anticipation forward moving through the York countryside…steaming locomotive engines…town post stations...and finally, via modern motorcycle, we and the letter reach our destination…DOWNTON ABBEY
The highly anticipated film picks up eighteen months after the end of the series, with all those living and working at Downton whom we’ve come to know so well…yet the environs seem almost new. With the budget and time of a feature film, the visual language of the film is much deeper, wider and detailed than could be allowed by time or budget restraints of the series. We are dazzled by detail of fabric patterns, distressed woods and the great hall itself, seen like we never have before.
Set Decorator Gina Cromwell SDSA, like many of the film crew, is a veteran of DOWNTON ABBEY, as the Set Dec for Seasons 1, 3 & 4.
SET DECOR and our resident British history expert, Gene Cane, sat down over tea and a trunk call with Gina to discuss…
SET DECOR: The series itself has always been cinematic in its own way, so how did you approach the expanded scope of the film?
Gina: What we always thought we’d try to do is just give it that extra gloss that we could never really achieve on the TV show, because, to be frank, we never really had that much money. We were always punching above our weight a little, especially with some of the long-term sets for the series, where we had to hire a lot for a long period of time. It really stretched our budget...
With the film, because we do hire most of the stuff from the prophouses here in the UK, we thought, “Well, we’re only going to get it for a few weeks, so we can really ramp it up this time and get the things we could always never afford before!” That was terrific.
What you were going to get with the film was opportunity. The DOP was going to make sure that he lit it much more beautifully, obviously, with more time. And he was going to spend more time giving it that space...that sort of breath...sort of taking a breath and having a look at the architecture and the details... and all those kinds of things that you don’t get to do when you’re quickly jumping from face to face to keep the rhythm of the show going for TV. For the film, you could actually pause a bit and just look at where they live. It was lovely to be able to do that.
Gene: Right, like with the leather on the walls of the Great Hall. We knew it was leather, but in the series, it just looked sort of black with smudges of gold, and in the film, you actually see figural design and detail.
Gina: That’s right, you get that lovely pan down, don’t you, in one of the opening shots. It’s lovely that you actually get to see it, because it’s really very beautiful.
Gene: And even in the dining room, we got different shots, different perspectives, whereas initially in the series, it was essentially shot from the end of the table to the buffet and the Van Dyck. Here, we just got so much more of it...and the idea that we can see fabric on the walls, the pattern of the fabric...
Gina: Absolutely...lovely sort of lemony-colored silk on the walls there, very beautiful. It’s very lucky that we had that wonderful house. There’s so much of it, you know, that we were lucky enough to be able to use for our world. It would have been very difficult to replicate that.
Gene: Right. And we’re assuming that the large vase/ormolu/multi-arm candelabra/lamps appearing in the Library and the Great Hall are also part of the estate?
Gina: Yes! They’re very much stuck into the fabric of the building...almost like sculptures.
SET DECOR: But the other lamps and lampshades...
Gina: Oh yes, it’s funny really...it’s hilarious. It always makes me laugh, because when we first started DOWNTON, we had a very, very tight budget...it was extremely tight and we could barely afford anything. I had hired all the lampshades, and they had this lovely sort of fringing and all the rest of it, and then, following into Season 3, which is the next one I did, I decided to try to get a lot of them made. There were never enough. So there’s a very good company in Wales called Lotus Lampshades...expensive but quality, quite beautifully made, so I started to push to have a lot of these lampshades fabricated. And then by Season 4, I was finding them available in shops!
It was obvious that we had started some kind of lamp craze.
Then, there was a blog that my buyer at the time discovered...
”You know, I just found this blog called ‘Downton Lampshades’!”
And I’m, “Oh no! There’s this terrific pressure, now! I’ve got to find more and even weirder lampshades, so the blog keeps going!”
Gene: So there was a combination of buying, fabrication and hires/rentals?
Gina: Certainly from when I was working on the show...I did the first season, the third one and the fourth one...we kept trying to buy as much as we could, so that we always had our own pieces on hand.
But then...They went and had an exhibition!!
So, when it came to doing the film, most of the items that I had bought over the years were in New York...in an exhibition!
I thought, “Noooo! That’s a disaster!” So we had some pieces, but most of it we just jumped in and hired new that looked the same, or similar, where we could. It was particularly bad in the kitchen, because most of the kitchen dressing had gone to the exhibition. It wasn’t logical, sensible economy to buy the pieces for the film, we were shooting for such a short period of time, and so we had to sort of rehire new versions of that back in again. Just typical, that after all these years of buying for it, everything was suddenly not there.
Gene: Can you tell us about the expansion of the kitchen and how you had to work it, since much of the implements were gone now, and the new wireless, the new refrigerator...and fitting everything in.
Gina: Oh it went fine. It was quite straightforward. First, because I’d done it before, I was quite used to it. It was very much the original set. In fact, all of the downstairs rooms were rebuilt as the original set. So there was nothing changed significantly in terms of the footage, it was all much as it has always been. I just made it slightly more organized. It’s got more copper, because I never felt we quite had enough of that.
SET DECOR: It is simply beautiful in the window with the light shining through.
Gina: Lit really beautifully, which was good. I made the prop men re-polish four times, I think!
I also added the dresser.
As for the other elements, I sent 2 of my assistants out for about 3 weeks, with photographs, tracking everything down as best they could, to find replacements for everything that was at the exhibition in New York.
SET DECOR: We were noticing that the egg holders were different from before, so that explains why...
Gene: Those little egg stands seem to make it into a lot of shots! They’re characters in themselves.
Gina: Yes! Actually, the big one I think is at the exhibition...that one, we always had in the show and I was really fond of it. And then, there’s a really nice egg poacher that used to hang up next to the stove. That, too, went to the exhibition. But we had quite a lot of fun bringing it all together...and more.
One of the things that we were excited about was being able to show other areas of the house that people didn’t usually go into. Like the servery behind the dining room, which is a set that we always wanted to do. It’s a lovely opportunity to have a little bit more interaction with the servants behind the scenes. It was quite often written that they were “in the servery”, but there was never any room to build it. The real servery behind the real dining room at Highclere is now a modern kitchen. So it would have been a huge build in there that, to be honest, we wouldn’t have been allowed would to do.
SET DECOR: Well the servery leads us right to the Royal dinner, Downton’s dinner for the King and Queen...the tablescapes!
Gina: There’s always, always that difficulty with dining scenes having things in the middle of the table where they can’t shoot across.
So we decided to start with a couple of big gallery trays...
In fact, I had it all laid out at the silver company which I was going get all the silver from, and I invited the director and our historian, Alastair Bruce, to come and have a look at it all before I hired it, because it was going to cost a lot of money and I didn’t want them to reject things once we had them. You know, it would be difficult on the day. So we set it all up and I said, “This is what I’m going to do. These two huge gallery trays will go down the center of the table, and I’m going fill them with flowers so the floral arrangements will be quite low. We’ll set very, very tall, very large candlesticks at each end of the table...”
Actually, I had them boost them up a bit on cake stands, so that at least all he’s got in that line of sight is the trunk of the candelabra, and not the branchy bit getting in the way of people’s faces.
Then we had a large epergne in the middle, which, again, was lifted right up. It was three things that were vertical, going straight up, but it helped with shooting across the table, which was as little as possible in the way of the camera, and then all of the flowers at the bottom, which I think worked really well. I was pleased with that, because it looked very opulent, and everyone was happy.
My flowers...yeah, they got their shot.
Gene: And so distinctly different to those earlier in the day at the luncheon, with the soft pastel roses, you know.
Gina: That’s right. Although, they were actually carnations.
Gene: Oh, really?
Gina: There were a lot of carnations. Not a popular flower now, but in the day, it would have been ubiquitous. And somehow, it’s very period looking. I was quite keen to use it, even though a little thinking in the back of my mind, “Oh gosh, you know how people can be really snobby about things. Someone will say, ‘That looks like a really cheap bouquet from a garage!’” But I think in the end, they actually looked quite nice. And, as you say, they were completely different, fresher.
SET DECOR: They were light, airy. We noted that it’s the same service—the crystal, the silver and the chinaware as later at the dinner—but it’s an entirely different table because of those light, gorgeous florals and then when you come to the dinner, it is so regal and effective with the candelabrum and trays of deep, dense florals. Just a lovely juxtaposition.
Gina: Oh thank you. I’m pleased that you appreciate that. At the time...it feels like a long time ago...but we did spend quite a lot of agonizing over it, and spending a lot of time with my florist deciding how we’re going to do it, and what’s going to look best, how would this be and that be, and generally ended up with quite a lot of choice on the day, and then would see what works.
But also with Downton, you’ve got this kind of difficult balance to get to because, although they’re very rich people...even though they’re always complaining that they haven’t got any money, which is very typical of very wealthy people...because of the nature of the English kind of caste system, you can’t be too ostentatious, you’ve got to look rich but not over the top, if you get what I mean.
SET DECOR: Yes, long-time wealth, not newly rich...
Gina: Yes, we try to get the right balance, so it has that kind of seriousness about it, that aristocratic, English reserve. You have to keep a conservativeness about it, yet quietly impressive. So, there’s always that trying to balance with the Downton look. We worry about that. You can’t take it too far.
Somebody once said to me, and it’s a really interesting thing to say: “If you had a horse and carriage, like a carriage with four horses back in the Victorian times, that is not equivalent to having a Rolls Royce or a Bentley, that’s the equivalent of having a helicopter.”
You have to realize how rich these people were...you know it’s very, very, very rich. Billionaires, really, relatively.
Gene: And we see it even more in the film, both the expanse and the details, such as all of the lovely carved and sculptural elements. We even at one point get to see the ceilings. I don’t think in the series we ever saw that vaulted ceiling of the Great Hall, or the coffered ceiling in the Library. That shot just gave more architectural opulence to the area.
Another cinematic aspect was changing out the furniture and bringing in that pink damask furniture. And it’s even shown in the action as part of the storyline, where they’re doing that changeover for the King and Queen’s arrival...
Gina: You’ll find this quite interesting, over the years of doing the show, I realized how important it was to have fairly sturdy furniture, because, particularly with Maggie Smith as she’s quite an elderly lady now, you have to get chairs that she is safe in and feels secure in, and that she can push out of, and things like that.
So for most of the furniture that I chose that was different from what we had previously in the series, it’s always a little bit higher, because a lot of the actors are, you know, not young. You don’t want to have them rocking to get out of the chair. So, it was very important that I got the right sort of firm, a proper English Georgian kind of furniture, which we didn’t really have before, but I think we needed to have it. And I got very lucky because I found a full set of amazing pieces, and in the damask as well, which went particularly well with that library.
Gina: Which is a fabulous room without doing anything, but it was good that we felt the duty and added that in, because we did bring a lot of furniture into the house, as well as what they have there. We did use their own stuff as well. They’re very generous in that respect.
Gene: And it’s not National Trust? You can move their furniture around? Or do you need the white-gloved men?
Gina: Oh goodness. [Laughs] No we don’t! Not required here. Our crew is great and knows how to handle all of these, and, as I said, the family is gracious.
Gene: Ah, I thought that might be the reason for the change out. I didn’t think about the comfort of the actors. And, again, that fabric was so perfect in there, I had assumed that you spent days in Italy finding just the right fabric for it, and it turns out it was a prophouse hire!
Gina: Sadly, not. No trips to Italy!
I think the whole thing about the Downton family—those of us who had worked on it before—is that you’ve got a lot of residual memory of how things work and what the individual actor’s needs are. And coming to the film with all of that background, really helps you in making good considered choices about things.
Gene: Quite right.
Gina: And I did do a bit of lovely drapery in some of the sets that we built, particularly Mary’s and Edith’s rooms...
Gene: Yes! And not only the drapery. We’re very big on fabric, and the idea of putting fabric on the walls rather than the painted rooms was just spectacular, gave so much more depth...
Gina: Oh, I’m really into that, I must admit. The red room was red fabric, and it just makes such a difference, I think for the look of it.
SET DECOR: When we spoke with Director Michael Engler, he mentioned that walking into Lady Mary’s room and seeing the green printed fabric wall, was amazing...he said it just took his breath.
Gina: I think they were all...I mean, the actors as well when they went in, they all felt they had had a bit of an upgrade...
...from the TV show.
It was lovely to do all of that beautifully and properly. And get lovely new eiderdowns made from beautiful silks and things. So much nicer...and they fit the beds properly! And actually, you don’t get to see it really, it’s pretty unseen, but I do get especially nice sheets from a company called Heirlooms, which makes sheets for the Queen, so they’re really, really good quality. And even though you can’t see them clearly, you can tell that they’re good quality. I love doing that.
SET DECOR: And that’s a wonderful detail we love knowing and being able to share.
You know that’s that extra step that you have gone, if for nothing else than for the actors, even if it’s not seen.
Gina: I think so, because they get the feel. They can walk into a set and they can really get into it.
Gene: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Gina: One thing I have to admit to, I’ve always had a soft spot for Edith...Edith’s character. I felt so sorry for her, so I always give her the best stuff. I get the prettiest, the nicest of everything for Edith. We had a really lovely eiderdown made in a beautiful peach, which I loved, and which does show up a little bit on the film, thank goodness.
Gene: And, again, in the film, with the wider screen and so beautifully lit, you can see detail on the fabrics. And the fabrics you chose...as you mentioned, that beautiful red, red, DEEP red fabric from India that you placed on the walls of the guest room for Maud Bagshaw...stunning and elegant.
SET DECOR: Yes! Michael also pointed that one out. So you obviously viscerally affected them with your choices.
These sets were built onstage, but equally important were the locations, such as the sets for Harewood House...the tea with Princess Mary, the Royal ball and reception, and the private conversation between the Dowager Countess and her granddaughter Lady Mary. We know the ball scenes were filmed at Wentworth Woodhouse, but the others were shot at the actual Harewood House, where Princess Mary lived! We find that fascinating. Can you tell us about shooting there?
Gina: Lovely house. Really beautiful. Family home. I mean, madly, it’s still lived in by the family. And really nice. Most of the situations that we get with all of these stately homes is that we have to bring in everything that we touch and actors are sitting on. We’re usually allowed to retain some tables and things around the sides, but we have to bring in our seating and our own rugs, because you can’t really walk on their rugs! It was a little bit of a white glove situation there, I have to be honest. Challenging. So when I REC there, or other estates, I take tons of photographs, and then generally speaking, when I do a room, I try to get furniture that will blend with what’s already there.
For the yellow salon where the conversation takes place, I found this really lovely suite. Well, I didn’t find them all together, but these beautiful yellow sofas, sort of Regency style, that I was very pleased to use, and a couple of chairs I found elsewhere and particularly liked. And the lights, the lamps, I added all of those in, and of course, the florals. We bring in a surprising amount of stuff when we’re filming in these locations.
SET DECOR: And at Wentworth Woodhouse, the ballroom seating and accouterment...
Gene: Yes. I said, that is pretty spectacular because all of that matching furniture around the dance floor...
Gina: Ah! I went through various different types and ended up with that particular one in the end, which I thought was best because it was elegant and, luckily, there was a lot of it. I mean I have to have them all sitting down at first until the dancing begins!
Gene: I’ll find 37 settees and 98 chairs, all matching, in lovely damask...
Gina: (Laughs) Not that many! There are less than you think. I had to stretch them out a bit. And I did end up hiring most of that.
Gene: As you would for now, but in 1927, they wouldn’t, those aristocrats. They would likely have had that in the attic, right? I think that it is a correct depiction that way back in an early episode of the series when Lady Mary was going to marry Richard Carlisle, they’re talking about furniture and she says, “Oh, my lot inherits it, and your lot buys it.” Very revealing about this wealthy way of life. And it was not only very comforting for the longtime fans to see, for instance, the same red couches in the library, or that Mary’s bed is the same...but it’s also correct, because in the intervening 18 months since the end of the series, Corawouldn’t be on the DIY channel saying, “I think we’re going to change the library.” So it was also correct that most of the furnishings were familiar...
Gina: Yes, they very rarely redecorate. Even now, they don’t often do that. I mean it’s mostly stuff they’ve had for 200 years. It’s extraordinary.
SET DECOR: And then jumping to the opposite extreme, we wanted to at least mention the warehouse turning into a nightclub!
Gina: That was definitely the hardest one. Just trying to work out what that should look like. When we first heard about it, we thought, “Oh great. You know, Cabaret!” And then we thought, “Well, hang on a minute. We’re in a northern town in England, with working class men. I don’t think that’s going to be like that.” A lot of people had ideas, lots of ideas were flying around, but in the end, it was just to say, “It’s simply a warehouse where they go at night. It’s somewhere they’ve managed to get into, somebody’s letting them use it for the evening.” And they’re just making the best of it, you know.
Gene: I likened it to like the pop-up stores of today, it’s just a one-of kind of thing. But, it had one of the prettiest upright pianos I’ve ever seen!
Gina: Yes! I can’t even remember where that came from, I have to be honest, but I think the whole thing worked really well with creating the atmosphere we wanted. It was supposed to be rather cold in a way, echoing music, and not hugely populated. I thought that really worked quite well. You know, it wasn’t like loads of guys there. It was just about as many as there probably would have been in York in those days. Quite realistic, really.
SET DECOR: It was a great perspective. A genuineness. And the fact that it obviously was, “This is for the moment” and then it’s going away. Also the underground/speakeasy aspect of it, the clandestine...
Gina: And, to follow that, there’s a whole police station we dressed as well, which you hardly see. There was a lot of work that went into that. Of course, those sets are the ones that do take time, because they have a great deal of detail in them. But in the film, you see nothing really. You just see the counter where the sergeant is.
But never mind, I’m not bitter!
SET DECOR: Hah! Well, another unusual set was the Royal viewing stand. We actually get to see this come about, the building of it, as well as it fully kitted for the parade and presentation. That’s always fun.
Gina: That was actually fine, quite a nice little build, really. It’s always a little bit difficult when you know you have to partially build it. And, happily, we did it in that order. We sort of half-built it, shot it, then they went off and shot something else, and we frantically had to get the rest built and dressed, as they would come back the next morning to shoot. And not only did it have to be finished, but it had to all be perfect!
SET DECOR: And then the chairs! The chairs that were carried through the rain.
Gina: Um, yes. They were hired from Farley Hire, and I was thinking when I saw the film “Oh, they are going to be quite upset when they watch the film and they realize the chairs were carried in the rain.” They were very up-market chairs! Originally, it was supposed to only be the folding chairs that they have to carry in the rain, but...you know, gosh...
SET DECOR: There are those last-moment changes...
Gina: And we had to have all those painted, the folding ones. You know how it is, you hire the chairs, and they turn up and half of them are pink!
Gene: Yes! Yes, we do know! With the viewing and the parade, I was wondering, who outfits the horses? Does that come under set dressing?
Gina: Yes, it does. We only did the King’s horses, and his couple of outriders, though. We had to have all the blankets made and all of the kind of bits, what we call a horse pack, and then the rest of the army was the Army. We needed some time with them going through all of the correct horse paraphernalia for that, so we went down to the barracks at Woolidge, and spent quite a bit of time looking at all their horse tack and accessories. The costumers came as well, because they were looking at the uniforms. The soldiers were extraordinarily helpful, and amazing, and the horses are incredible.
SET DECOR: While the King is inspecting the troops, the Queen is sitting regally in her hopefully now dry chair on the viewing stand! But we first meet her in her drawing room at Buckingham Palace.
Gina: Ah, yes, that was at Brusome house. That was lovely, wasn’t it? I quite liked that set. We had to get really huge carpets, which we hired from the carpet dealer for an equally huge amount of money, but it was all lovely and cream. From the research, I had a photograph of Queen Mary sitting at her desk, so I spent quite a lot of time searching for that sort of high back escritoire-style. I really wanted it to be right, and it was great to be able to get something that felt in her proper world.
SET DECOR: That’s one of the many reasons that Michael is so impressed by you. He said you amazed him constantly.
GINA: Well, I have to say Michael was utterly delightful as a director to work with...he’s one of the directors you just want to please. He’s very approachable and he’s so organized. You know what he’s going to shoot and he’s very clear what he needs. And he was just an absolute joy to work with...I’d love to again.
SET DECOR: And he said the same for you, so we have high hopes for a sequel!