There is a certain swan-like grace to life at Downton Abbey. As the fictitious Earl of Grantham’s family glide around the magnificent grounds, under the surface a small army of servants scurry frantically to keep everything on track and moving smoothly.
The Edwardian drama by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes was one of the biggest programs in Britain last year and is bringing its take on the Upstairs, Downstairs politics of a manor house to Seven this weekend. The program, which pays loving attention to the details of turn-of-the-century life, appears a curious fit for a commercial channel but newcomer Jessica Brown-Findlay, who plays Lady Sybil, believes the characters and their stories will appeal to any audience.
“The scope of the story is so exciting and is set in such an amazing point in history,” the young actress says from London’s Kew Gardens, where filming on the second season is under way.
“Their problems and their fears, and the things that bring them joy are exactly the same as those we have today. They have that same fear of being left behind, of breaking out from what their families and society want them to do.
“It is a human story as opposed to a story about a time.”
The 21-year-old’s enthusiasm for the sumptuous drama is understandable. Not only are the details of the period meticulously re-created, from the etiquette to the clothes, but she stars alongside screen royalty.
Hugh Bonneville heads the cast as Lord Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, who marries American heiress Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern, for her money.
Dame Maggie Smith is the Dowager Countess, Lord Robert’s mother, who despises her American daughter-in-law but is forced into an alliance with the younger countess when her family’s heritage is threatened.
Brown-Findlay, a classically trained ballet dancer who turned to acting after ankle injuries ended her dreams of a professional dancing career, says working with the stellar cast was nerve-racking but great fun.
“Working with the people I am on this job, every day is an opportunity to watch and learn,” she says.
“You never think or dare to hope that an opportunity like this will happen. It is intimidating at first but everyone was so excited about the job that it was a wonderful atmosphere.”
If life above stairs is one of wealth and privilege, life below stairs is a different world, albeit one no less marked by ambition and politics.
The servants are run by the butler Carson, Mrs Hughes the housekeeper and head cook Mrs Patmore.
All of them, both above and below stairs, have to deal with the unprecedented changes that are coming.
The drama opens with the sinking of the Titanic and with it the loss of James Crawley, Lord Robert Crawley’s heir to his title and family estate. The first series wraps up with the declaration of World War I. It is a period of great social change as Edwardian values give way to the Jazz Age and the first stirrings of the sexual revolution.
Homes are being fitted for electricity, motor cars are appearing on the roads and telephones are starting to muscle in on the dominance of the telegraph. Staging the period drama in a time not far removed from the experience of modern audiences has proved a hit in Britain, with Downton Abbey attracting more than 12 million viewers and claiming the title as the most popular drama launched on British screens since 2003.
Framing all the action and angst is the magnificent Highclere Castle, the real-life home of the eighth Earl of Carnarvon.
It is also a setting Brown-Findlay finds exciting after growing up on the Georgian-era writings of Jane Austen and the dominance of Georgian homes in other period dramas.
“Taking that period drama but putting it in a time where there are some elements that we recognise is incredible,” Brown-Findlay says.
“The language is not so confusing and the passions, dreams and fears that we are familiar with are right there.”