Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge are fans, and legendary stars from Anjelica Huston, Harrison Ford and Lucy Liu to Mike Tyson and Lady Gaga have requested cameo parts. Downton Abbey’s fourth season broke UK ratings records, making it one of the most popular shows in recent history.
Continuing its reign at the top, the Prime drama is set to become more familiar for its royal fans William and Kate with an upcoming two-hour special, based in Buckingham Palace.
William’s great-great-grandfather, King George V, his wife Queen Mary and William’s great uncle, the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII), are characters in the episode, which sees the Grantham family become embroiled in a royal scandal.
But those hoping to catch a glimpse of Queen Elizabeth and her corgis in the Downton special may be disappointed as it was actually filmed at Lancaster House, a Victorian townhouse that was once part of the St James’s Palace complex. The stately home has also served as a stand-in for Buckingham Palace in Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech and The Young Victoria.
Prince William recently let slip that since the arrival of Prince George he has become an avid watcher of the series and actor Allen Leech, who plays chauffeur-turned-gentleman Tom Branson, said William revealed it was his favourite programme at a recent charity event.
“He actually said, ‘I’m a big fan of the show. Only now that my wife’s had a baby’,” says Allen.
But what Prince William thinks of his own family’s scandals played out on television is anyone’s guess. In the special episode, Downton’s resident rebel, Lady Rose (Lily James), is presented to the King and Queen as a débutante and meets with socialite Freda Dudley Ward at a palace event.
The storyline parallels real royal history – Freda was famous for her affair with the Prince of Wales (Edward VIII) between 1918 and 1923, while she was married, and before the future king met Wallis Simpson.
During the episode, a love letter from the Prince to Freda is intercepted by someone set out to destroy the monarchy and Lord Grantham and Rose try to retrieve it to save the royal family from scandal.
Shirley MacLaine makes her highly anticipated return to the cast, and is joined by fellow US star, acclaimed Sideways actor Paul Giamatti.
But behind the scenes, Shirley, who turns 80 in April, reveals that despite the regal setting, she and Paul didn’t speak the Queen’s English.
“We’d tease [our British castmates] and say ‘f*’ a lot to upset people. We loved doing that – it got a huge reaction,” says Shirley.
Often ridiculed in the media for her belief in UFOs and New Age spiritualism, the older sister of Warren Beatty says the special episode has marked an unexpected career comeback.
“My whole identity is now Downton Abbey,” says Shirley, who won an Oscar in 1983 for her role in Terms of Endearment.
“All that I’ve done – how many films? All my books? I’m no longer a New Age giddy dingbat. I am now ‘the one on Downton Abbey’. In airports and other places I go, they say, ‘Downton Abbey, when are you coming back?’ I say, ‘Well, all right. But what about my last picture?’ Then I can’t remember what it was anyway.”
Paul plays Lady Cora’s brash brother, who discovers that royal protocol is different to business stateside. Paul reveals that although he felt “so American” while filming the series, he’s more British than you might expect. London is one of his favourite cities and he had a blast filming scenes with Oliver Dimsdale, who plays the Prince of Wales.
“[My character goes] blundering over to the Prince
of Wales, thinking, ‘I’ll just shake his hand.’ He blows me off. Hopefully it’s funny. I do a lot of that in this episode,” says Paul.
“I like the period [drama] thing, and I liked the slightly soap opera-y nature of it. I grew up on Upstairs, Downstairs. My mother was really into stuff like that. So I had heard about Downton,” says Paul, who admits he had only watched a few episodes before filming scenes.
The show is famous for its spectacular costumes, and with the regal setting the gorgeous gowns become even more elaborate. Actress Lily James says she loved her beautiful débutante dress and getting dressed up is one of her favourite parts of being on the show, although it’s not as glamorous as it may seem.
“I love the costumes that I get to wear – the fashions are amazing. I always feel in character the minute I put a dress on, my posture changes and everything,” says Lily (24).
“There are always lots of wardrobe malfunctions though. The dresses are quite delicate and I often stand up and leave a trail of beads behind me. I also have to wear a wig, which is a total source of misery. I can often be in the make-up chair for up to two hours. Although I’m naturally brunette, I’ve gone blonde now [so] my hair seems to take even longer [to style].”