12 Geeky Things You Might Not Know About Downton Abbey

The Lists Louisa Mellor 1/4/2014 at 10:22AM

The wildly popular costume drama returns for its fourth season on PBS this weekend, so impress your friends with these geeky Downton facts!

Soooo, is the 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 Abbey tidbits that might just make your Sunday night, and your life, a little easier. If tenuous lists and incredibly halfass Photoshop jobs are your thing, then jump right in with us...

 

1. Scully almost played Lady Cora 

In a rare example of an actor breaking the vow of good behavior and advertising the roles they turned down, The X-Files’ Gillian Anderson divulged to TV Guide earlier this year that she had been offered the role of Lady Cora Grantham, Lord Robert Crawley’s American heiress wife but declined it (the role went to Elizabeth McGovern). We'd have thought that a few "FBI, freeze!" moments would really spice Downton right up...

 

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

The voice heard these days telling off gossiping housemaids and keeping the below-stairs servants in their collective place was once the spokesperson for tyrannical government control. Listen carefully to the Telescreen announcements in the background of Michael Radford’s 1984 film adaptation.  Yes, those are the dulcet tones of Phyllis Logan, aka Mrs. Hughes the Downton housekeeper spreading propaganda about dystopian Oceania.

 

3. Carson the Butler popped up in Flash Gordon 

Jim Carter, the man behind redoubtable Downton butler Carson, is recognizable for many screen roles, but two in particular stand out for us. 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 a beret-wearing member of the French resistance Déjà Vu in 1984 spy spoof Top Secret. Each brilliant in its 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 cozy Edwardian soap, but also an actor with a number of upper class roles under his belt. However, the only one that interests us is Fellowes’ brief appearance as Winston Churchill in geek favorite, 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 movies in recent years and the film’s fans may remember the very brief appearance of Dave Lizewski’s mother Alice before her untimely death by breakfast-table-aneurysm. 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 shares 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 the 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 the 1984 Doctor Who serial The Caves Of Androzani and The Awakening. Downton’s costume designer, Rosalind Ebbutt beats out Trubridge by a couple of years on Who. She dressed Peter Davison and co. in 1982’s The Black Orchid.

And it doesn’t end there my friends. In addition to episodes of TorchwoodDownton Abbey directors Andy Goddard and James Strong have both helmed episodes of the new Who, with, between them, The Next DoctorThe Impossible PlanetThe Satan PitDaleks In ManhattanEvolution Of The DaleksVoyage Of The DamnedPartners In Crime, and Planet Of The Dead.

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

7. Lady Mary is Death’s granddaughter

No, for real.  We're not being snarky about the Dowager Countess (perish the thought). Michelle Dockery’s second TV role was as Susan Sto-Helit in The Hogfather, Sky One’s live-action adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s novel.  This performance cemented Sto-Helit’s 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 the first season 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 fantastic Game Of Thrones. You know nothing, John Bates?


 9. Bits of King Ralph were also filmed there 

The role of Lord Graves in the 1991 comedy King Ralph probably doesn’t rank amongst John Hurt’s most memorable screen performances, but it is the one that saw him an inhabitant of Highclere Castle.  Highclere is the imposing residence that impersonates 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’d like to try to forget 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.  And if you were awake at any point in the last decade you also know that know that long before she was 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 gets a mention.


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

(No, we do not make this stuff up.  Okay, sometimes we make this stuff up.  But not this time!)  Children of the eighties (who also had access to BBC programming) should have no trouble remembering the BBC’s The Chronicles Of Narnia Sunday afternoon 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 live up the story’s imagination, which is either an endearing part of the series’ charm, or a total disaster.  Totally depends on your perspective. Mrs. Beaver, as you can see, is played by Downton actress Lesley Nicol in what appears to be a recycled Ewok outfit.


 12. Downton shares a production designer with Roland Rat 

And last on this, the master list of tenuous geeky connections, we were just a little bit excited to find 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).

Good luck friends and compatriots as the fourth season of Downton Abbey comes back to a small screen very, very near to you.

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