There are critically-acclaimed TV shows which comparatively few people watch, such as Mad Men. The most watched TV shows in the world, currently US crime procedurals like The Mentalist, CSI and NCIS, do not tend to collect great notices. Downton Abbey, which returns for its fourth series this month, is popular, increasingly so, and a favourite of the tastemakers.
“I think what makes the show so good,” says Ed Speleers, who joined the cast in series three to play footman Jimmy Kent, “is that everyone, from the drivers to the directors, knows everyone else is working at their best, so there is no excuse for slacking off.”
During a rare break in the six-month production schedule of series four, Speleers and three fellow cast members snatched time to appear in front of the Esquire cameras wearing fashions of the day, rather than those of the inter-war period. (Downton Abbey began in the wake of the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, and is now up to 1922.)
“Wearing what we do on the show,” says Allen Leech, who has played Tom Branson since the fourth episode of the first series, “has made me more aware of the little touches that can make you stand out — belts, shoes. I’m getting better at shoes.”
“I actually buy more Air Max now,” Speleers says, only half-kidding. “I like to mix it up, but wearing a collar and tie at work has probably made me go against that when I’m not.”
Tom Cullen, who joined the cast for the new series, playing Lord Anthony Gillingham, is doing the opposite: “They had a beautiful three-piece suit made for my character, and so I’m looking for things like that now — tweed.”
Meanwhile, Gary Carr, another newbie like Cullen, is putting the Downton Abbey effect to good use in his other roles. “I play a policeman on [BBC One drama] Death In Paradise, and I asked for my uniform to be fitted and taken in. It’s just a much better look.”
Carr, who plays jazz singer Jack Ross, had to audition for Downton Abbey from the set of where Death In Paradise is filmed — on the tropical island of Guadeloupe. “I had to cast on video. Funny experience: I sang a song in someone’s backyard, with chickens and pigs running around.”
Downton Abbey is on TV in the Caribbean, as well as more than 100 other countries. It is that rare creation: a series that the UK can export back across the Atlantic, in the same class as the great US shows of recent times. American audiences love it. Leech was in-bound to the US after an episode had aired in which his character abandons his wife.
“I get up to Immigration at the airport,” Leech says, “hand over my passport. He looks at it, looks at me. Looks at the passport, looks at me again, then says, ‘It was a fucking shitty thing you did to your wife’. I said, ‘You’re still going to let me in, aren’t you?’”
All four men will tell you that your Downton Abbey passport is stamped after you deal with the show’s writer and creator, The Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, known to them and us as Julian. Since he’s a true nobleman — and the boss — his subjects behave accordingly.
“I had three weeks of prep to play a Lord,” Cullen says, “elocution lessons, sitting lessons, walking lessons, eating lessons. Julian took me to lunch at Lord’s and I spent quite a bit of time in abject fear of where to correctly place my hands.”
Downton Abbey series four is airing on ITV