All good things must come to an end, so they say, and that includes Downton Abbey. Production is indeed very close to wrapping up for the sixth and final season of the addictively popular PBS Masterpiece Theater smash hit about the trysts, travails and traumas of an aristocratic British family, the Crawleys, and their loyal cadre of servants, as they find their world and society changing in the period before, during and after World War I.
Lensing is scheduled to end in August, and the first of the eight-episode final season begins airing in England in September on ITV. Viewers in the United States will have to wait until the beginning of 2016 when PBS begins to broadcast the show’s finale, taking extra care to avoid coverage in the press and on Twitter if they don’t want to be clued in prematurely.
“We’re about two-thirds through shooting, with just three episodes left to go,” said Gareth Neame, the show’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning executive producer for all six seasons of Downton. He came up with the original idea and brought it to Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter for Gosford Park and the brilliant lone scribe for all 52 one-hours of Downton. “In fact I’m working right now with Julian finishing the last details for the final episode,” he revealed without disclosing any plot spoilers.
Neame, managing director (CEO) of Carnival Films, the U.K.’s leading independent maker of high-quality television dramas (he sold the company to NBCUniversal in 2008) was recently in Los Angeles prepping a new project and talked to Below the Line about his feelings about Downton drawing to a close and his continuing role in ensuring that it’s top-drawer production standards don’t flag as it approaches the finish line.
His job has become more complicated as well because the show now airs in some 220 territories with a worldwide audience estimated to top 150 million. “It’s a more and more a global hit, and become a bigger beast to manage,” said the executive producer.
On a day-to-day basis, “I try to make sure we keep the caliber of the show as high as it’s been, and that we will continue to thrill and surprise and satisfy our audiences,” he declared. “From a below-the-line standpoint, I work with the team to make sure that the costumes get even better and that the production design gets bigger and better. We like to keep the audience really tuned in.”
Maintaining the show’s plush look since its debut in 2010 has been made easier by Donal Wood carrying on as the show’s only production designer. “We have worked with Donal, who has done an incredible job, since day one,” said Neame. “He has designed every episode of every show, so that we have maintained that consistency of vision.” But there have been many different cinematographers and “we’re now onto our third costume designer on the show,” Susannah Buxton worked on the first couple of seasons of Downton, winning an Emmy for best costume design on a miniseries, movie or special in 2011 and was nominated again in 2012. Anna Robbins succeeded her and Caroline McCall, the costume designer for the final seasons has also received an Emmy nomination.
The costume designs for the female characters get special attention, not only because they are constantly changing to reflect the evolving fashions of the passing years, but because they have become the cynosure of fashion magazines as well. “The costumes are a unique element of Downton. They attract a great deal of interest,” said Neame. “Viewers are very aware of them and they are much enjoyed and talked about outside the context of the stories.”
As far as turnover in the below-the-line team, “there has been a combination of some people who have been there a long time and others who join us,” he said. “Because we stick to a very clear vision of what we have at the heart of the show, it has allowed us to bring new people in who slot into the show’s style without much of a problem.”
Downton has been shot about one-third on location in Highclere Castle, a magnificent late 19th-century Jacobethan edifice one hour outside of London, and is itself one of the main characters on the show. The iconic exterior and large formal rooms like the library, the dining room and the parlor are used most frequently.
However, though Downton has received precious access to Highclere for shoots, there are limitations. “Unfortunately, there are a great deal of logistical issues,” the executive producer noted. “The house is still privately owned and numerous other activities take place there. Also because the house has become so iconic and a magnet for tourists that has precluded us from having as much access as we would like and used to have. It’s a vicious circle – by its becoming such a popular destination it’s become harder to film there.”
Another third of Downton has been shot on stage sets in Ealing Film Studios near London—primarily the warren of rooms that are the downstairs servants’ quarters, anchored by the large kitchen which is the center of so many lively scenes. The final third of the shoot was at other locations, like Bampton Village, in Oxfordshire, for the gorgeous countryside scenes. Meanwhile, many of the London scenes have also been shot on location, such as the setting for Rose’s elaborate wedding in season five.
A lot of trouble was taken to include a splashy activity or event in almost every episode. “We always try to insure that there is a big set piece such as a flower show, a garden party, an auction, a hunt, a shoot, a steeplechase, a cricket match,” Neame noted. “We like to get out and about, doing things that are evocative of the English way of life.”
Shooting inside the big rooms in Highclere, on numerous sets at Ealing, and at so many other outdoor and indoor locations, posed a challenge for the Downton cinematographers to maintain a matching look, in order to provide footage so the editors could knit it together without showing any seams. “One rule we have had is for the lighting and photography to be fairly unobtrusive,” he noted. Camerawork also varied depending on the setting. “When we’re with the servants downstairs, there’s a bit more use of handheld photography, it’s a bit rougher on the edges,” said Neame. “When we’re upstairs with the family at formal dinners and everyone is more dressed up, the shooting is smoother and there is a lot of dolly work.”
One very important element of the series has been the musical score composed by John Lunn, another Emmy recipient. “John’s work is an essential part of the show, his music being one of the sophisticated tools we have that supports the storytelling,” said the producer. “All the music he created was bespoke for every single scene – nothing was reused. He’s not only a brilliant tunesmith but he’s a brilliant storyteller.” The music he wrote included leitmotifs, or individual sub-themes for each of the characters or for certain settings. “One of the fairly unique aspects of the music was that it was performed by a solo orchestra, a luxury you don’t usually get for a television production,” he pointed out.
In all, Downton has so far been nominated for 51 Emmys, the record for any foreign show and so far has nabbed 11. With ballots just now going out for this year’s Emmys, to be handed out in September, that number is likely to be exceeded. And the sixth season Downton will qualify to be nominated for the 2016 Emmy Awards. So it’s anyone’s guess what the final tally will be.
Neame, 48, comes from an English family prominent in the cinema and television. And his grandfather, Ronald Neame, who died in 2010 at the age of 99, was a famed cinematographer as well as a producer, director and screenwriter. Among his many credits, he photographed Major Barbara, In Which We Serve and Blithe Spirit. He produced Brief Encounter and Great Expectations, both directed by David Lean. And he directed The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (starring Maggie Smith, an Emmy winner for her portrayal of Downton’s Violet Crowley, Duchess of Grantham) and The Poseidon Adventure.
He arrived at Carnival in 2004 from the BBC where he was head of drama. Shows produced under his aegis have included Whistleblowers, Midnight Man and The Old Curiosity Shop as well as innovative and award-winning dramas known mainly to English viewers such as Spooks (MI5), Bodies, Outlaws, Hustle, New Tricks, Tipping the Velvet and Clocking Off.
Neame has not been idling as the production of Downton winds to a close. Far from it. He’s already in the midst of a new show, The Last Kingdom, set in the 9th century, when Anglo Saxons repelled the invading Vikings leading to the creation of England. And he’s developing The Lucky Man, with Stan Lee, the eminence gris of comic book fame. Meanwhile, he’s collaborating with Fellowes and fine tuning the final episodes of Downton. “Working with Julian, it’s finally beginning to sink in that we’re nearing the end,” he noted, as it is for the rest of the cast and crew.
So what’s life going to be like for him after Downton Abbey ends? “I’ll miss it tremendously,” Neame declared. “It has definitely been a life-changing experience, I’ve been producing it for six years and spent two years before that developing and planning it to get it into production. I think its legacy is going to live on for a long time to come.”
And his takeaway from all those years: “This really has demonstrated to me that if you find a subject that you love and a show that you love it becomes a pleasure to produce it. You really have to make it for yourself as much as the audience. The important thing now is to make sure that when we end viewers will feel the characters are just as rewarding as they’ve ever been, and that they enjoy the final season as much as they enjoyed the first season.” In other words, quit while you’re not just ahead, but still on top.
Editor’s Note: Downton Abbey has been nominated for Emmy awards for outstanding production design for a narrative period program (one hour or more), outstanding casting for a drama series, outstanding costumes for a period/fantasy series, limited series or movie, outstanding hairstyling for a single-camera series, outstanding supporting actor in a drama series, outstanding supporting actress in a drama series, outstanding drama series, and outstanding sound mixing for a comedy or drama series (one hour).