20 Secrets Behind Downton Abbey You Had No Idea About

Downton Abbey provided its share of drama onscreen, but there were also some secrets the series carried behind the scenes.

Although Downton Abbey officially shut its doors in 2015, the British period drama still manages to capture the attention of fans all over the world, some who are just discovering the series for the first time. Throughout the course of Downton’s six seasons, fans eagerly followed the story of the aristocratic Grantham family, as well as the lives of the staff who served them in their large and extravagant manor.

The series explored the changing world of the early 1900s as aristocracy began to fall in power, leading to more equality with the common man (much to the aristocracy’s chagrin). The series’ writers left no emotion unexplored during its run and fans gobbled up all the elation and joy, as well as the pain and loss.

Downton Abbey, though, was no stranger to scandal and controversy, although most of the serious drama happened onscreen. The series explored subjects that often left fans completely bewildered and angry. Some of what happened on the show actually took inspiration from real life, but perhaps it’s what happened behind the scenes that makes Downton Abbey even more interesting.

Here are 20 Secrets Behind Downton Abbey You Had No Idea About.

20The Drama In Season 1 Was Real

There is a saying about life being stranger than fiction, and in the case of one particular story on Downton Abbey, that is true. In the first season of the show, a handsome Turkish diplomat turns up at the Grantham abode, woos Lady Mary, sleeps with her and then perishes in her bed. That plot might seem outrageous, but it’s actually based on something that really happened. Downton Abbey writer Julian Fellowes told press that this plot came directly from a friend who read about a similar event in a great aunt’s diary.

“In the house there was a passageway only to be used by single women to go to their rooms,” Fellowes told The Telegraph. “One of them had smuggled this diplomat into her room and he [passed] in the middle of doing it!”

19The Tragedy Of Michelle Dockery’s Fiance

On Downton Abbey, Lady Mary saw her share of heartbreak and loss, particularly after losing her husband Matthew to an automobile accident, a plot that broke the hearts of fans all over the world. But the actress behind Mary, Michelle Dockery, also suffered from a similar loss: in 2015, her fiancé, John Dineen, succumbed to cancer at the age of 34.

The two were quiet about their romance, but Dockery eventually let it slip that they she and the Irishman were engaged. Dineen had a rare form of cancer. After his death, Dockery thanked her fans for their “support and kindness,” but also requested that she and Dineen’s family be allowed to grieve in peace. Soon after, Dockery began a whirlwind tour to promote the final season of the series.

18Brendan Coyle’s Substance Issues

Mr. Bates went through hell and back during the war, which left him unable to walk without a cane. He also spent time in prison for theft, taking the fall for his wife at the time. After Anna finds out about this, Mr. Bates is arrested for his previous wife’s demise.

Bates has been through a lot. The actor who portrays him, Brendan Coyle, also has his share of issues. After spending time in a Thailand rehab center, he flew back to the UK and got drunk on the flight. But he still tried to drive home from the airport, but got caught driving while under the influence. He went to court, was found guilty, and had his driving privileges taken away for four years. He also went back to rehab.

17Downton’s Setting, Highclere Castle, Has A Ghost

After the premiere of Downton Abbey, its setting, Highclere Castle got its time in the spotlight, quickly becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations in the U.K. The estate, which dates back to the 17th century, has its own dark secrets and stories, and was also the home of several aristocratic families much like the Granthams. One of those secrets is that the castle has a ghost.

“I remember my cousin [Jean Margaret Herbert, Countess of Carnarvon] being ashen white when I told her what the opening sequence of the show would be,” Downton historical consultant Alastair Bruce said to Travel & Leisure. “If you remember, Daisy gets up, gets the whole house going and they clean before the Earl of Grantham comes downstairs. Mrs. Hughes is going around and the camera focuses in on the chain around her waist carrying all the keys, and Jean—she’s the Dowager Countess of Carnarvon—she went white because there is a ghost at the house who is a former housekeeper, and you know she’s around because you can hear the keys jangling at the end of her chain. “

16The Sad Story Of The Downton Abbey Bandit

In 2015, police arrested a man from Columbus, Ohio, who was so obsessed with Downton Abbey that he stole multiple DVD and Blu-Ray sets of the series from several local retailers. Although he already had prior arrests for other crimes, it seemed that he was super obsessed with the British drama. But it wasn’t an obsession with the series that fueled his theft: he intended to resell the discs to fuel a heroin addiction.

“He was originally arrested and convicted for the Downton Abbey thefts and then he was put on probation,” Bill R. Hedrick, first assistant city prosecutor for Columbus, Ohio, said to Daily Beast. “Then I waited and I ran his name every morning, waiting for him to steal again.”

And then he did.

15The Cast Got Kicked Out Of The Ballroom Where Their Last Scene Was Shot

Filming the series finale for Downton Abbey was surely an emotional one for both the cast and crew, but there was one location that just didn’t care about any of that and decided to kick them all out quickly while they were filming the show’s final scene. That scene was at a ballroom in the Ritz hotel in London, which was a common shooting location for the show throughout its six seasons. But the Ritz decided that enough was enough when the series filmed its final scene, perhaps having the ballroom reserved for something else.

While the cast and crew teared up watching the very last scene of Downton Abbey take place, the bosses of the hotel were trying to kick them to the curb.

14Hugh Bonneville’s Bad Habit

Lord Grantham hated scandal: that much was obvious on Downton Abbey. He loathed controversy and wanted to do everything to keep himself and his family out of the papers and gossip circles. But the actor who portrayed him, Hugh Bonneville, managed to get himself into a massive scandal, especially that there is talk that he spent time with a nightworker, while he was married.

There’s just one thing: the prostitute couldn’t talk about it because of an injunction filed by the famous actor that prevents her from mentioning it for four years. Most insiders believe, though, that the actor she referred to in interviews about the injuction is definitely Bonneville. Although no official statement about Bonneville and the nightworker was ever made, the gossip circles still pin him as the person who sought the injunction.

13Maggie Smith Never Watched The Show

One of the most delightful characters on Downton Abbey was the one portrayed by Dame Maggie Smith, Violet Crawley. Violet was a woman who spoke her mind and often made more sense than anyone else on the series.

Smith turned in an incredible performance as Violet over six seasons, but she wouldn’t know that: the 78-year-old actress admitted that she never watched the show. Her reasoning, though, makes sense: she didn’t want to become too self-critical about the acting choices she made while portraying the character.

”I will look at it when it’s all over, maybe, because it’s frustrating – I always see things that I would like to do differently, and think ‘why in the name of God did I do that?'” she said to The Telegraph.

12The Salmon Served At All Those Dinner Parties Was The Same One

Anyone who watched Downton Abbey usually ended up hungry by the end of each episode. That’s because food was such an important part of the series: the family always sat down to elaborate dinners, being served succulent dishes carefully prepared by the staff who lived and worked downstairs.

There was one dish that was very common, too: salmon, served in a variety of ways.

Here is a gross fact: the salmon that staff served was real, but frozen. And it was the same frozen piece of salmon that got served at every single meal. Leslie Nicol, the actress behind Mrs. Patmore, said that once filming of a scene was completed, the salmon went right back into the freezer to get used again later.

11The Dog Who Played Isis Endangered The Set

Lord Grantham loved his dog, Isis. He was heartbroken (along with viewers) when Isis passed away. But there is an old saying about how it is a nightmare to work with kids and dogs.

Although there were two dogs that played Isis, one named Ellie was just a little too playful.

As Downton films in a real castle, the furnishings are also often real, antique, and worth a lot of money. Ellie got a little too rambunctious on set and very nearly broke a vase referred to as “priceless.” Yes, that’s right: those beautiful props on the set of Downton Abbey were the real thing.

“She leapt around with her tail wagging like anything and with all these priceless vases everywhere,” Hugh Bonneville said to Metro.

10Maggie Smith Complained About All The Cake She Had To Eat

Violet Crawley spent a lot of time sitting around Highclere Castle, as well as other Downton locations, having tea. She probably drank more tea than what exists in the entirety of Britain. But one cannot have tea without also having cake, so that meant that the Dowager’s tea time also involved a lot of dessert.

Dame Maggie Smith, who portrayed the Dowager, as well as Penelope Wilton, who portrayed Isobel Crawley, once complained about all that cake. You might think there is never such a thing as too much cake, but may be wrong.

“We get the same bit of fruit cake every time we have tea together,” Wilton said to Metro. “We asked for a change the other day but got told ‘well this is what they would have eaten.'”

Let them eat cake, indeed.

9Lord Grantham’s First Dog Got Fired

Lord Grantham loved his dogs, Phoenix and then Isis, probably even more than he loved his wife and children. Both canines followed him around everywhere and one even appears in the opening intro sequence to the series.

Both pooches were yellow labrador retrievers. What most fans might not know is that there was a real reason that Phoenix died on the series and got replaced by Isis. Phoenix was actually Roly, a male labrador retriever. As a male, though, Roly did not get along well with Lady Carnarvon’s dogs. Lady Carnarvon is the real countess of Highclere Castle, Downton’s setting.

So Phoenix died and Lord Grantham got Isis, portrayed by a female dog named Ellie. In season three, though, Ellie got replaced as Isis by another female, Abbey.

8Costumes Were Recycled From Other Shows And Movies

One of the most impressive things about Downton Abbey was its wardrobe. Although many of the beautiful dresses and suits worn by the Grantham and Crawley families were custom-made, some actually came from other television shows and movies.

One red dress, in particular, worn by Lady Mary, is the same red dress worn by Catherine Zeta Jones in the 2007 movie Death Defying Acts. In reality, designers made about 60 percent of the costumes for the series, but the rest are all vintage, recycled from the history bins, as well as from other productions.

Some of the costumes, though, are direct from the 1920s, carefully altered because they’re worth a lot of money. One dress was so old and fragile that it began to fall apart during production.

7The Corsets Were So Tight That The Actresses Couldn’t Eat

Accurate costuming requires accurate undergarments, and in the case of the early 1900s, that meant that women wore corsets. Corsets are never comfortable to begin with, but those worn during that time period were for restraining as much of a woman’s bust and waist as humanly possible. That means that vintage corsets are very uncomfortable, but necessary for a production such as Downton Abbey.

“In the first series they were wearing those ­really tight, severe, S-shaped corsets and they had real problems,” chief ­costume des­igner ­Susannah ­Buxton said to The Mirror. “It’s a nightmare for those poor things. They were very, very uncomfortable. You have to learn to wear them, and of course the girls are not used to it. They were so tight cast ­members couldn’t even eat in them.”

6The Rack Of Bells Mistakes

The downstairs area of Downton Abbey has a main area that features a large board attached to a wall, where an elaborate series of bells hangs. Each bell has a name or title under it, indicating that if it rings, it means that a servant is needed wherever or with whoever the bell indicates.

It’s one of the most well-known parts of the downstairs part of the Downton set, but there’s something inherently wrong with it: it’s historically inaccurate. Although such bells were used before World War I, most homes replaced them with electric lights after the war, which coincides with the time of Downton’s first season.

“You just clicked over with a dial, and [the light in the servants’ area] went from white to red,” production designer Donal Woods said to Buzzfeed. “And you think, Oh, I’m wanted in the study. But everybody loves these bells so much, we haven’t changed them.”

5The Props Were Bought On EBay

Although the bells on the wall in the downstairs area of the Abbey are not historically accurate, it was still important to the crew to get other aspects of life in the early 1900s as exact as possible. This includes props.

Although some props get made custom for the series, that’s not necessarily an option for others. When Mrs. Patmore needed an electric mixer, only the real thing would work. But finding a mixer from that time period was an almost impossible task. Fortunately, for these things, there is eBay.

“The first one comes up for sale. $90,” production designer Donal Woods said to Buzzfeed. “It’s someone in California; I think San Francisco. So we just rang him up, gave him a credit card, [and] it arrived in a box, cleaned up, thank you very much! You can, these days, find things all over the world.”

4Many Of The Show’s Plots Came From Julian Fellowes’ Family History

The Turkish diplomat scandal and death was not the only plot point on Downton to come from real life events. Much of what happened on Downton Abbey found inspiration in things that really happened. What’s most interesting, though, is that a lot of those real life events occurred in the life of the family of Downton writer and showrunner Julian Fellowes and his wife, Jessica. Jessica once spoke about how her grandfather grew up in a grand house.

“His father was killed in the First World War when he was just 2 years old,” she said to the Royal Gazette. “His mother was left alone to bring him up, with not a small amount of interference from all the snobbish aunts.”

One of those aunts lost a husband in that war, too, and then went on to lose her son in the second World War.

3Dan Stevens Apologized For Leaving The Show

One of the most hearbreaking scenes on television came with the Christmas episode of 2012. Lady Mary is in the hospital, having just had her baby. She and Matthew are both full of joy. Then Matthew gets in a car accident and perishes.

This was due to Matthew’s actor, Dan Stevens, leaving the series.

Fans felt betrayed at how the series ruined Christmas that year, so much so that Stevens ended up apologizing about how the show handled his departure. He pointed out that he had nothing to do with the decision of killing off Matthew on Christmas Day.

“I didn’t have any say in the manner in which he went,” he told Radio Times. “Ultimately, it was in the hands of Julian [Fellowes] and the producers.”

2Focusing On Men Over Women

One of the most shocking things to happen on Downton Abbey involved a scene where Anna was assaulted. That scene proved brutal for fans to watch: Anna screamed as Mr. Green attacked her, but no one heard her because everyone else was upstairs listening to an opera performance. When Mrs. Hughes found Anna, badly beaten, her clothes torn, Anna confessed what happened, but made Mrs. Hughes swear not to tell anyone else.

But that wasn’t the worst part: in the next episode, Mr. Green returns to Downton and places the blame on Anna, saying that they were both drunk. And she has to sit and listen to him talk about other events of that night as if he hadn’t brutally assaulted her. The camera focused almost solely on him and Mr. Bates, the man Anna loves. Many viewers had a huge problem with that.

1The Downstairs Area Of Downton Abbey Was Actually A Soundstage

Highclere Castle is the perfect backdrop for Downton Abbey. It even has a history that is similar to events seen on the series. But fans might find themselves surprised that not all of the scenes set at the Abbey were actually filmed there. Sure, almost everything that happens upstairs gets shot in the castle, but most of the downstairs scenes are not.

Joanne Froggatt, the actress behind Anna, recently admitted the truth.

“The real downstairs at Highclere is very modernized; the downstairs you see on the show is on a soundstage,” she told Marie Claire. “All the downstairs rooms—the kitchen, the servants hall, that’s one big set. Now we really only use the house for the main rooms, like the large dining room and the main hall.”

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