Bonneville: Downton Abbey's global appeal 'delightful but surprising'
It didn't get more English than this – having a chat with Hugh Bonneville, Downton Abbey's Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham – at The Ritz-Carlton in London over afternoon tea.
In a grand dining area, over scones, sandwiches, tea - and a hearty side dish of his British humour - Bonneville, 53, talked of his fond memories filming Downton Abbey and the lasting appeal of the award-winning television show.
Do you have a favourite spot at Highclere Castle?
Lady Carnarvon once took me and Michelle Dockery (who plays Lady Mary Crawley) up to one of the follies (ornamental buildings) called Heaven's Gate.
She served us smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne in between scenes and we sat there admiring the view overlooking the estate. That was quite something.
What was one of the most memorable moments during filming?
We were filming Lady Mary's second wedding in the final season and it was a beautiful sunny afternoon. When we wrapped, it was so hot that people jumped into the pool, including ladies in their valuable slips. They got a bit of a telling off.
Who was the most surprising visitor on set?
George Clooney, who starred in a Christmas sketch special. He was gracious and had bent over backwards to be present, arriving straight from the airport.
Suddenly everybody, even those who had never been to Highclere Castle, turned up and took such great interest in the furniture and the library. Even Maggie Smith said, "(imitates) Yes, I think I'm available".
Any secrets you can share with us?
During Robert Crawley's first entrance down the grand staircase in the first season, the dog standing by me remained by my side only because I had treats in my hand.
That dog had no personality whatsoever. The only way he would function was if he had a bit of sausage.
In the show, you also see handwritten letters. I admit - I did steal one or two letters (laughs), including the telegram about the declaration of war.
The newspapers, even if they weren't germane to the scene, had actual news that was relevant to the time period. I used to get quite obsessed reading about the stock market and war bonds.
Are you surprised by the international success of Downton Abbey?
I am delighted but totally surprised. I thought the American market would enjoy it because of the pretty costumes but I never thought it would travel beyond that.
I once received a letter from a fan in China who said it reflects Chinese society so brilliantly - I thought it would be quite the opposite.
I think the relationship between characters are universal and one of the major attraction to people is that it's a world you dive into in the company of characters who ultimately try to look out for each other.
Bringing Downton Abbey to life at MBS
Fans in Singapore will now get a chance to immerse themselves in the world of Downton Abbey once again later this month, and this time, up close.
Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which kicks off on June 17 at Marina Bay Sands, will "transport" visitors to Downton Abbey. Tickets are available from Tuesday.
It will include nine zones that offer visitors a look at key costumes, film set recreations, audio-visual material featuring memorable scenes and some cast members, props and even holograms of Mr Carson and housekeeper Mrs Hughes.
It has been nearly two years in the making for this multi-million dollar venture by NBCUniversal International Studios and Imagine Exhibitions.
WHAT Downton Abbey: The Exhibition
WHEN From June 17 onwards, for a limited period of five weeks
WHERE Marina Bay Sands
TICKETS $15 for children, $30 for adults. Sales begin from Tuesday (June 6) at www.marinabaysands.com/ticketing
It is a five-year tour, with hopes of an extension, that kicks off in Singapore before travelling to the US and beyond.
"We know there are plenty of fans in Singapore. Singapore also has a fantastic venue that is able to host us, one that provides an amazing contrast between the futuristic buildings of today and the Edwardian period in England. It is a great launchpad to other international territories," said Mr Dominic Burns, 48, the senior vice-president of brand management and commercial at NBCUniversal International Studios.
Fans can also look forward to meeting with cast members Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan, Kevin Doyle, Sophie McShera and Michael Fox when they grace the red carpet event on June 21.
Among the people involved in the exhibition is Downton Abbey costume designer Anna Robbins, who took over the role in 2013 and designed costumes for the fifth and sixth seasons.
The exhibition will see 56 costumes, at least half of which are originals from the TV show.
On selecting the collection to be displayed at the exhibition, Ms Robbins, 38, said: "I wanted to get the right range and represent the costumes across all the seasons. It needs to represent all the characters and the special occasions. It's also a case of giving a visual spectacle with the right colours, textures and tones."
Her favourite section to curate was evening wear because of the "colours and craftsmenship".
Ms Robbins casts her net wide and sources for materials all across the globe, from vintage fairs in London to vintage stores in Paris and Scotland.
Some date from as far back as a century ago and as such, are extremely fragile. The heaviest of costumes can weigh at least 2kg.
One costume that Ms Robbins regrets not being part of the exhibition is Lady Rose’s fairy-tale, heavily-beaded wedding gown which had tulle so fine it was damaged during filming.
For Ms Robbins, caring for the costumes so that they are able to withstand the transportation and shipping processes was crucial.
“The costumes are secured from top to bottom, with mannequins secured in place so there is no movement when the crates are at sea. Every costume is protected in a customised silk bag to guard against moisture and dust,” she said.
It is hoped that the exhibition, affectionately dubbed the seventh season of Downton Abbey, reminds fans of what they loved so deeply about it.
“We hope fans leave satisfied, with smiles on their faces and maybe even tears in their eyes,” said Mr Burns. - NOOR ASHIKIN ABDUL RAHMAN