The Inside Story on Downton Abbey: The Exhibition

For six seasons, the first commanding notes of Downton Abbey’s sweeping musical score elicited a downright Pavlovian response among the beloved series’ faithful fans. Sunday nights were certainly sacrosanct at my house when, for one blissful hour, I was transported across the pond to the post-Edwardian era and into the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their devoted servants who lived in a grandly iconic English country house.

I experienced that feeling again – and then some – earlier this week when I got a private behind the scenes tour of Downton Abbey: The Exhibition which opens to the public this Saturday. Fans of the show are sure to love this first-ever fully immersive multi-media experience set inside the world of Carnival Films’ award-winning global phenomenon. [Carnival Films is a division of NBCUniversal International Studios and one of the UK’s leading drama specialists] The exhibition space at 218 W 57th Street (between Broadway and Seventh Avenue) is positively stunning and recreates the world of Downton down to the smallest detail.

I was joined at Michael’s today by Sarah Cooper, chief operating officer of NBCUniversal International Studios, and Denise Bassett, SVP of Corporate Communications, who gave me the inside story of the incredible amount of work that went into creating what is sure to be one of the most talked about exhibitions in recent memory. Based in London, Sarah is in town to kick-off the exhibition with a series of events culminating with Friday night’s gala at the space with series’ stars Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) and Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason).

The series, which aired on PBS’ Masterpiece, attracted an impressive 26 million viewers in its final season, is seen in over 250 territories around the world. “We were keenly aware that Downton has a fan base like no other program,” said Sarah. I ventured that the show’s stateside fans must be among the most passionate and she agreed. “The show’s popularity in the US reached a scale that told us the fans were passionate to experience the show in the round.”

The fans’ enduring affection for Downton is “a tribute to the characters Julian [Fellowes, the show’s writer and creator] and Gareth [Neame, executive producer] created and speaks to their creative genius,” said Sarah. The show’s “charming” cast of actors have always been very accessible to their fans and very supportive of the show. I’ve gone to many a panel discussion where every last one of them stayed until every fan had the chance to get a photo and briefly chat with them. Many of the actors came ‘back to Downton’ and got into again character to do all new material that was created especially for the exhibition. “There was this sense of the band is back together,” said Sarah. “They were all happy to be part of this family again.”

The presence of the actors and the grand scale of the series is deeply felt throughout the museum-quality exhibition in many ways. Visitors could easily spend hours poring over more than 1,000 items from the show beautifully staged on three floors ranging from an extensive selection of costumes and jewelry worn by Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Hugh Bonneville and Dame Maggie Smith to some of the series most recognizable sets. I don’t want to spoil the fun and give too much away, so I’ll just tell you this — Visitors can walk through Downton Abbey above and below stairs and explore Mrs. Patmore’s bustling kitchen, the servants’ hall – with the bell board and Lady Mary’s bedroom — all recreated to look just as they were on the series. There’s even an exact replica of the Crawley’s dining room that looks as if the family is about sit down to entertain in the grand style as was their custom. It is a truly dazzling set piece among a whole host of ‘wow’ moments.

“We were very keen to ensure the people at the heart of the show was part of the creative process,” said Sarah. Emmy-winning production designer Donal Woods, Anna Robbins, costume designer on seasons five and six and executive producer Liz Trubridge were all very involved in the creation of the exhibition.  “It was a deeply collaborative process,” said Sarah.

The Dowager Countess

No detail was too small in recreating the world of Downton. Anna Robbins posed the female mannequins just as a lady of the period would stand and gesture, explained Sarah. The result is when you look at certain mannequins, you can literally see the characters come to life before your eyes. Lady Mary lives! The same precision was applied to the set decoration. “There’s a certain shade of Downton green,” explained Sarah in describing the color used in the house and was needed for the exhibition. “We knew we had to get it exactly right.” To that end, after lunch, Sarah was going off to do two final sound and light checks. “The lighting is key – especially with the costumes,” she explained. “All the sound levels have to be right. The ambient music has to be at different levels at different parts of the exhibition. All of this affects the overall experience. After we have people come through, we’ll be looking at them again.” Carson would be so proud.

Lady Mary Costume

And the exhibition isn’t just for fans of the show. In addition to revisiting the characters and the costumes, Downton Abbey: The Exhibition also offers a fascinating look at all aspects of the period in which the Carnival Films’ series was set. The events and social issues from World War I to the Roaring Twenties are woven seamlessly into the exhibition with an insightful and comprehensive look at British society, culture and fashion. “This is such an interesting period,” said Sarah. “We wanted to tell the story from an art and design standpoint as well and capitalize on the differences between characters,” explained Sarah. “The Dowager Countess was quite Victorian versus Sybil who was very much a Bohemian and Edith who was slightly Bloomsbury, very artistic and became this independent woman with a career.”

The costumes, all beautifully maintained, are sure to be of great interest to fashionistas everywhere. Curated by Anna Robbins, the characters’ lives are chronicled in a stunning array of many of the series’ most memorable costumes including Lady Mary’s ‘Engagement Dress’ worn in that unforgettable scene where Matthew proposes in the snow, Lady Sybil’s pantaloons which she boldly wore with an embroidered bodice and headpiece and Lady Rose’s ethereal gown and feathered headpiece worn when she was presented at court during the ‘London season. My personal favorites are the wedding dresses. Both of Lady Edith’s are on view. “They’re both so beautiful,” said Sarah. “But the second one really shows how Edith had become this very sophisticated woman who was comfortable in her own skin.” We were always #TeamEdith.

While diehard fans might not need to be reminded who wore what and when, each costume will be accompanied by a photograph of the character wearing the garment and a card explaining its significance.

Not that there’s any chance the exhibition will be anything less than a sell-out, there is plenty of promotion geared to entice visitors to the space. Sarah is meeting with concierges from the city’s top hotels to give them a first-hand look at the exhibition so they will be able to suggest a visit to guests in town for the holidays. An elaborate Downton-themed afternoon tea will be served at The Palm Court at The Plaza and special exhibition packages are available at The Whitby and the Viceroy Central Park Hotel. Downton Abbey: The Exhibition will run through January (and is open on Thanksgiving and Christmas if you’re looking for a good excuse to escape your relatives). Dates for national tour will be announced at a later date. See you there!

Lunch today at Michael’s

Seen & Heard Around the Room

Mickey Ateyeh (who, you may recall, knows everyone in New York) with actor Tony Danza (who looked terrific) and Clive Davis, his husband Greg Schriefer and Tita Kahn widow and Michael Riedel of the New York Post on Table One. … Robert Zimmerman and the New York Post’s Richard Johnson on Two … In an encore of last week’s appearance Eva Mohr and Kathie Lee Gifford sipping – yes – chardonnay on Table Three … Leonard Lauder and a blonde gal (anyone?) on Four … Allen & Co.’s Stan Shuman at his regular perch on Table Five … Andrew Stein on Six … Bookseller Glenn Horowitz on Table Seven … Publicist to the fashionable and fabulous Hamilton South on Eight.

The big doings in the dining room on Table Fourteen started before lunch even began – the ‘body men’ for Phil Murphy, the newly elected governor of New Jersey, scoped out the dining room (“Where is the men’s room?”) before Mr. Murphy arrived with his wife and daughter. Celebrating his big win, no doubt.

Moving on … The networking champion Barry Frey having not one, but two lunches in the space of two hours. First, pre-noontime tea with Tim Bleakley, CEO of the Britain-based Ocean Outdoor UK followed by a sit-down with Marshall Sonenshine. How do you do it? … Producer Beverly Camhe on Twenty-two … Long time no see! Larry Kramer, Chairman of the Board of Directors of TheStreet with Harvard Business Publishing’s Josh Macht. Nice to meet you!

And finally, a few words about Liz Smith, who passed away earlier this week. Long before I started doing this column, I did an interview with Dominick Dunne who revealed to me he was battling cancer. It was the first time he had mentioned his illness in print. He was a good friend of Liz’s and after he told me, he worried she might be mad at him for not giving her the scoop. I had never met her, but a few days after the story ran, I received an envelope in the mail with her name in the upper left corner. Inside was the interview torn from the pages of the magazine with said paragraph circled in black ink. Attached was a note from Liz which read, “Well done!” I finally got to meet her years later at Michael’s (where else?) when our mutual friend Joe Armstrong introduced us. When I thanked her for her note she said, “Oh honey, I was mad but that’s yesterday’s news.” RIP Liz.

We’ll be off next week getting ready for the holiday. Happy Thanksgiving. See you back at Michael’s in two weeks!

– Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane

Diane Clehane is a leading authority on celebrity and royalty who has written for Vanity Fair, People, and many other national outlets. She is a New York Times best-selling author of five books, including Diana: The Secrets of Her Style and Imagining Diana. She appears regularly on CNN.

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