The Strange Origins Of Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey Movie

Ever since Downton Abbey returned to Netflix in the U.S. and the U.K., people who missed the series the first time around have been discovering it. And people who loved it and hung onto every episode at the time are rewatching it, of course. Maybe more than once. It’s no wonder. Those fabulous period costumes! That gorgeous location! The drama! The sick burns from the Dowager Countess! It’s all so good. Ever wonder what inspired the series? Where did it come from? Is it based on a true story? We answer all these questions and more!

Is Downton Abbey based on a true story?

Nope. Downton Abbey isn’t based on a true story. Since it’s historic fiction it does, of course, pull in some real-life events from the time, but the characters and the storylines the show revolves around are all made up. The sinking of the Titanic impacts the characters, as does World War I. The Spanish flu makes an appearance, and later shows cover the forming of Ireland as an independent state. Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes said it was important to him that, although the show is fiction, the details be as historically accurate as possible. Actually, the detailed structure of the show, with its many interwoven stories, is similar to American shows like “E.R.” Although the characters and their storylines are fictional, they do take some of their stories and quirks from an actual family. In fact, they take them from a family that was involved with the real-life Downton Abbey – Highclere Castle. Lady Almina, who was the great-grandmother of the Castle’s Earl of Carnarvon came with a large dowry. The family used the money to fix up Highclere and it is believed Cora Crawley’s character is based on Lady Almina. The butler, Carson, is also said to be based on a butler at Highclere.

Is Downton Abbey based on a book?

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes drew from a bunch of sources of inspiration, just as many people who write complicated stories do. Author Carol Wallace says he mentioned in an interview that he’d just finished reading “To Marry an English Lord,” by her and Gail MacColl. The book is about a time in the 1880s and 90s when American heiresses (like Lady Almina) would head to Britain and swap their family money for titles, just as Cora Crawley does in Downton Abbey. Of course, there are plenty of other storylines throughout the show, so this book is just one of the possible inspirations for the creators.

Any other sources of inspiration?

Actually, Downton Abbey was supposed to be a spin-off of the movie Gosford Park. In fact, Maggie Smith plays a dowager countess in both the movie and the series. Julian Fellowes wrote the movie years before he began work on Downton Abbey. However, eventually Downton Abbey was developed as a stand-alone show and some of the defining characteristics were changed. The characters got new names and backgrounds. The time period was moved up to begin in 1912, instead of the 1930s like Gosford Park. But the main upstairs/downstairs theme – looking at the lives of the aristocracy and the lives of those who serve them – was kept. Downton Abbey was a whole lot nicer to the upper-class, however…in Gosford Park none of the aristocrats come off looking good while we actually like the characters in Downton Abbey. It’s really interesting to watch Downton Abbey and then watch (or rewatch) Gosford Park to see the similarities and differences in both. I highly recommend it!

What to watch if you love the Downton Abbey show

If you’re obsessed with D.A., here are some other movies and shows you may love:

1. Gosford Park

Like I said above, it’s definitely worth watching to compare the two. Gosford Park is a black comedy set in November of 1932 in the English countryside at a stately manor – Gosford Park. A wealthy Englishman, Sir William McCordle, hosts a shooting party and weekend at his estate with his wife, Lady Sylvie, and their daughter Isobel. Someone is murdered (gasp!) and the audience spends the rest of the time trying to figure out who did it. The movie features a huge cast of British actors you may recognize (especially if you watched a lot of movies in the late 90s) and it’s interesting to spot the similarities and differences between this movie and Downton Abbey.

You can rent Gosford Park on Amazon Prime, Google Play, and iTunes.

2. The Downton Abbey movie

The movie came out in 2019 and picks up in 1927 with the King and Queen visiting Downton. Along with getting the house in order for a royal visit, the staff and family must contend with an assassin who wants to kill the King. The movie brings back almost all of the original cast and is also written by Julian Fellowes so it keeps the same feel as the series. Once you’ve watched the movie, take heart – a sequel is planned for spring of 2022 if you can’t quit this family.

You can watch the Downton Abbey movie on Amazon Prime, or HBO Max.

3. The Pride & Prejudice miniseries

Pride & Prejudice isn’t an upstairs/downstairs movie…you don’t really see the servants much in the book or any of the adaptations. But it does concern money – who has it, who doesn’t, how you can be a respectable family and still be just inches from complete poverty. It focuses especially on the women of the time – if a lady didn’t make a good marriage, her entire financial future was at risk. And yet, with all those concerns, it’s also LOL-funny. The miniseries also has gorgeous costumes and beautiful scenery.

You can watch the Pride & Prejudice miniseries on iTunes, and Amazon Prime.

4. The Crown

If you can’t get enough of royal life, The Crown is a must-see! Follow the life of Queen Elizabeth, and the events of Great Britain, from the time of her wedding to Prince Phillip in 1947 through the early 2000s. See how she begins ruling as a young married woman, likely much earlier than anyone had planned, her much-scrutinized relationship with Princess Diana, and so much more that happened in those 50 years.

You can watch The Crown on Netflix. 

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