Fans of “Downton Abbey,” and of homes that look like museums, should chortle with repressed delight for the new PBS release “Secrets of Highclere Castle.”
Home to the Carnavon family for 300 years, Highclere is the real setting for the fictional Crawleys of Downton. This hour-long special explores the estate, the people and the stories surrounding what is now, because of the TV show, perhaps the most famous estate in England, visited by 60,000 tourists a year.
About as rigorous as a meringue, this is a light, pleasantly filmed and informative story that gives access to both the current Lord and Lady Carnavon, an approachable and down-to-earth couple, and some of the servants who work the estate. The butler Colin Edwards speaks approvingly of the skills of his on-screen counterpart Carson—“I’d hire him,” he says.
Interiors such as the dark-paneled library and soaring salon with second-floor gallery and three-story skylight, are instantly recognizable, along with the gravel drive and front façade where so many dramatic entrances have occurred on the show. You also get to see what the real kitchen of the current house looks like–on the show, all of the downstairs scenes are filmed on a set. Very little need for a microwave in the 1920s.
Viewers of the series will recognize many of the storylines that writer Julian Fellowes drew from the true history of Highclere—the marriage of a cash-strapped Earl to a wealthy heiress, the use of the estate as a military hospital during World War I, the loss of Highclere personnel to the Great War. No mention of repressed gay footmen or revolutionary Irish chauffeurs, but you can’t have everything.
Sitting now at the intersection of monied privilege and economic necessity, most of these enormous English country homes, once the domains of the Trumps of the early 20th century, have now turned to a range of side businesses to keep the doors open. Highclere is no exception. In addition to the working farmland, tourists visits and the filming of the series, the estate hosts banquets, weddings and shooting parties to help pay the bills, which amount to $1 million a year to maintain the estate, the 20 full time staff, and the 5000-acre grounds.
Aside from tales of the economic re-invention of the estate, there are also stories about former Earls and Ladies, including the most famous Lord Carnavon, the great-grandfather of the current Earl. The 6th Earl funded the Egyptian expedition that discovered the tomb of King Tut, and his death and that of his dog four months later began the legend of a curse on the tomb and its discoverers.
“Secrets of Highclere Castle” is presented in widescreen format, with an option for English SDH subtitles. The disc has the usual satisfying PBS level of visual quality and detail, and the surrounding landscape of the castle looks beautiful.
The audio track is an unremarkable stereo recording. There are no audio set-up options.
There are no extras. Oh bother…
Not just for fans of “Downtown Abbey,” viewers will find much to enjoy in this lightweight but smart 60-minute exploration of the real manor house of the show, and the people who live and work there.