In its sixth and final season set in 1925, “Downton Abbey” was all about change and adaptability, as the aristocratic Crawleys struggle to survive and the future of England is passed to the next generation.
The designers outdid themselves this final season with the Episode 7 set piece at the spectacular Brooklands car race, and the finale showcasing the glorious weddings of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael).
“The big event was the motor race, which came about with Mary falling for race car driver Henry [Matthew William Goode],” recalled production designer Donal Woods. “But could we get racing cars from 1925?”
After phoning around for two hours, Woods secured what he needed, including including two Bugattis, an Alpha Romeo and a Bentley worth £3m that won at Les Mans in 1923.
“We had a great time with boys with toys and it was a marvelous day with restored racing cars,” Woods said. “We spent about a week shooting there [at the Goodwood Circuit in West Sussex]. Charlie’s [Julian Ovenden] terrible, fatal crash was dashing on somewhere else [a bank of road similar to the racetrack].”
According to cinematographer Graham Frake, they used four cameras, special five-speed camera tracking vehicles, cranes, a camera drone, remote camera heads and high-speed camera platform vehicles containing mock-ups of the cockpits of two of the hero racing cars. Additionally, there was a high-speed control vehicle that hosted monitors for viewing the action.
“It was epic and ambitious and the cars were worth millions…and so closeups of the actors were shot using mock-ups on the high-speed camera platform,” said Frake.
Brooklands was a great undertaking for costume designer Anna Mary Scott Robbins, who had to dress 250 people. She strove to get really bright, pigmented colors throughout the crowd: fluttering fabrics, movement and patterns.
“The key person within the audience was Lady Mary,” said Robbins. “I wanted to make sure she stood out in her beautiful red silk dress and pale, creamy gray paneled coat. And everybody was designed around her. It was huge, the number of bags, sunglasses, hats, shoes, coats, scarves. Plus there was both pre and post crash looks as a result of the atmosphere of the driving and crash.”
As for the weddings (shot at the Hampton Village church near Oxford), production designer Woods said the biggest difference was that they started embracing white flowers again in the 1920s. “People would have very colorful flowers at weddings because white flowers reminded them of the deaths of the First World War and the subsequent Spanish flu,” he said.
“And now we had the chance to give it a more modern feel with all those weddings, and release the hysterical impact of the First World War on such happy occasions.”
And each wedding dress, of course, helped convey triumphant moments for housekeeper Mrs. Hughes, Lady Mary and Lady Edith.
“Mrs. Hughes is not part of the family and for once I got to flex my muscles albeit through the wardrobe of Cora [Elizabeth McGovern],” said Robbins. “It had to start off as something believably part of her wardrobe but then modified to suit Mrs. Hughes. Her coat was beautiful velvet that I found, a vintage piece of 1920s lace and we made little tiny, pearl-embroidered roses with silk.”
Without the usual high society pomp, Lady Mary did not have a classic wedding dress. “It’s a cream lace-embroidered dress and matching jacket with pleating [for a more fashion-forward look],” continued Robbins. “Her hat had vintage veiling and, if you look closely, you can see real butterflies within. It’s a nod to the new life she’s embracing.”
And, of course, Lady Edith’s exquisite wedding dress was the showstopper (the culmination of a wardrobe that emphasized her new sense of confidence and independence).
Brussels lace was collected from various places by Robbins and augmented with a mint-condition, detachable train. “And then we built a finer lace on top… and added length with sheerness. The veil was drawn low to reflect the ethereal 1920’s wedding photographs. It was completed with two hairpieces: a seed pearl tiara for the ceremony and asymmetric drop pearl tiara for the reception.”
“Downton Abbey” embodies a grand style of period showmanship that will not be matched on TV anytime soon.