DOWNTON ABBEY is decamping to a Scottish castle in the show’s Christmas special, but Stephen McGinty says we shouldn’t be surprised as the Highlands
were once the most fashionable place to summer.
For the fashionable set, all roads lead to Scotland. Karl Lagerfeld may have briefly taken up residence at Linlithgow Castle earlier this week, but the German designer was merely following in the distant faint footsteps of the founder of the fashion house he now runs, Coco Chanel. For it is a little known fact, one given brighter illumination by Justine Picardie, in her recent biography of Chanel, that the petite French designer was an accomplished angler and a regular visitor to the heathered hillsides near Cape Wrath.
In the 1920s, the most fashionable place to summer was not yet the Côte d’Azur, still a place to spend one’s winters, but a Highland estate. Where Queen Victoria first took up residence, the great and the good had long followed. In the summer of 1925, Coco Chanel spent weeks at Lochmore, the country home of the 2nd Duke of Westminster, the richest man in London, whose love affair with the designer would prompt him to decorate the lamp posts with her initials, still visible today.
The leather-bound fishing records of the Reay Forest Estate, a vast expanse of 100,000 acres, state that the date on which she first plucked a salmon from her lover’s pool was 27 May, 1925, when a 9lb fish was landed. Four days later she hauled out a 12lb salmon, half a pound heavier than her host’s. During June, July and August, she caught both salmon and sea trout. Two years later, the country house party included Winston Churchill, who in early October, 1927, wrote to his wife, Clemmie: “Coco is here, she fishes from morn till night & in 2 months has killed 50 salmon. She is very agreeable really, gt & strong, being fit to rule a man or an empire.”
A taste of what Coco Chanel enjoyed can be experienced by viewers of the Downton Abbey Christmas special as the Crawley family, led by Lord and Lady Grantham, become the latest of the fashionable set to discover the beauty of summer in the Scottish Highlands, midges and all. The two-hour special, set to be broadcast on Christmas Day, will not be a seasonal special, no snow in July, but will see the family decamp, along with their personal servants John Bates, freshly liberated from prison, and his wife, Anna, for a summer residence at Duneagle Castle, as the guests of the gloriously named Shrimpie Flintshire, the nephew of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham.
For the actor Peter Egan, who plays Shrimpie Flintshire, the role had great appeal. “It was just a great delight to work with Maggie Smith, one of my heroines from when I was a student.” He says of his character: “He’s a friendly, charming man and I haven’t played many sweet men in my life.”
During the trip, Lady Edith – who having experienced the liberation of working as a nurse during the First World War has moved on to work as a journalist – discovers that her newspaper editor Michael Gregson happens to be on holiday in Scotland and may not be there simply for fishing. A frisson has developed between the pair but, as it was in 1920, he is forbidden fruit as a married man with a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot get a divorce. Coco Chanel would have been untroubled by such social mores, but Lady Edith is more conscious of gossip. However, his arrival causes strain between Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery), who disagree about Gregson’s true motives towards Edith.
In a situation familiar to anyone who has shared a villa with another family, there is further tension between the family and their hosts that’s exacerbated by the frostiness between Shrimpie and his wife, Susan. “They’ve lived together too long and they’re tired of each other,” says Egan.
As much as he enjoyed filming at Inveraray Castle, Egan was unprepared for certain experiences – namely discovering he’d be wearing a kilt. “That gave me the horrors!” he says. “You have that thing about putting a skirt on, but, in fact, it looked very good.”Then there was the hunting scene with co-star Hugh Bonneville. “We had to go on our bellies and it was muddy and full of animal poo. Of course, when you see it, it will be 30 seconds, but we had eight hours of it!” He didn’t have much success with the Scottish dancing, either. “But you’ll be pleased to hear I’m not doing much of it,” he says.
Lily James, who plays his daughter, agrees. “He was very funny,” says the actress who was introduced as the wayward Lady Rose in the final episode of series three. After a dalliance with a married man, she was banished to the Scottish estate by the Dowager Countess. “I love being in the calm and away from London but I had to try and ignore that for my character, who’s completely frustrated by being in this remote location,” says James. Indeed, she found the Highlands to be rather heavenly, except, of course for the midges. “There’s a beautiful dining scene by the lake but we had to spray insect repellent every time they said ‘cut’.”
While Lady Rose represents the “new woman” of the 1920s, her behaviour only aggravates her parents’ fractious relationship. “By the time the family come and visit I think she’s desperate for company and excitement,” says James, who watched the Downton Christmas special with her family last year. She say: “In fact, it took precedence over Love Actually, which is a big thing.”
While their employers are hundreds of miles, and more than a few purple clad glens away, their staff are all set to make mischief even if it does prove rather tricky under the watchful eye of Carson, the butler, whose world will rise or crash depending on the smoothness of the dinner service.
“Carson’s still Carson and he’ll never change,” says Ed Speelers, who plays the rather dashing footman Jimmy Kent, who in the previous series was told the ways of the crooked world by Carson after the valet Thomas attempted to seduce him. “There are moments between Jimmy and Tommy where they’re having altercations, but we tried to make it playful and fun,” says Speelers.
The Christmas special is set nine months on from the series finale and, as the housekeeper Mrs Hughes told Mr Bates in that episode: “Life is full of surprises.” There are rumours of romance for Mrs Patmore, the cook, while the Thirsk Country Fair will provide the setting for a spot of bother for some staff, as Speelers reveals: “Jimmy’s trying to lead [fellow footman] Alfred into all sorts of trouble.”
More than the feathers on dusters are set to be ruffled with the arrival of a new housemaid, Edna, played by MyAnna Buring, an actress fresh from the success in the Twilight films. The actress says she’ll be watching her Downton debut with her mum this Christmas. “I did Miss Marple and Downton this year and she’s been thrilled because I’ve been in something she cares to watch,” says Buring.
Forthright and determined, it doesn’t take Edna long to set her sights on the estate’s land agent Tom Branson, who’s stayed behind at Downton with young daughter Sybil. The former chauffeur was left a widower when Lady Sybil died in childbirth and despite the family’s attempts to integrate him into their world, he continues to live between the Crawleys and the servants below stairs. “Branson gives her hope,” says Buring. “It shows people a way beyond the station they’re born into.”
A point on which Coco Chanel would agree. After all, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel adopted her nickname from Qui qu’a vu Coco?, a song about a girl who has lost her dog (“who has seen Coco?”), which she used to sing in a working-class music hall. I wonder if she ever shared a bill with Mr Carson?
• Downton Abbey Christmas Special is on ITV1 on Christmas Day