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The ‘Downton Abbey’ Economy: How One Costume Drama Reinvented British TV

The beloved series spawned a cottage tourism industry and a new feature film. But ‘Downton’ also changed the way we produce and watch international television (and also, possibly, the way we understand the U.K. itself).

Cody Pearson

Wasps swarm around the white tables outside Highclere Castle in Newbury, U.K. Half-eaten afternoon teas are left deserted as insects descend on tourists. Visitors desperately try to cover glasses of Pimm’s from imminent attack. It’s chaos. But Cyndi, 61, from Kentucky, doesn’t mind it one bit. “Oh, I’m in heaven,” she swoons as she moves to a new table, leaving a smoothie (and five wasps) behind.

Highclere Castle has been in Newbury since the 1200s. Two aristocrats—the earl and countess of Carnarvon—still live in the grand house and its sprawling grounds. There are pictures of them dotted around its 150-plus rooms: with their dogs, with their kids, with Mary Berry from Bake Off and with Brexiteer Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Their castle used to be a popular wedding venue. (It’s where glamour model Jordan and singer Peter Andre had their $1.2 million, OK! magazine–documented celebration in 2005.) Then, in 2009, it was used as the house in Downton Abbey. Now it’s too busy with tourists to host many weddings anymore.

For the two months Highclere is open every summer, the castle gets 1,200 visitors a day, each paying $26 entry. Dozens of buses park up at the entrance delivering superfans like Cyndi to what they know as the Crawley family home. Earlier this summer one fan was so excited to be at the castle that they fainted. Today, thankfully, everyone is still standing.

“Without Downton Abbey, I doubt I’d have made this trip to the U.K.,” says Cyndi. “Ain’t that silly.” The nurse had barely left Kentucky, let alone the United States, when she flew to London with her friend Ila a few days ago. They spent their first days visiting Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace. “We were walking around like: This is where Kate stood, this is where Elizabeth stood,” says Cyndi, adding that she’s a huge fan of the royals. (“I fell to my knees when I saw on TV that Diana died.”)

That said, it was the Downton tour that was Cyndi’s first booking for the holiday. “Sunday nights are my hallowed time with Downton. There’s no modern worries, the beauty of the countryside, the accents. … It takes you to another place,” she says. “My husband knows that. If I’d just up and said I was visiting the U.K., he wouldn’t have understood. When I said we were going to Highclere, he got it.”

When Downton Abbey first hit screens as a Sunday teatime drama in the U.K., even the creators themselves didn’t know what it was going to grow into. Codeveloped by independent production company Carnival Films alongside British broadcaster ITV and the U.S.’s PBS, it followed the lives of a fictional aristocratic Edwardian family and the servants working on their estate. By the time the last episode of Season 1 aired on ITV in November 2010, it had a U.K. audience of more than 10 million viewers. (That’s 15 percent of the country’s population.) By 2013 more than 120 million people around the world were watching the Crawley saga. This September, in the new grand tradition of milking beloved television series for all the content they’re worth, Focus Features will release a highly anticipated Downton Abbey feature film.

In the nine years since Downton’s first season, the series has had a remarkable impact on both tourism and television production in the U.K. That’s in part because the show exported a romanticized idea of “Britishness” around the world. The U.K.’s historic traditions, royal family, history, and class systems were turned into a backdrop for soap story lines. And fans loved it. Stately homes reported a significant rise in tourists after Downton came out in 2010. The show also triggered a trend for butlers in China. Nowadays, there’s an official line of Downton teas and a Highclere Castle gin. You can even buy a souvenir Downton bell, like the ones used to call servants in old country manors. The only people who export this twee, pro-aristocracy idea of Britishness more successfully are the actual royal family, with viewing figures for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding nearly reaching the 2 billion mark.

Meanwhile, it’s hard to imagine that Netflix would have spent $130 million producing Season 1 of The Crown in the U.K. without the success of Downton. Or that Poldark would have become such a blockbuster show around the world. Soumya Sriraman, president of television streaming service BritBox, launched by the BBC and ITV in 2017 to cater to the demand for U.K. television abroad, attributes a total change in perception of British drama to Downton. “I believe that it was the fountainhead for what has become a phenomenon—it made it cool to be a fan of British television in America,” she says. “Before that, it was a select few viewers that were watching British television on PBS. And then, suddenly, it became the conversation.” Or, rather, several conversations: about the economics of television distribution, about U.K. tourism, about the show’s uncomplicated version of British history, and even about modern-day acts of tourist vandalism. An entire economy has built up around Downton Abbey—though its legacy has meant different things to the many people who have played a part.

“There’s no question,” says Downton Abbey producer Gareth Neame. “The show was a game-changer.” Neame had been producing British television shows, like spy drama Spooks and con-artist show Hustle, for nearly a decade when he had the idea for Downton. “There has just been a perennial interest—always has been, always will be—in the class system, the Edwardian era, and the country house,” he says. “I thought that if we tackled that subject with contemporary storytelling, it could be very popular globally. I think traditionally [in the U.K.] we’ve made a lot of programs for British broadcasters focused on British audiences and not thought a lot about global reach. But there are things that are intrinsically British and yet sell everywhere, like Harry Potter and James Bond.”

The U.K. television industry has been exporting a rose-tinted idea of its culture since 1955, says James Chapman, professor of film studies at the University of Leicester. That’s when ITV’s The Adventures of Robin Hood was the first British drama series to get shown in prime time on a major U.S. network. It was followed by a wave of more swashbuckling shows like The Adventures of Sir Lancelot and Ivanhoe, then a wave of secret agent shows like Danger Man, The Saint, and The Avengers in the ’60s. Meanwhile, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was the period dramas growing global audiences, from the original Edwardian family drama Upstairs, Downstairs to the famous 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth. “I think these things go in cycles,” says Chapman.

The difference with Downton was the timing. Neame’s production company, Carnival, which had previously sold shows internationally via independent distributors BBC Worldwide or ITV Global, was bought out by NBCUniversal in 2008. “Traditionally, with buyers around the world, you would have one rate card for Hollywood television shows and another rate card for something from the BBC and they’d be a totally different scale,” he says. “What Universal did was say, ‘You take House from us and you pay X for House—why are we going to let you take Downton Abbey, which we think is every bit as good as House, for any less?’ Downton was sold to every territory in the world at a much higher price than any British show before.” The result was that U.K. drama was suddenly worth investment.

Downton’s success played out amid massive change in the television industry. Streaming networks like Netflix were globalizing viewing habits and increasing competition. The result was big budget cuts for U.K. channels. In July 2015 television regulatory body Ofcom reported that networks the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and Channel 5 had collectively reduced the amount they spent making drama series by 44 percent. In fact, ITV—a coproducer of Downton—was showing 65 percent less drama shows in the U.K. in 2015 than it did in 2008. This could have marked the end for British drama but, following Downton’s strong showing, production companies found a workaround. Ofcom’s report from the year stated that production companies had started to look at the “potential for international revenue” when they were commissioning.

“Back in the day, if a show was getting made for a primarily U.K. audience, you’d get 75 percent of your budget from the U.K. broadcaster. Now you can only get 25 percent, even if it’s a primary broadcaster,” says Neame. So British channels started making television that would sell around the world out of necessity. Coproductions—shows made like Downton, as a collaboration among a U.K. network, a U.S. network, and an indie production company—started to become commonplace. The Night Manager, for example, was produced as a collaboration among the BBC, AMC, and indie producer Ink Factory. The show cost $3.6 million per episode to make, or roughly double the episode cost of the BBC’s British-produced Peaky Blinders. It’s unlikely the publicly funded network would have paid that much for Night Manager on its own, especially as the channel is trying to cut budgets by a whopping $986 million by 2022. (The channel is so spend-cautious that its press office even bragged on Twitter that it could afford to make 18 drama series for the price of The Crown’s two seasons.)

Meanwhile, streaming networks began to capitalize on the value of “Britishness” exports. Netflix, and then Amazon, picked up Downton—opening up the show and other British television programs to a new audience. As Sriraman from BritBox explains: “When you finished Downton on Netflix it would say ‘you might also like Keeping Up Appearances.’ Then those shows also became cool.” Then international networks and streaming services also started producing shows in the U.K. themselves: Both The Crown (Netflix) and Outlander (Starz) are made about and in the U.K. but by international production companies. It’s been reported that Netflix and Amazon doubled their spending on U.K.-made TV shows last year.

The economic result of international coproduction has been a transformed British television industry and a change in the type of programs being made to appeal to an international audience. There were more than 30 new series of period dramas, either produced or set in the U.K., released in 2019 alone. A recent census by independent television trade association Pact showed that international revenue in the industry more than doubled between 2010 and 2017. Most of that growth came from streaming networks making shows in the U.K., as well as sales of finished programs, like Downton, Poldark, and Luther. By March this year it was reported that the U.K.’s television export market contributed $1.6 billion to the economy.

The cultural result? A string of blockbuster shows bagging huge audiences and a community of British television fans around the world. At Highclere, tourist after tourist talks about their love for British drama. Lesley, from Australia, says that she likes Grantchester and Doc Martin. Cyndi name-checks Midsomer Murders and Pride and Prejudice as favorites. Sharon, 72, and Angela, 71, neatly bobbed friends from New Jersey, say that they have planned their U.K. holiday around their favorite British shows: Highclere for Downton, Cornwall because of Poldark, and Scotland because of Outlander. (“Although it was disappointing without Jamie there.”)

It’s no surprise that Downton producer Neame was invited to help develop a campaign to get more visitors to travel to the U.K. “Outside of the television business,” he says, “you see people wanting these very British things. British brands are installed all around the planet. It’s great that now applies to television too.”

“Americans absolutely lap up Downton Abbey and the whole fantasy of it,” says Lewis Swan, the founder of Brit Movie Tours, the U.K.’s only television-and-film-focused tour company. A James Bond super fan, he came up with the idea 10 years ago when he was trying to visit locations from the movies. By 2011, he had launched the U.K.’s first Downton tour.

As British television has blown up around the world, so has Swan’s business. He now takes 45,000 tourists on 60 tours each year, from Peaky Blinders to Game of Thrones, Sherlock, Doctor Who, and Midsomer Murders. His most popular, though, are Downton and Harry Potter. “Things that have a very quintessentially British flavor do best,” he says. “Tourists want to see quaint villages or something that represents the national identity.” Swan estimates that about 50 percent of his customers are from the U.K., with 20 percent from the United States and 30 percent from Canada. For Downton, though, the trips are largely filled with North Americans.

Brit Movie’s Downton tours are so important to the company that guides can’t lead them until they’ve done at least one season running another. The company runs three buses a day to both Highclere and Bampton, the Cotswolds village where lots of the Downton hamlet scenes—like the exterior of the local hospital, and the church used for Lady Mary’s and Mr. Carson’s weddings—are shot. The day trips cost around £80 per person and they sell out weeks in advance. “I think there is a romantic element, with the pretty scenery and lovely costumes. It’s a bit of escapism, really,” says Swan. “Commercially speaking it gives us a good income, long may it continue.”

When I ask Gareth Neame whether he knows about the tours, he says no one has been in touch to ask for permission. “They’re completely unofficial and not licensed,” he says. “It’s a classic misuse of intellectual property.”

Bampton is full of stone cottages with thatched roofs and roses winding up their walls. Community notice boards advertise donkey derbies, allotments, and local orchestral performances. Walking around you could easily be fooled into thinking this really is a village from 1919, if it weren’t for Volvos and Minis on driveways, the supermarket in the sleepy market square—and the hordes of tourists taking pictures in a residential area, no bigger than two London apartments, which was used for filming.

Brit Movies isn’t the only company running tours to Bampton. Visitors descend on the local church and tiny square used for filming like wasps on scones at Highclere. While the population of Bampton is 2,679, this year villagers expect more than 34,000 tourists to pass through, mainly jumping off vans for a 30-minute sweep of the neighborhood. Tour guides work their way through flip books of TV stills as they stand in front of houses that were used in shooting. “Shh … we have to be quiet in front of this one,” one guide says. “Because the owner gets upset by the tours.”

Farther up the road, tourists squeeze into the local library. The space has been transformed into a souvenir shop by one of 60 community groups in the village, the Bampton Archive. Above the entrance are three The Times–branded maps of the world dense with pins marking visitors from the U.S., Europe, China, and Australia. On the shop floor there are postcards, candles, tote bags, posters, tea towels, tea cups, soaps, books, and more—all labeled as “Downton Abbey at Bampton.”

Robin Shuckburgh heads up the Bampton Archive. A 71-year-old, with floppy hair and glasses on a chain, he spent his childhood growing up in a stately home in the Chiltern Hills as a member of the British aristocracy. “I was born in 1948, so I had the early-20th-century vision of what this [Downton] life was like,” he says. “The depiction of it is very, very good. I absolutely recognize my relations in those characters. It’s one of the reasons I don’t watch it: It spooks me out.” Now running a YouTube channel about the Cotswolds, Shuckburgh moved to Bampton 12 years ago to open a B&B. Within six months of the Downton cast filming in the village, he knew that there was commercial value for the locals.

His wife, an “extremely successful” painter, gave up her usual work and spent nine months painting images of Bampton as it was presented in Downton. The result was the “Downton at Bampton” merch that the Bampton Archive sell out of the local library. In the seven years the Downton shop has been running, the group has sold $45,000 worth of Downton merch, the sales of which have gone to fixing the library’s roof. Robin says that once that’s complete, the plan is for the sales to go to village charities and council projects.

Not every villager is happy about the tourism, though. “I suppose up until last year the noise wasn’t very bad,” says Shuckburgh. “Now it’s become very serious. You have people who bought a house in this beautiful sleepy square that no one had ever heard of. They live quietly within cozy village life. Then, suddenly, they are surrounded by tens of thousands of visitors from around the world who see their houses as a film set.”

Shuckburgh says that visitors take photos through the top-floor windows with their selfie sticks, they bang on the windows to make the dogs bark, and sometimes they even walk into the houses. “We had a funeral going on in the church not long ago,” he says. “The hearse was parked outside the gate and we saw tourists draped over it. They were having their photographs taken leaning over a hearse that someone was about to be put into to be taken away. That seems pretty dreadful.”

He thinks the issue is that tourists forget that they’re not on a film set. “It’s really important to realize that there isn’t anything malicious about these people,” he says. “Everyone in the village has had a moment in the churchyard where people have asked, ‘Can you tell me where Matthew Crawley’s gravestone is now.’ That’s just an inkling of the way fiction and reality are blurred.”

The impact of the tourism this summer has been so great that the local parish council has had to take action. Council chairman Jacky Allinson argues that tour guides need to do a better job at advising tourists on how to behave. “Please don’t pick the potted plants, please don’t sit on people’s motorbikes,” she says. She adds that it’s the big buses that are the problem, not individual visitors or smaller groups. “They stop for 20 minutes and then get back on the coach,” she says. “We’re looking to see if we can get them to stay a bit longer and go to the pub or buy a piece of cake in a coffee shop. They either need to be here longer or not come at all.”

Meanwhile, some locals have taken things into their own hands. One resident who lives in the square used in filming has been running a Twitter account for the past year, sharing pictures of tourists and guides—or as he calls them, “peeries” or “the living dead, but in kagoules [sic; cagoules]”—taken from his windows with angry captions. In fact, there are rumors going around the tour guides that an angry local dragged a tour guide into his house and shouted at him. When I raise this with Shuckburgh he says: “That sounds highly unlikely. I’m not aware of any confrontations.”

“I don’t think most big tour guides are here long enough to know if people like or dislike them,” adds Allinson. “They never bother to find out. … And we’re all terribly polite and British about it.”

The complaints of the villagers of Bampton aren’t the only grumblings about the legacy of Downton Abbey. Faye Woods, a professor in film and television at the University of Reading, worries that as British period dramas are increasingly funded by international channels, they’ll become more romanticized and sanitized to have the sense of “Britishness” that appeals to global audiences. “Britain can’t afford to make stuff by itself anymore,” she says. “So you have to make stuff that’s appealing to a coproducer, which means more contested histories only get made for smaller budgets.”

Downton Abbey is a prime example of a softened version of British history. “It drew on the show Upstairs, Downstairs,” says Woods. “But it was less critical than its predecessor. It’s weird because even though it’s made for the populist U.K. channel, it’s made by Julian Fellowes, who is a Tory peer. The message of the show is very conservative, that ‘the only good working-class person is someone who will serve me correctly.’ In Downton Abbey you see the servants having fun and playing the piano in the evenings rather than working a 16-hour day. It’s a positive representation of a past that was actually very divergent and conflicting.”

Katherine Byrne, author of Edwardians on Screen: From Downton Abbey to Parade’s End, points out that lower-class lives in particular were much harder than what’s shown below stairs. “Downton has this amazing ability to package a past that never really existed and make it look lovely,” she says. “Realistically, that wasn’t the case; the class system and stately homes in Britain were places of abuse and exploitation. It was quite common place for working-class women servants to be sexually and physically abused by their employers. You were expected to do backbreaking work with very little reward. If you actually had to answer that bell they’re selling [on PBS] at all hours of the day and night, you would not want it as a memento.”

While there’s “nothing bad about escaping the reality of our lives for a while,” especially as “sanctuary from a time that’s also becoming messy in real life,’’ Byrne says the bias of Downton is problematic because it’s quite often the only view of U.K. history that people get. Or possibly the only version they want: “Certain kinds of tourists—especially Americans—have always loved certain kinds of British history because they don’t see themselves as having their own,” adds Woods. It’s an opinion that I hear from many of the visitors around Bampton and Highclere. One U.S. tourist tells me she loves Downton because it shows “peerage, royalty, and all of that heritage that we don’t have.” A couple from Los Angeles tell me that they like British television because there’s “a certain amount of history that the U.S. just doesn’t have.”

“But they do have their own history,” says Woods, “This idea of Manifest Destiny, plantation South is just more tricky history for them to deal with than consumable, commodified British history.”

It is worth pointing out that Downton’s not made to be historically accurate—it’s made to be cozy escapism. Some story lines are in fact far more liberal than the reaction would have been historically: It’s unlikely that Mrs. Patmore’s war deserter son would have got a memorial or that footman Thomas Barrow would have kept his job after being caught kissing a man. “Downton does remind us that there were gay people in the past,” says Byrne. “Period dramas before that didn’t do that before.” The issue is that Downton has set a framework as an upper-class fantasy that sells internationally, and now British TV makers are flooding channels with it. Since Downton’s success there has been a wave of similar ITV coproductions focusing on upper-class lifestyles. “The channel is very into Georgian period drama,” Woods says. “They’ve done Sanditon, they’re developing a new Pride and Prejudice, Beecham House, Vanity Fair. … This whole range of ‘bonnet stuff.’”

Woods points out that the BBC has instead been telling period stories of working-class history like Poldark and cult Birmingham gangster drama Peaky Blinders, which are both proof that more contentious stories can grow global fan bases with proper investment. Meanwhile, there’s also been a boom in British crime show exports like Luther, The Fall, Broadchurch, and Happy Valley over the past few years, as well as thrillers like Bodyguard. Is a positive impact of Downton that all British television has gained more momentum than it would have? Soumya Sriraman from BritBox says that their audience has also embraced a “vast range of programming” that goes beyond period dramas. She says, “Everyone [in British TV] has to be grateful for the combination of Downton Abbey and streaming services that have made it sexy again for these shows to be accepted locally.”

With the release of Downton Abbey: The Movie and Season 3 of The Crown later this autumn, Britishness as an export shows no signs of slowing down. In many ways, the Downton movie seems to be riding the regal wave of the Netflix show: The film joins the Crawley family in 1927 as King George V and Queen Mary come to visit. The combination of royals and Crawleys is one that the Carnarvons are already making the most of in real life at Highclere. Their afternoon tea service is an idea borrowed from neighboring royal residence Blenheim Palace. Between the real, lavish bedrooms used for Lady Sybil, Edith and Mary’s in Downton, there are Daily Mail clippings of royal events from the 1920s and ’30s on the corridor walls. Tourists squint to read them as they queue for each space.

By 4 p.m., though, those queues have disbursed and the visiting hours at Highclere start to come to a close. Tourists trickle out of the castle and down the lawn to the car park. Some whisper about the “rooms being smaller than expected” or the “servants’ quarters not being open for visitors.” But it’s clear that for many—like Cyndi—all the castle’s imperfections will be forgotten as soon as they leave. The fantasy is so cozy that all flaws fade away. “It just has such a feeling of an easier and slower time,” says Cyndi of Highclere. “It really is heaven.”

Kate Lloyd is an award-winning journalist from London who writes about both pop culture and real life—often at the same time.

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