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How ‘Downton Abbey’ film brings beloved characters back together
Judy Woodruff: Now to a much anticipated return.
Britain's Crawley family open their doors again at "Downton Abbey," this time on the big screen, all the drama, the intrigue of the PBS series that ended four years ago, this time with a royal twist.
I sat down with some of the actors and the creator for this preview.
It's part of our Canvas series on arts and culture.
It's back to the English countryside of a century ago. You remember the place, the sets, the costumes, those memorable one-liners.
Actress: After all these years, you still astonish me.
Maggie Smith: Oh, good. I'm glad I'm a revelation and not a disappointment.
Judy Woodruff: And most important, the dramas of the Crawley family and their staff, upstairs downstairs, all adapted for the big screen.
Actor: You mean during this day you will be the butler, and...
Actor: Excuse me, I am not a butler. I am the king's page of the back stairs.
Actor: So our staff has nothing to do?
Actor: I'm sure they can be useful.
Judy Woodruff: "Downton Abbey"'s creator, Julian Fellowes:
Julian Fellowes: When the first ideas started sort of rumbling around of a possible movie, I didn't think it would happen.
Judy Woodruff: So, how much of a challenge was it to take this story that had stretched out over six seasons, six years, and turn it into a two-hour film?
Julian Fellowes: Well, we didn't go back. We went on. It's a continuation of the story. It's not retelling anything that we have told before.
And in a film, you can't say to people, oh, by the way, this story will be finished in the second movie. So we have to find narrative reasons for them all to be there, and we have to complete all those stories by the end of the film.
Actor: The king and queen coming Downton.
Judy Woodruff: The story picks up in 1927, as the entire Crawley household prepares for a visit by Britain's King George V and Queen Mary.
Hugh Bonneville: Are you excited?
Actress: I am a bit. Are you?
Hugh Bonneville: Would it be common to admit it?
Actress: Not to an American.
Hugh Bonneville: To use this device, if you like, of the royal visit, which does affect everybody, even if some characters, like myself, you know, are supposed not to show their enthusiasm or excitement, it's a triumph.
Judy Woodruff: Hugh Bonneville plays Lord Grantham. Lesley Nicol is Mrs. Patmore, the cook.
Judy Woodruff: Are you breaking some kind of social taboo by sitting together for this interview?
Lesley Nicol: We have never done this, have we?
Hugh Bonneville: We love each other.
Lesley Nicol: We do love each other, but we haven't actually done much of this together in six years, have we?
Hugh Bonneville: No. No.
Lesley Nicol: So, it's nice.
Hugh Bonneville: We have got a handful of scenes together, but...
Lesley Nicol: Yes.
Hugh Bonneville: So it's nice to be acquainted off set.
Judy Woodruff: But you do come together in this storyline?
Hugh Bonneville: The great trick of Julian Fellowes, our writer and creator, our god, is that, in the film version, the house is united, that the teams both below and above stairs are united.
Actress: And Anna can look after you.
Actress: Really? Can she?
Actress: Of course.
Actress: Just like the old days.
Judy Woodruff: Actors Laura Carmichael and Michelle Dockery portray sisters Edith and Mary Crawley.
It's kind of the shoe on the other foot, isn't it, for the Crawley family?
Michelle Dockery: Exactly. And I think it's fun to see them in that position where they're having to cater for the king and queen. And every single character has a different role to play within that.
So I think Julian did such an incredible job at doing that, having this one main narrative of this big event happening, and then weaving in and out each character's kind of subplot, which he does so cleverly in the film.
Laura Carmichael: I did get giddy sort of reading the characters again. You know, he's so good at getting you right back in there.
Judy Woodruff: The film is inspired by a real royal event. In 1912, King George V and Queen Mary visited Yorkshire, England, where the fictional Downton is set.
The royals are coming, so they're no longer the top of the heap.
Julian Fellowes: They are not. You know, they are just a noble family in the north. And it is a great honor that the king and queen are coming to their house.
Judy Woodruff: How important was that to you in the scheme of figuring this out?
Julian Fellowes: I like the idea that they had to pull out every stop.
Actress: The truth is, he's in a sort of trance. Won't you help me? I feel I'm pushing a rock up hill.
Actor: I will be there in the morning, my lady.
Lesley Nicol: The family element is important, not only above stairs, but below as well. Although we're not blood relations, there was a family kind of vibe to it, and that's universal.
Judy Woodruff: How much of a departure do you think the "Downton Abbey" idea is from the way it really was back in the day?
Hugh Bonneville: Oh, yes, there's no question this is a fictionalized, rose-tinted view of a tiny sliver of society. And on paper, of course, it's a structure that is if not abhorrent, it's peculiar, certainly, and has sort of no merit to it at all, because it's all about where you were born in life.
Maggie Smith: Don't think I approve, because I don't.
Judy Woodruff: Inheritance and who deserves one is a subplot.
Hugh Bonneville: Julian writes from a position of respect for his characters. And there is, within that, a sense of, if not decency, then tolerance and compassion.
And so our audiences have responded to that.
Laura Carmichael: It's such a warm environment. This movie, when you go and watch it, it feels like some really welcome, light relief.
Actress: To quote Tennyson, kind hearts are more than coronets and simple faith and Norman blood.
Maggie Smith: Will you have enough cliches to get you through the visit?
Actress: If not, I will come to you.
Hugh Bonneville: When I watched the movie for the first time, as the lights went down, my shoulders literally relaxed. And I thought, I'm going somewhere that is just a bit kinder.
Lesley Niciol: I burst into tears because it's quite something to watch, isn't it? And the music never disappoints.
Judy Woodruff: Do you see any parallels between clearly class differences of the 1920s in Britain with what's going on today?
Julian Fellowes: Class is always with us. I mean, who you were born still is the greatest single determinant on what will happen to you in your life. I am happy to say that I think social mobility has not made it as absolute as it used to be.
But, nevertheless, I think Britain has moved on. We're in a different place than where we were in the '20s. You know, good.
Judy Woodruff: There was this stark difference between what people's lives could be like. But people couldn't act it out.
Today, they are much more likely to speak up against a government they don't like. You have got the whole fight going on over Brexit.
Julian Fellowes: To be honest, the whole business of social media, which has allowed people to express their anger, often anonymously, usually anonymously, and so this savage anger can be vented, I think that has altered the tone of our societies.
Judy Woodruff: It is a tonic at a time of great turmoil, isn't it?
Laura Carmichael: It's so nice to have something that feels so uncynical and so, yes, just warm. It's sort of as much a workplace drama as it is anything else, and the sort of hierarchy that exists in that world.
You could say it is true of any work environment. You know, it's that kind of thing that is relatable, without cynicism, really. Let's look at people and believe that we all have good in us and they're all trying to do their best.
Judy Woodruff: Stay tuned.
There may be more chances to see the Downton crew do their best. Creator and cast say they're waiting to see how audiences respond to this Downton.
I worked on my British accent, but I just couldn't get there.