Downton Abbey stars in Singapore for world premiere of interactive exhibition

Downton Abbey stars in Singapore for world premiere of interactive exhibition

Show creator-writer Julian Fellowes and cast tell Channel NewsAsia’s Genevieve Loh the secret to the TV show’s global success, and their reactions to Downton’s contribution to the current butler trend among China’s elite.

Downton Abbey
The award-winning Downton Abbey also claims a loyal following in Asia. Its popularity partly triggered a trend among China's elite to hire butlers. 

SINGAPORE: Downton Abbey may have ended a year and a half ago but the popularity of the award-winning drama series and its beloved characters shows no sense of waning.

At least not for Downton Abbey’s venerable head butler Mr Carson, played by Brit actor Jim Carter.

“I was stopped as I was waiting here in the Singapore (Changi) airport. A very large gentleman came up to me and said, ‘I just like to thank you for all the pleasure that you’ve given us’. And I thought: How nice to know that you have given pleasure to people. It’s a very good thing,” Carter recounted to Channel NewsAsia. “In theatre you get a direct response from the audience. You don’t get that type of response in television normally so it’s very nice that people enjoy it.”

For Carter, already a familiar face on both British television and films before the drama series, this was evidence of the enduring impact of Downton Abbey.

Jim Carter plays the venerable butler Carson
Jim Carter plays the venerable butler Carson in Downton Abbey (Photo: TV Still)

“It’s very odd to be recognised all over the world … odd for someone who worked for 40 years before Downton Abbey came along,” he continued with a smile. “I did a charity bike ride in Cambodia around Angkor Wat, Siem Reap when a busload of Chinese tourists stopped. There I was sweating in my cycling gear and helmet when they yelled ‘Mr Carson!’

And that’s when I thought, ‘Oh my god, this has gotten everywhere!’”

Carter and several of his co-stars are in Singapore for the world premiere of Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, an interactive exhibition at the Marina Bay Sands Expo and Convention Centre that takes visitors into the world of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants at the turn of the 20th century. It features some of the iconic sets and a host of costumes and props worn and used by the cast of the show which included the great Dame Maggie Smith (Dowager Countess of Grantham) and Hugh Bonneville (Earl of Grantham) 

Fans will be able to catch the actors who play their favourite characters on Wednesday (Jun 21), 6.30pm at Marina Bay Sands. Gracing the red carpet will be Carter, alongside Phyllis Logan (head housekeeper Mrs Hughes), Sophie McShera  (assistant cook Daisy), Kevin Doyle (footman Molesley), Michael Fox (footman Andrew) and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith).

Downton Abbey The Exhibition (costumes)
Some of the period costumes worn by the cast of Downton Abbey. (Photo: Mayo Martin)

According to the organisers, the decision to launch the exhibition in Singapore first was largely because of the show’s immense popularity in the region, and its huge following in countries like China, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

A following so massive that Downton Abbey has even been cited as one of the reasons why China’s elite are hiring butlers.

“I’m going to go home and start a butler school!” Carter quipped when told about the trend. “Immediately!”

Downton Abbey creator-writer Julian Fellowes said he wasn’t aware of the trend but “couldn’t be more thrilled”.

“I hope I’ve generated lots of employment for aspiring butlers around the world,” he said with a laugh, adding that he was more than willing to join in on Carter’s potential business venture.

“Yes! Carson’s Butler School, can you imagine anything more appealing?”

As to what is his secret ingredient to creating a long running television show with such proven universal appeal, Fellowes, who won an Oscar for penning Gosford Park, confessed to not really knowing.

“I don’t really know! If I knew the answer, all I’ll be doing is writing global hits!” he told Channel NewsAsia with a laugh. “I think it has something to do with the fact that the characters of the servants, the family and the village are all given equal dramatic weight. We don’t tell the audience who are the important characters. We leave the audience to decide who their favourite characters are.

And also, we don’t make our own judgement about who are the good, nice characters. We don’t do that thing of saying this group of people is worth more than this group. I think it’s quite a democratic show and I think that is part of its appeal.”

Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith
Laura Carmichael is the luckless Lady Edith who eventually got her happy ending. ( Photo: TV Still)

Actress Carmichael, who played Lady Edith for all six seasons, was also not sure why the show was such a global hit.

“It’s thrilling and I couldn’t tell you as to why,” she said. “The show has a bit for everyone, and many characters which were lovable in their own way. There’s something to the heart of the show-the compassion. It’s rare, and certainly wasn’t very trendy. The surprise to me was men watched it!”

For Carter, the secret to Downton’s success could be that the show “harks back to an age where things seemed to be a bit more certain”.

“(Right now), nothing is permanent in this world, everything is flying by so fast. We go back to a society where time was slower. Where your horizons were not nearly as wide, but people were content with their lot in the way we portrayed it,” he said thoughtfully. “I think people rather liked that. There’s a nostalgia for that.   

“It’s un-threatening. It’s un-cynical. It’s not about men with guns. People aren’t killing each other. It’s a little bit of escapism … it’s about people falling in love. It’s about romance. It’s about hope. And there’s a character for everyone.” 

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition (bells)
These bells were used to summon servants to particular rooms. (Photo: NBCUniversal)

Source: CNA/gl