The meteoric rise of Downton Abbey came as a bit of surprise for the stars of the hit British period drama. Although the franchise is now a bona fide global phenomenon, with a highly-anticipated film follow-up hitting theaters in the U.S. this weekend, it didn't start out that way.
"It came in stages," creator Julian Fellowes says of the show's worldwide popularity during a recent chat at Downton Abbey: The Exhibition in Boston. "I didn’t expect what then developed into a kind of enormous thing. When America came on board, they took to it like ducks to water. Then it grew and then China and all of these other countries."
"It really was quite strange," he adds. "It was quite surreal that it had spread all over the world."
For Lesley Nicol, who plays the beloved Mrs. Patmore, she started noticing "little clues" about the show's growing fanbase early on in the series' run. She recalls co-star Hugh Bonneville (aka Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham) returning from a trip to the White House, where he discovered that Hillary Clinton was a big Downton Abbey fan.
"He said, 'the Clintons sit in their jim-jams on a Sunday night and watch it as a family,'" Nicol reveals. "I couldn't believe that."
As the show picked up steam and grew its legion of followers, Nicol began seeing fans of the series in the most unlikely of places.
"I was in London walking my dog, and, as you know, the British are not quite as outgoing as you guys. We're more reserved, so people don't usually run up to you if they don't know you, but this woman did," says Nicol. "She ran towards me and said, 'Oh my god that thing you're in, I love it. My husband loves it.' And that's what kept happening."
"Over here, it was my brother-in-law," she adds. "He lives in Seattle. He drinks beer. He only watches the Super Bowl. He loves Downton Abbey and won't have anybody come to the house on a Sunday. And you go, 'Well that's different.'"
With millions of viewers across the globe, expect the Downton Abbey movie to have a big weekend as it opens outside of the U.K. Diehard fans of the series will be delighted to see the return of all their favorite characters, as the Crawley family and their servants are tasked with entertaining the King and Queen at the famed, fictional Yorkshire estate.
While Fellowes didn't feel any extra pressure crafting these royal characters for the big screen, he made sure to give them the proper treatment since so many people have such a deep love for the crown.
"Since William the Conqueror there has been a crown of England," says Fellowes. "It symbolizes our unity as a nation and in times of disunity, times of war and times of suffering, the crown becomes more important than ever as something we can hold onto."
As for what the cast loved the most about working on Downton Abbey, Phyllis Logan (aka Mrs. Hughes) praises Fellowes for writing well-rounded, interesting characters. "Julian is such a clever writer," she says.
Logan and Nicol also agree that the iconic music of the series is simply timeless.
"I will never get sick of that music," Nicol admits.
"I'll never get sick of it either," adds Logan. "For a while, my husband [Kevin McNally] had that as his ringtone for me, so whenever it rang you knew it was me."
Looking towards the future, Fellowes admits that Downton Abbey is unlikely to return to television, although he does seem open to the possibility of another film should the first movie receive a warm welcome by the fans.
"I think we’re done with the television series, I don’t think that will come back," says Fellowes. "But as to whether there’s another film, I think it will very much depend on the reception that this film meets. I think we have to wait and see what that is really."
Downton Abbey is now in theaters.
Photography by: All Photos by Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC