H&A caught up with the oracle of Downton (as he’s referred to on set), historical advisor Alastair Bruce, to find out what went on behind the scenes…
Where did your interest in historical interiors come from?
My interest in interior design comes from visiting my relations who lived in extraordinary houses and being fascinated by how beautiful they were. I learnt a lot about the golden mean (Aristotle’s theory of the ‘desirable middle’) at school, and about how classical buildings were constructed so that you could divide them into threes and fives to create perfect proportion, something that is important to English architecture now. Interiors have fascinated me since then.
Details such as ancestral paintings are key to period decoration. Which are your favourite in Downton?
My favourite items are the dining room paintings already within the house. They are a fine collection of aristocratic art that tells a story of a great family and all of them are rather beautiful. It filled me with delight that the cast took such care in everything that surrounded them – it was lovely.
What other decorative props were important to the story?
We needed a leather place-card holder with the family crest on it at one point, where you clip the names for where people sit on the table. I described it to Donal, who is the production designer, and he got a lovely one in green leather, which you can see when Neville Chamberlain comes down for dinner with the family. The Dowager Countess gets in to set the table and she would normally sit a long way from her cousin Neville, but we used this place-card holder to tell the story that she moved her seat and, thus, her position. This played a leading part in the episode.
What challenges did you come across in the final series?
The most important thing was to make sure no one relaxed, otherwise they take themselves out of the period and it was not a relaxing time. For example, with the weddings, most people don’t have the same church-going instinct that they used to. Men wear hats to churches but, of course, Christian men of that time would never dream of doing this, nor would a woman walk into a church without one. When people wore hats they wore gloves, so I had to make sure all these details that are vitally important were correct.
What was your favourite element of the sixth series?
My own sense of pride was to make sure we delivered those last scenes so that, right up to the final frame, there is an essence of correct protocol for that period throughout. My favourite memory is coming together as a group and knowing that it was to be the last time. It has been truly remarkable to not only work with excellent people and crew, but to work in such amazing locations with incredible interiors. We were truly lucky – almost every interior location had a story of its own.
You made an appearance in the final episode, but it was not the first time?
I have appeared a number of times throughout the different series. For example, in the third series I was a gillie in Scotland, which is someone who looks after a fishing expedition. This gave me the chance to check everyone’s behaviour and I did some Scottish dancing in a kilt that was made by my great uncle in 1914, and happened to be of the right period too. In series six, I’m in the final episode – I have some words as a butler, which is my final contribution to Downton Abbey.