Carnival Films
Carnival Films

15 Proper Facts About Downton Abbey

Carnival Films
Carnival Films

Like Upstairs, Downstairs for the Twitter generation, Downton Abbey has brought a bit of British history into the homes of millions of viewers for the past six years, and reinvigorated interest in 20th-century propriety. Though the series ended its six-season run in March, it's still garnering a lot of buzz thanks to an upcoming PBS Labor Day marathon (kicking off on Friday, September 2), talk of a possible move to the big screen, and the 10 Emmy nominations it earned for its final season. Here are 15 fascinating facts about the lords and ladies of Downton Abbey.

1. E.R. AND CHICAGO HOPE INSPIRED ITS STRUCTURE.

In developing the structure for Downton Abbey, creator Julian Fellowes found inspiration in some unexpected places. “Constructing Downton, I was consciously thinking in terms of those American structures,” Fellowes said in Rebecca Eaton’s book, Making Masterpiece: 25 Years Behind the Scenes at Sherlock, Downton Abbey, Prime Suspect, Cranford, Upstairs Downstairs, and Other Great Shows. “I had liked E.R. There was something called Chicago Hope that I liked very much, and thirtysomething, with all these stories going at once.”

2. HUGH BONNEVILLE THINKS IT’S MORE LIKE BREAKING BAD.

When asked to sum up the series’ appeal at a party for Downton Abbey’s third season premiere, star Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley) joked that, “It’s Breaking Bad with tea instead of meth.”

3. GILLIAN ANDERSON COULD HAVE BEEN THE COUNTESS OF GRANTHAM.

While promoting her role in Masterpiece’s 2012 version of Great Expectations, The X-Files star Gillian Anderson expressed her hope that, “people will embrace [Great Expectations] with the same love that flowed toward Downton Abbey," then shared that she was offered the role of Cora Crawley.

4. ELIZABETH MCGOVERN AND HUGH BONNEVILLE HAVE BEEN MARRIED BEFORE.

© 2010 Courtesy of MASTERPIECE

On screen, that is. The actors played husband and wife on the 2008 BBC series Freezing.

5. CORA WASN’T CREATED FOR AMERICAN AUDIENCES.

Some critics of the show have questioned Fellowes’s motive in developing a British series around an American character, with some assuming it was a strategic creative move in order to attract American audiences. “We weren’t thinking in those terms about foreign sales,” Fellowes told the Independent. “The advantage for me of having the American wife was it gave me a central character who was not dyed in the wool of the upper middle class upbringing, so you could have one of the principal characters who didn’t take all that stuff for granted, and questioned it, as Cora did. She was not consciously written for America. The fact that we would have a central character for American sales was much more clever than we were really.”

6. DOWNTON ABBEY IS REALLY HIGHCLERE CASTLE.

Much of the series is filmed at Highclere Castle, an estate in Hampshire, England that is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. In addition to being open to the public, the home can be rented for weddings and parties and occasionally operates as a hotel. In addition to its iconic exterior, the library, dining room, drawing room, and grand hallway seen in Downton Abbey belong to Highclere Castle.

7. THE SERVANTS’ QUARTERS ARE IN LONDON.

Because the servants’ quarters at Highclere Castle have been modernized, the series' downstairs kitchen and attic living quarters are built at London’s Ealing Studios. Which means that the show’s producers need to pay particularly close attention to continuity. “For example,” explains The World of Downton Abbey author (and niece of the show’s creator) Jessica Fellowes, “Thomas might be filmed leaving the kitchen with a plate of food for upstairs and would then appear two weeks later in the dining room!”

8. ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER TRIED TO PURCHASE HIGHCLERE CASTLE … FOR HIS ART COLLECTION.

NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP/Getty Images

In 2010, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber (who lives in a neighboring estate) made an offer to purchase Highclere Castle, apparently as a home for his art collection. The Carnarvons kindly let Webber know that the property was not for sale. “I think it has more to do to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s desire to hang his art collection somewhere,” Lady Carnarvon told the Los Angeles Times. “Maybe it might help with his estate duties. He was not a friend and, therefore, might not be aware of our own art collection.” FYI: The estate is valued at approximately $240 million.

9. THE CASTLE REALLY DID OPERATE AS A HOSPITAL DURING WORLD WAR I.

During season two, Downton Abbey was turned into a convalescent home for soldiers. In real life, during World War I, the 5th Countess of Carnarvon did turn Highclere Castle into a recovery hospital for soldiers.

10. EACH EPISODE COSTS MORE THAN $1 MILLION.

Given the show’s strict attention to detail and authenticity, it’s probably unsurprising that it’s an expensive series. According to The World of Downton Abbey, each episode costs about £1 million (or about $1.5 million) to produce.

11. THE COSTUMES COULD USE A CLEANING.

Nick Briggs - © Carnival Films

In keeping with the show’s dedication to authenticity, it maintains a “no-wash” policy with some of its costumes in order to keep within the period look. “We do stink, as they don’t wash our costumes,” Sophie McShera (who plays Daisy) told The Daily Mail. “They have these weird patches, which are sewn into the armpits and which they wash separately.”

12. IT’S THE MOST SUCCESSFUL SHOW IN MASTERPIECE’S MORE THAN 40-YEAR HISTORY.

“Nobody in their right mind could have predicted what happened, when it sort of went viral,” Julian Fellowes told The New York Times in 2013. It’s estimated that more than 120 million people around the world have watched the series at one point. The show is broadcast in 250 territories worldwide, and has become a major hit in Russia, South Korea, and the Middle East.

13. ISIS WAS NOT KILLED OFF BECAUSE OF HER NAME.

One of the show’s most beloved stars was its faithful pooch, Isis, who passed away in season five. Though many thought the Labrador got the boot because of her name, star Hugh Bonneville set the record straight on that matter. “To clarify recent speculation, the Labrador that appeared in Series One (1912-14) was a dog called Pharaoh,” wrote Bonneville. “From Series Two (1916-1920) onwards, the Labrador has been a bitch named—in keeping with the Egyptian theme—Isis. Anyone who genuinely believes the Series 5 storyline (1924) involving the animal was a reaction to recent world news is a complete berk.”

The “Egyptian theme” that Bonneville refers to is a nod to George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who was one of the individuals who discovered King Tut’s tomb.

14. IT RECEIVED A RECORD NUMBER OF EMMY NOMINATIONS.

Nick Briggs - © Carnival Film & Television Limited

With a total of 69 nominations and 12 wins (so fa), Downton Abbey is the most nominated non-U.S. series in Emmy history.

15. THE QUEEN LOVES IT, AND LIKES TO LOOK FOR ANACHRONISMS.

Among the show’s many famous fans are several members of the British royal family, including Queen Elizabeth, who “loves to pick out the mistakes,” says At Home with the Queen author Brian Hoey. “They do tend to get it right. However, the Queen did notice on one episode that there was a young so-called British officer wearing medals which had not been awarded when he was supposed to be alive. He was fighting in the First World War and the medals on his chest did not come in until the Second World War.”

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Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
When John Lennon and Yoko Ono Mailed Acorns to World Leaders
 Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Dennis Oulds, Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

John Lennon and Yoko Ono had a big year in 1969. Following a quick wedding ceremony in Gibraltar, they hopped over to Amsterdam and used their honeymoon suite at the Hilton as a stage for their week-long “Bed-In for Peace” protest against the Vietnam War. A week later they were in Vienna wearing bags over their bodies and declaring the formation of a comical new philosophy called “bagism." Their goal, they said, was to promote "total communication" by getting people to focus on their message instead of their skin color, ethnicity, clothes, or in Lennon's case, hair length.

John Lennon and Yoko Ono with a sign reading "bagism"
Bob Aylott, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

These attention-grabbing antics were among their most famous peace efforts, but that same year they undertook a very different project. This time, away from the cameras, Lennon and Ono mailed acorns to some of the world's most important leaders and asked that they be planted in support of world peace.

The idea had been a year in the making. While filming a part for a movie called A Love Story on June 15, 1968, Lennon and Ono planted two acorns at England’s Coventry Cathedral, which had been bombed during WWII and was later rebuilt as a symbol of peace. They were “planted in east and westerly positions,” symbolizing the union of Lennon and Ono and their respective cultures.

Then, in 1969, they decided to scale up their "peace acorn" project. Along with two acorns placed in a small, round case, they sent world leaders a letter that read: “Enclosed in this package we are sending you two living sculptures—which are acorns—in the hope that you will plant them in your garden and grow two oak trees for world peace. Yours with love, John and Yoko Ono Lennon.”

Like the proverb “Great oaks from little acorns grow,” the couple understood the power of small gestures and wanted to start a conversation that would get world leaders thinking about the possibility of peace—or in Lennon's words, to encourage them to "give peace a chance."

John and Yoko hold up a protest sign that says "War is over if you want it."
Frank Barratt, Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

They did provoke some thought, at least. In a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, Lennon explained, “We got reaction to sending acorns—different heads of state actually planted their acorns, lots of them wrote to us answering about the acorns. We sent acorns to practically everybody in the world.”

The two acorns were “submitted to Her Majesty [Queen Elizabeth II] in due course,” according to a letter that the Privy Purse Office at Buckingham Palace sent to the Lennons. A response from Malaysia confirmed that the acorns were to be planted in Kuala Lumpur’s Palace Gardens, and another letter from South Africa indicated that they would be planted on then-president Jim Fouché’s farm.

Golda Meir, then-prime minister of Israel, reportedly said something along the lines of, “I don’t know who they are but if it’s for peace, we’re for it,” Lennon told Rolling Stone. An official response sent by Meir’s assistant director in 1970 read, “Mrs. Meir very much appreciated the gesture, the underlying symbolism of which she would indeed like to see take root within a realistic framework.”

One particularly polite response came from Cambodia's head of state, Norodom Sihanouk, who worried he had erred in addressing Lennon and Ono as Mr. and Mrs. (he hadn't). He wrote, “Dear Sir and Madam, I may have wrongly assumed the friendly donators of acorns are husband and wife, and would like to submit ‘preventive’ apologies, together with my sincerest thanks for their gift.”

Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event
Norodom Sihanouk at a naval event in 1960
Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Ono saved all of these letters, and photocopies can be viewed on her website. For his part, Lennon memorialized the event in The Beatles single "The Ballad of John and Yoko." In case you've ever wondered what the line "50 acorns tied in a sack" means, the verse in question references the events following their honeymoon and return to London:

Caught the early plane back to London
Fifty acorns tied in a sack
The men from the press
Said we wish you success
It's good to have the both of you back

To mark the 40th anniversary of the peace acorn offering in 2009, Ono recreated the act and sent acorns to 123 world leaders, including Barack and Michelle Obama. Next year, for the 50th anniversary, it remains to be seen if the famous peace acorns will again make their way around the world. If you happen to be a president or the Queen, you might want to save a spot in your garden, just in case.

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Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
11 Things You Might Not Know About Johann Sebastian Bach
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. PEOPLE DISAGREE ABOUT WHEN TO CELEBRATE HIS BIRTHDAY.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. HE WAS THE CENTER OF A MUSICAL DYNASTY.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. BACH TOOK A MUSICAL PILGRIMAGE THAT PUTS EVERY ROAD TRIP TO WOODSTOCK TO SHAME.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. HE BRAWLED WITH HIS STUDENTS.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. BACH SPENT 30 DAYS IN JAIL FOR QUITTING HIS JOB.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. THE BRANDENBURG CONCERTOS WERE A FAILED JOB APPLICATION.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. HE WROTE ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREATEST COFFEE JINGLES.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. IF BACH CHALLENGED YOU TO A KEYBOARD DUEL, YOU WERE GUARANTEED TO BE EMBARRASSED.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. SOME OF HIS MUSIC MAY HAVE BEEN COMPOSED TO HELP INSOMNIA.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. HE WAS BLINDED BY BOTCHED EYE SURGERY.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. NOBODY IS 100 PERCENT CONFIDENT THAT BACH IS BURIED IN HIS GRAVE.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

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