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No one could have imagined that back in 2010, when ITV premiered its now legendary drama series Downton Abbey, that the show would become something so hugely popular that it'd deliver a motion picture event just as successful. But if you wonder who was probably most surprised by this franchise’s long legs of legacy, it’d have to cast members like Allen Leech and Elizabeth McGovern.
With the feature film version of writer/creator Julian Fellowes’ iconic English period piece enjoying quite a healthy run at the box office, it feels like a good time to reflect on just how it all started. And to do that, I asked both Leech and McGovern how they felt about the series’ prospects when they first landed their respective roles of chauffeur Thomas Branson and Crawley family matriarch Cora.
During a couple of phone conversations with the stars, on behalf of CinemaBlend’s participation in the Downton Abbey press tour, I asked both members of the cast if they had ever dreamed the series would have blossomed into the cultural juggernaut that it is today. In the case of Elizabeth McGovern, her surprise at how large Downton’s legacy looms extends straight into the reaction the film version has inspired among its fans:
Absolutely not. I still continue to be genuinely gobsmacked. And the fact that it’s doing the box office that it’s doing thus far, it completely floors me. But I’m not complaining, as they say.
A good thing to keep in mind is how McGovern’s surprise at the box office response to Downton Abbey was back when the film had just opened in the international market, just before the domestic opening would bring the film to a record $31 million debut for studio Focus Features. In a weekend where Rambo: Last Blood and Ad Astra were both opening alongside the return of the Crawley family, most might not have predicted such a rousing win.
From that point, director Michael Engler’s film went on to have solid repeat showings, bringing the film to its current worldwide total gross of $154.4 million. Compared to merely the production cost alone, an estimated $17 million, that result seems to spell success in the world of English period drama.
Still, the success that Downton Abbey has enjoyed since its 2010 debut is as enduring as it has been unpredictable. Allen Leech certainly knows it, as his character of Thomas Branson went from mere guest star for three episodes to part of the potential future of the Crawley family empire. Much like his co-star, the whirlwind love affair the world has had with the series was something Leech could have never seen, as he explained in the following remarks:
No. It’s been something I still can’t fathom. I stood in the back of the theater at the New York premiere, with Hugh Bonneville. We stood there arm in arm, hugging each other’s shoulders, going ‘Isn’t this incredible?’, watching the reaction to the movie, ten years on from starting. If you told me that when I arrived on my first day, to shoot three episodes of this new period drama for ITV in the UK, I would have laughed in your face.
Much like an Irish Republican marrying into a wealthy family that shows him an ever growing sense of respect, Downton Abbey’s influence seems to continue to grow as time passes. Thanks to this feature film success under its belt, there’s no telling where the franchise could go next, or if it might just rest where it lay at the current moment.
What can be said with certainty, though, is that the success of Downton Abbey shouldn’t be a total surprise, considering the hard work poured into the film by actors like Elizabeth McGovern and Allen Leech. If the characters in the Crawley family and their surrounding orbit weren’t as compelling as they have been throughout Julian Fellowes’ masterpiece of a series, then the fandom surely wouldn’t be as strong as it is today. It’s because of their efforts in bringing the stories of Downton to life that has caused fans not only to stick around, but also to want a future return trip if possible.