In the straight-backed world of “Downton Abbey,” the PBS period drama set in the ultra-proper home of a Yorkshire earl, life is punctuated by protocol: the proper distance between knife and fork at the dinner table, how and when to accept a party invitation, the correct procedure for exiting a car.
I’m fascinated by these characters and their fixation on propriety because I lack anything that might be described as decorum. I slouch. I mumble. I consider neckties a form of torture. Yet I’m drawn to these British in the 1920s, their manners impeccable, all of them terrified of buttering their bread incorrectly.
So I grabbed my chance to meet Alastair Bruce, historical adviser to the show, who was making a pledge-season stop at UNC-TV.
At 54, Bruce is the royal, religious and national events commentator for Sky News, a knight of the Venerable Order of St. John and a member of the Order of the British Empire. His research informs every detail of the famously meticulous “Downton Abbey” series, down to the color of the cuffs on a servant’s uniform. I felt a tad intimidated, being a slovenly American who can never remember which English king came when, and I changed my Casual Friday sweatshirt for a tweed coat.
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“Josh,” said Bruce, shaking my hand in the studio. “What a lovely name.”
In our chat, Bruce told me that he’s immensely proud of all the “Downton Abbey” actors, who had to learn how to speak, sit, walk, talk and privately fret like British aristocrats, none of which came naturally to them. He especially applauds the performance of Michelle Dockery, who did not grow up in a castle surrounded by servants, yet she portrays Lady Mary as convincingly as any upper-class character he’s seen.
“Protocols of any time are interesting because they were just second nature to these people,” Bruce said. “But they’re absolutely not second nature to actors brought up today. We all sit in such a relaxed way and we tap away on our computers and our shoulders are coming forward. We’re actually changing shape as animals, and those smart shoulders that used to be held back and those necks that used to be more upright have all flopped forward, and you’ve got to watch for that all the time.”
For the nonfan, “Downton Abbey” chronicles the affairs of Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, whose fortunes are upset by world war, the sinking of the Titanic, his daughter’s stained virtue and an Irish socialist who transforms from chauffeur to son-in-law.
The choicest moments come from his mother the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, who offers quips of commentary such as this: “Don’t be defeatist, dear. It’s very middle-class.”
I asked if Maggie Smith, two-time Oscar-winner, veteran of “Gosford Park” and the “Harry Potter” movies, needed much coaching.
“Maggie Smith is the master of her profession,” Bruce said, “and if you are an adviser on her set you’ve got to be pretty confident about the line you give her.”
Bruce told me the list of errors he’s spotted is too lengthy to name, so I asked him to name the biggest. That one, he said, came when Lord Grantham received a huge financial windfall from Matthew Crawley, heir to Downton Abbey, and embraced him out of thanks.
No hug, Bruce corrected. Just a handshake.
“They were desperately keen to film it with the hug and why not let them?” Bruce explained. “I said, ‘Just shake hands.’ People did not physically contact each other in those says. You meet a girl now and say ‘Hello’ and within 20 seconds she’s giving you a kiss. This is charming and delightful and probably should be applauded, but the reason you can do this now is we’ve got antibiotics.”
I enjoy “Downton Abbey” partially because I’m a nerd but also because I’m a lifelong Anglophile. I spent a lucky four months in Oxford as a student in 1990 and endlessly amused my hosts by ordering the wrong wine at dinner or inserting slang terms into my homework essays.
I am as American as a chili dog, but I do enjoy a peek into the tweedy world I once visited, full of handshakes, appropriate wine and steak and kidney pie.