In Downton Abbey: A New Era, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) invites a silent-film crew to make a movie on her family’s sprawling estate. It’s a canny arrangement—the film needs a formidable location, the Crawleys need the income, and off-screen, the viewers need an entertaining plot they haven’t yet seen in six seasons and one prequel.
But production under the Crawleys’ roof soon hits a snag. It’s 1928 and the film’s director (Hugh Dancy) receives word that the sudden smash success of “talkie” movies has essentially rendered his silent project obsolete. With the help of Downton Abbey’s resident problem solvers and movie buffs, the production figures out how to finish the film successfully.
In a Zoom interview with Vanity Fair This week, franchise producer Gareth Name reveals that part of the plot was pulled from his own family history.
“My grandfather, Ronald Neame, on his first film, worked on Alfred Hitchcock’s blackmail,” says Neame, referring to the 1929 film remembered as Britain’s first “talking picture.” “I think he was probably about 16 years old and he was an assistant cameraman. That’s really where this story came from. Because Blackmail started as a silent picture in 1928. While they were already in production, Hitchcock and his producers realized that they were going to be behind the curve if they were going to release a silent picture when everyone was going on to talking pictures.”
“So halfway through the production, the [crew] stopped, rethought it, and turned it into a talking picture—exactly the story line that we’ve lifted,” says Neame.
In Downton Abbey: A New Eraone obstacle to making the talkie is leading lady Myrna Dalgleish’s (Laura Haddock) voice—which is not nearly as delicate or refined as her looks. This story line mirrors Blackmail again, in that the Hitchcock film’s leading lady, Anny Ondra, was Czech. So after shooting Blackmail entirely as a silent film in London, the production hired British actor Joan Barry to read Ondra’s lines off camera. (In its 1929 review, The New York Times marveled that “Anny Ondra, a Czechoslovakian actress…does not speak with any noticeable foreign accent.”)
“In these very primitive days of sound, they decided to bring [Barry] onto the set to stand right beside the camera with a microphone and to lip-synch her,” says Neame, explaining that his great-grandmother Ivy Close was one of the silent film stars whose careers waned with the advent of talkies. “It was such a complete change of art form that a lot of people who had been stars in the silent screen, their careers just didn’t develop.”
In Downton Abbey: A New Era, the film actors seem more culturally aligned with the downstairs staff than they do their aristocrat hosts.
Speaking to Vanity Fair in a separate interview, franchise creator Julian Fellowes says that in 1928, films were still looked down upon “by the British upper classes as this sort of working-class entertainment that had taken over for the music hall.”