Julian Fellowes, Mr Downton Abbey, says he’s trying to find the real Lord Grantham, the real Lady Mary, the real Bates (urgh!), the real Anna. This is Great Houses with Julian Fellowes (ITV). The title graphic (is that even the correct term?) is pretty much the same as Downton’s: screen divided in two, top and bottom, with sky above, and black below. A big house rises above the line, and is reflected below. Look carefully, though, and the house is different. It doesn’t have the central tower of Downton – based on the Jacobethan Highclere House in Hampshire. This has a more complicated array of towers and spikes; this is genuine Elizabethan – Burghley House in Lincolnshire.
In his search for the real versions of his characters, Fellowes goes right back to Burghley’s beginnings, to Sir William Cecil, a powerful man who had the ear of Queen Elizabeth I. And the head of Mary Queen of Scots – he had it removed, because of the threat she posed to the country. At nearby Fotheringhay Castle, on 7 February 1587, she laid her head upon the block. It took two strokes of the axe, according to an eyewitness, “she making very small noise or none at all. So the executioner cut off her head, saving one little gristle which being cut asunder, he lifted up her head to the view of all the assembly and bade: God save the Queen.”
Ew, nice detail, about that one little gristle. Anyway, already this Cecil fellow is 100 times more interesting than Lord Grantham, fussing about his legacy and getting his tiresome daughters married off. This dude beheaded a queen.
It’s not just about the earls and the barons and (the removal of) heads of state, though. This, like Fellowes’s monster creation, is about downstairs stories too. To Burghley’s kitchen then, to meet Annie Gray. She’s a “food historian”, a profession that crops up more and more on television these days, as every genre tries to cash in on the current thinking that food is the only thing people really care about. It must be lovely for Dr Gray, who until a couple of years ago, was presumably alone and forgotten rolling away at her tudor pastry to make her swan pie. Now she’s practically Ant’n'Dec.
Dr Gray tells us about the Elizabethan kitchen, which would have been all men, she says. “All men … even the sort of washing-up? asks Fellowes, making a sort of washing-up gesture. Do much washing-up, do you Julian? I’m thinking maybe not.
We learn the unfortunate story of a wretched undercook called Thomas, who according to the coroner’s report “feloniously and willfully slew himself” by throwing himself upon the sword of the caddish Lord Oxford. Pah, of course he did! But this shameful business totally overshadows Bates’s little miscarriage of justice in Downton. Fellowes is certainly moved. “I can’t bear it,” he says. “I’m not very much of a revolutionary, but every now and then you do see their point.”
There are stories of infidelity (Sir Henry Cecil’s first wife was shagging a curate for years). Of bigamy and of getting hitched above/below one’s station (the same Sir Henry married his second wife, an unfortunate simple country girl while still married to the vicar-shagger). Some of this kind of thing came into Downton, but again it’s not so much fun, no curates involved. And Anna never ended up topless on the ceiling, like this unfortunate housemaid called Goody. Goody had a fling with, then fell out with, a visiting Italian painter and ended up on the ceiling as Ceres, Goddess of Plenty, with six breasts. I’m afraid it’s as if, as Fellowes digs, he inadvertently digs a hole for his fictional creation, because this is so much more exciting.
Finally, he links Burghley with the present. At the end of the 19th century another servant, Harriet, was caught hiding her illegitimate stillborn baby in a closet, lost her job, spent a couple of months in jail, was released but had no references. Fellowes feared the worst.
It turns out Harriet’s granddaughter is still around. She’s summoned to Burghley, collected by Mercedes. “I’m afraid I assumed that she was probably headed for sort of destitution and probably prostitution,” Fellowes tells her, about the grandmother she knew nothing about. “But I was wrong.”
Harriet did find work, and a husband. She had children. Quite strange for this lady – that the first thing she finds out about her granny, from a posh bloke off the telly, is that she wasn’t a prostitute. But a happy ending of sorts, I suppose.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010