‘Downton Abbey’s Historical Advisor Explains How to Portray a Royal, How to Curtsy, and More

published Oct 5, 2019
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Credit: PBS

It takes a village to bring Downton Abbey to the screen, and not just because it’s an ensemble drama. Making a period piece requires close attention to costumes, set design, language, and behavioral nuances, if the story is going to convince viewers that it really takes place where and when it claims it does. That’s where a person like Alastair Bruce comes in. He served as historical advisor for Downton Abbey — the film and the entire run of the miniseries. 

As part of its cover feature on the film, Town & Country interviewed Bruce about how he coached the Downton cast toward accurate portrayals of their characters. Here are a few highlights from the interview:

On getting actors to understand their characters’ political views:

“My role is to make sure that they completely comprehend the period, and the way I start is I tell them to suspend all their current political thoughts because, in my experience, most actors have quite strong, very admirable liberal views about the world. They just don’t figure in the thinking of either an aristocrat of the period we’re talking about or indeed any of the staff who work for them, who tended to be extremely conservative … I think that particularly if you worked for these aristocratic families, you didn’t have very progressive views, though we do see that in Daisy. Daisy represents the changes that are happening socially and the opportunities that are opening up for working class families at that time.”

On the secret to playing a royal on screen:

“I’m often asked by people who are playing a royal role, “How should I be royal?” And in general, I say, ‘You can’t be royal. Just be yourself, but let me talk to the other cast.’

“And I tell the other cast, ‘Every time a member of the royal family comes in, you should stand up and you should bow and you should call them Your Royal Highness and Sir or Ma’am and all that sort of thing.’ And very quickly, it’s the behavior of the people around that actor who make that person look royal.”

On how to curtsy properly:

“Nowadays people who think they’re curtsying are actually giving what’s called a housemaid bob, a completely different thing. A slight bend of the knees is not a curtsy. A curtsy is when you drop one foot way back and you go right down so that your bottom is almost touching the back of your leg and you lower your head slightly in a demure fashion … That is a curtsy and we call it a court curtsy. I’m getting too old to do it well, but very fit, young women who have trained to do it do it quite beautifully.”

For more insights from Alastair Bruce, check out the entire interview on Town & Country.