Before the intrigue, splendor and Sunday night "must see" addiction that is Downton Abbey, there was the film Gosford Park (2001). A story of the upper crust world of nobility and their servants in thirties England, the Robert Altman film was reminiscent of Upstairs/Downstairs with a little Agatha Christie thrown in for good measure.
Production designer Stephen Altman (and son of the director), created the authentic period interiors for the story of a group of wealthy Brits and one American who assemble for a shooting weekend at a country estate known as Gosford Park. The film's all-star cast includes Kristen Scott Thomas, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and the late Alan Bates and was nominated for seven Oscars.
Working on a period film requires extensive research and the ultimate set decorators dream. Altman hired as consultant a butler and cook who had been in domestic service in England in the thirties. From the proper table settings to the appropriate wardrobe for the staff, Altman and his team wanted to make sure they portrayed domestic life in a noble home in an accurate fashion. Rooms were designed for sewing, ironing, making jams and jellies, and even a “brushing room” was added, where guests would be “brushed down” and thus not carry any mud or dirt into the house. I guess it was the precursor to what we know now as the mud room:)
|Stephen Fry and Kristen Scott Thomas|
|Costume designer Jenny Beavan's satin gown for Kristen Scott Thomas|
|Ryan Phillipe as the valet|
The film has many parallels to Downtown Abbey - lots of great period interiors in an idyllic English estate, the wonderful Maggie Smith as scene stealer Constance, Countess of Trentham, devoted maids and mysterious handsome valets, and a classic study of the British class system. Catch it on DVD after Season Two of the PBS show is over and when a fix of all things Brit is in order.
Photo Credits: USA Films