‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ Silent Film Subplot Has Hitchcock, ‘Ben-Hur’ Easter Eggs

In the new Downton Abbey movie, a Hollywood production rents the castle to film a silent movie. Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if it were quite that simple. The cast and director of Downton Abbey: A New Era revealed some Easter eggs and homages to classic films Ben-Hur and Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail.

'Downton Abbey: A New Era' cast record sound for a movie with Hitchcock and 'Ben-Hur' Easter Eggs
L-R: Hugh Dancy, Kevin Doyle, Alex MacQueen, and Michelle Dockery | Ben Blackall / Focus Features LLC

Downton Abbey: A New Era director Simon Curtis and stars Phyllis Logan and Kevin Doyle spoke to Showbiz Cheat Sheet on May 15. Here’s what to look for in the scenes with the Hollywood movie crew. Downton Abbey: A New Era is now in theaters. 

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ borrowed a plot from Alfred Hitchcock’s real life 

In Downton Abbey: A New Era, the production of the fictional The Gambler butts up against the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer. With talking films all the rage, “The Gambler” quickly tries to record sound. If you’re expecting Singin’ in the Rain-like shenanigans, Curtis points out there was a real Hitchcock film that converted to sound midway.

“We like to think that’s the Blackmail subplot,” Curtis said. “[Producer] Gareth Neame’s grandfather, Ronald Neame, was on Blackmail, the 1929 Hitchcock film where this exact thing happened. It’s very interesting and you can see on the DVD extras the silent and the talkie version of the same scene. It’s very interesting.”

‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ uses a ‘Ben-Hur’ artifact

Perhaps the most popular version of Ben-Hur was the 1959 Charlton Heston starring one. The film was oft remade, including most recently in 2016, but a piece of the 1925 silent Ben-Hur appears in Downton Abbey: A New Era. Hugh Dancy, playing the director, uses that camera.

“We had a camera that had been used on the original silent movie version of Ben-Hur,” Doyle said. “So we had that on the set which was just sort of oh wow.”

Curtis said Dancy also drew on his own director in those scenes. 

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“I was able to offer him some of the stresses of being a director which he seized on,” Curtis said. “Just the frustration when someone ruins your take, for example.”

Logan said the old timey film equipment on the set of Downton Abbey: A New Era gave her a sense of history. 

“It was great to see all the old cameras, huge, big cameras and the craft services wagon which was a little tiny tea truck,” Logan said. “It was just lovely and all the reels and the garb that they were wearing, fantastic costumes. You did feel, in that scene where they recreate them in black and white doing the scene, it did make me feel that oh yes, I’m back in the ‘20s here with silent movies. It was very exciting.”

Simon Curtis had to make two movies in one 

Scenes in which the crew film The Gambler in Downton Abbey required Curtis to essentially direct two films. Fortunately, he’d done that before in My Week with Marilyn.

“It’s complicated because you have to remind everyone what the scene they’re filming within the film is,” Curtis said. “Sometimes the script doesn’t spell that out. There’s a lot of people because you’ve got your real crew and your fake crew.” 

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Doyle also appreciated that Mr. Molesley was such a Hollywood fanboy. That was another dimension writer Julian Fellowes added to him in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

“I’m always surprised at what Julian comes up with for Mr. Molesley,” Doyle said. “He always seems to slot in a new enthusiasm. Last time, it was sort of this kind of enthusiasm for the royal family. Now it’s for Hollywood and all it has to offer.” 

Mrs. Hughes sticks to running the kitchen, while star Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock) acts. As an actor in real life, Logan said she would have liked to act in silent films herself. 

“In a sense, because you wouldn’t have to remember your lines, would you?” Logan said. “You’d have to just mouth it in a certain way. Yeah, certainly it has a certain appeal.”

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