An Alfred Hitchcock film inspired a key Downton Abbey: A New Era plot line
After 100-plus years as an art form, film is nothing if not self-referential.
Downton Abbey: A New Era goes meta with the filming of a silent picture at the estate (the horror!), a development that gets even more complicated when the producers decide it needs to become a talkie partway through production.
Of course, it's all a bit tongue-in-cheek, given that Downton itself has filmed on location at England's Highclere Castle for the last 12 years. Michelle Dockery, who portrays Lady Mary, wonders if perhaps the Crawleys' attitude toward the proceedings in any way matches that of the owners of Highclere.
"I felt this is how the owners must feel," she tells EW. "Sometimes you do see them. They don't get involved, but they are around sometimes. And there are moments where you see the Highclere manager on the sidelines, because there's something in the room that potentially could damage something. It's quite high-alert. It was a window into like what it must feel like for them."
As it turns out, Lady Mary gets far more involved during the filming than the owners of Highclere ever have. When Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy) decides they must turn the picture into a sound film to remain relevant, disaster looms in the form of leading actress, Myrna Dalgleish (Laura Haddock), and her dreadful Cockney accent that belies her glamorous image.
The solution? Let Lady Mary and her dulcet King's English tones dub Myrna and audiences will be none the wiser. The gag, which involved Dockery and Haddock finding a rhythm together over a multitude of takes, feels lifted straight from Singin' in the Rain, but it's actually another classic film that provided the inspiration.
The film is widely regarded as Britain's first talkie, and, just as it occurs in Downton Abbey: A New Era, the producer of Blackmail, John Maxwell, asked Hitchcock to convert the originally silent film to sound once production was already underway.
They had a similar issue with leading lady Anny Ondra, who had a pronounced Czech accent. Because sound on film was such a new technology, they didn't know how to adequately post-dub the footage. Instead, Hitchcock hired respected actress Joan Barry to speak the dialogue off-camera while Ondra lip-synched her lines — just as Lady Mary does for Myrna.
"That was fascinating, discovering what that time was like in the film industry," says Dockery. "A lot of those actors were really lost when silent films became talkies because they were huge stars and if their voices weren't great, some of them lost their careers."
One other fun bit of connection between Blackmail and Downton Abbey: A New Era: Neame, who has produced Downton Abbey since its start, hails from a British filmmaking family. His grandfather, Ronald Neame, was a legend in the industry, producing early David Lean classics such as Brief Encounter and directing Maggie Smith to her first Oscar in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. But in 1929, he got his first job in the film industry, as an assistant cameraman on Blackmail.