The characters of “Downton Abbey,” the long-running PBS historical drama spun into a feature film that beat Brad Pitt (“Ad Astra”) and Sylvester Stallone (“Rambo: Last Blood”) at the box office last weekend, are beloved. The starchy butler Carson, the bon-mot-slinging Dowager Countess, the chauffeur-turned-family-member Tom Branson, and so many more.
But food, food has always been a star, too — the teas and puddings and roasts and cakes and souffles, around which both the downstairs servants and the upstairs British aristocrats banter and scheme.
That tradition continues in the new movie, where food not only serves as a lush prop painting a picture of life in an opulent country estate, circa 1927, but as a key agent of the plot, which centers on a visit by King George V and Queen Mary that upends life at Downton and conveniently ushers in new characters to join the soapy goings-on.
In the two-hour film, the procurement, storage, preparation and presentation of food is the crux of the action among Downton’s staff. And upstairs, as ever, the drama revolves around the table. At least twice (mild spoiler alert!), food is used as a weapon in one of the movie’s central conflicts: the battle between the Crawley family’s staff and the visiting battalion of royal servants imported to Downton for the monarch’s visit.
“A royal luncheon, a parade and a dinner? I’m going to have to sit down!” sputters Mrs. Patmore, the oft-beleaguered cook of the family estate, in an early scene. Another not-so-spoiler: She doesn’t sit, or at least for long, and the household is swiftly caught up in a whirlwind of preparation.
So, too, was the film’s production team. When Lisa Heathcote, the food stylist responsible for nearly every crumb that appears at the fictional Downton estate, first saw the movie script, she was delighted at the prominent role that food played.
And she was mindful that on the big screen, it would be even more important than in the TV series for the food to look real, a feat she accomplishes by ... using real food, which also has the benefit of allowing the actors to munch as they see fit. She admits, though, that there is one real fake-out amid all the other actually edible dishes in the movie — but she wouldn’t cop to what it was. “I’m not going to say!” she says. “There’s only one thing. I thought, ‘Well, it’s quick and nobody will notice.’ (Otherwise) I make sure it’s all real food and it’s as it would have been.”
(“Downton” fans, consider this a challenge.)
One word in the script, though, stopped her in her tracks: souffle. The airy, eggy dish is a known diva of the food world — so finicky and prone to collapsing that it’s a metaphor for things that deflate. And Heathcote needed lots of them, since they were served at the dinner for the king and queen.
Using the tricks in her food-wizardry arsenal, she faked the ones perched on the tray of a footman, who gets lectured by the kitchen maid, Daisy, to get them upstairs “before they fall!” Gelatin whipped into the mix assured they could last through multiple takes.
But in a later scene at the dinner table, after the souffles have been served, Heathcote went with the unadulterated dish (since the actors had to actually eat them). She prepped hundreds of them in a food truck she parks outside of Highclere Castle, the estate that serves as “Downton’s” set.
“I had to run from my truck across the car park with the souffles like a madwoman,” she said. “By the time I got there, they were looking very sorry for themselves.” Luckily, the scene takes place midcourse. “By that time, the souffles would have already fallen anyway!”
Similar finessing was required for what might be the movie’s crucial food moment.
As Team Downton tries to wrest control of the dinner away from the king’s supercilious retinue (including a French chef, who only sharpens our favorite servants’ patriotic pride), they engage in some subterfuge. A pot of sauce spilled on an immaculate shirt at an inopportune moment gets one character out of the way, allowing the wily Crawley loyalists to have their way.
The weaponized concoction posed a challenge for Heathcote: It had to be just the right consistency to cling to the fabric onto which it was flung. “I spent a lot of time throwing things against the wall to see how it would behave,” she said. In the end, she landed on a mixture of fruit puree, syrup, water and corn flour “so it would really stick.”
(As for the second instance in which food is used in the scheme, let’s just say guests at Downton would do well to avoid lady’s maid Anna’s offerings of tea.)
That kind of attention to detail plays out in ways the audience might never notice. Rather than giving actors busywork just for the sake of having something to do, Heathcote says she’s always mindful of what would have been happening in the Downton kitchen at a given time of day or season. The film is set in late summer, so Daisy is shown in one scene preparing a piccalilli, a British pickled-vegetable concoction flavored with mustard powder and seed, a dish that a cook might have made to take advantage of the gardens’ bounty.
“It’s not just a random bit of carrot or onion, which seems to happen in film all the time and is sort of daft,” she said. “There’s a story and fluidity, and it’s all making sense.”
Heathcote is clearly willing to share some of the secrets to making dining at Downton look delectable, but she isn’t spilling all the Earl Grey. Another subject on which she’s tight-lipped (what happens on the “Downton” set, apparently, stays on the set): Given that all the food lying around set is edible at worst and delicious at best, who among the cast members is the biggest eater?
“I know who it is,” she says. “But I couldn’t say!”