If it feels like a true story, that's because it's similar to what happened IRL.
One of the joys of the original Downton Abbey TV series was the mixture of actual events and fictional family drama. The series starts with the sinking of the Titanic, a real event that kicks off an inheritance crisis for the Crawleys. The first film, which detailed a visit from the king and queen as part of a royal tour, was based on a real trip taken by George V. With so many actual events mixed into the series, it’s easy to guess that the new film, Downton Abbey: A New Era, is based on a true story as well. But the truth is... slightly different.
Warning: Spoilers for Downton Abbey: A New Era follow. Two intertwined stories make up the new Downton film. In the main one, the Dowager Countess Violet (Dame Maggie Smith) learned she inherited a villa in the south of France from an old admirer. Meanwhile, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) received a request from a production studio that was eager to use Downton as the filming location for a new silent film.
It seemed unlikely that Mary would agree to this request, until she saw the thousands of pounds the film’s director, Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy), offered to pay for the use of the location. The house needed infrastructure maintenance and a new roof if the family hoped to keep it habitable, so Lady Mary said yes. Most of the family headed to France to see Violet’s new property, while Mary and the servants stayed behind to watch Hollywood invade their home.
The first Downton Abbey movie was based on an actual Highclere Castle event, although it was altered to fit the series. For example, the visit was actually in 1910, as part of the royal tour when George V was coronated. But knowing Highclere has appeared in movies and Downton, fans might think the house has been a movie set since the silent picture era.
But unlike the fictional Crawley home, Highclere Castle was already mega-famous in the 1920s without needing to rent itself out. Unlike the fifth Earl of Grantham, the fifth Earl of Carnarvon was obsessed with egyptology, and it was his excavators who uncovered King Tut’s tomb. Fans of Egyptian history flocked to Highclere to see all the treasures brought back.
But that doesn’t mean the story of Downton becoming a movie set is made up. Highclere Castle did become a set for a hit Hollywood production: Downton Abbey! Moreover, the family agreed to rent the place out to Carnival Films and ITV for the same reason Mary does in the film — because the building was falling apart. Highclere was actually in worse shape than Downton in the movie — the roof was so far gone, the structure was no longer inhabitable. The complaints the Crawleys have about actors invading their home area bit on the nose. One might wonder how many of those things were really said... about the production up on the screen.
The money from Season 1 went to making Highclere Castle livable once more. Nowadays, the building generates income from fans who want to visit the “real Downton Abbey.” When Lady Mary says Hollywood saved Downton, she’s telling the truth. Even if the real event that inspired the story happened almost 100 years later, and she was part of the cast, not the family who was saved.
Downton Abbey: A New Era is out in theaters now. Seasons 1 through 6 are streaming on Peacock, and the first film is available on HBO Max.