Among the millions of British viewers who settled down to watch the sixth episode of the BBC costume drama Downton Abbey’s second series on Sunday night were the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, who have told one of the show’s stars they are “huge fans” of the program.
The news of Prince William and Kate Middleton’s taste in television comes from Jessica Brown Findlay, the 22-year-old brunette who plays the kind-hearted aristocrat turned war nurse Lady Sybil in the U.K. hit, the best thing for the English nobility’s image overseas since Brideshead Revisited. When the actress met the royal couple at a Los Angeles event organized by the British film and TV awards body, BAFTA, they confided that they are addicted to writer Julian Fellowes’s portrayal of life upstairs and downstairs at a fictional British “Big House” in the early 1900s, Findlay told the British edition of OK! magazine.
“I was flattered and privileged to be presented to the two of them at the BAFTA event in Los Angeles,” Findlay said. “They picked me out and spoke very highly of Downton Abbey, and it was lovely to hear. They told me they were huge fans of the show … It felt surreal as an actress playing English aristocracy to meet them in L.A.”
Friends of William and Kate say the couple are indeed voracious TV viewers, not least because they are spending most of their time in a farmhouse on the isle of Anglesey, a remote, windswept outcrop off the westernmost edge of Wales, connected to the U.K. by a bridge. (The rest of the time they reside in Kensington Palace in London, which probably makes up for it.)
It’s not hard to see why William and Kate might spend their Sunday nights glued to the box with an egg on a tray watching the shenanigans of a family of wealthy aristocrats struggling to stay relevant; once you’ve gone for a hearty walk along the cliffs, visited the pub, and checked the ferry timetable to Ireland, there is very little else to do on Anglesey.
Despite the lack of balls and glittering society events, the couple apparently relishes their simple life on the island. William and Kate chose to live in this part of the U.K., which boasts more sheep than people, not only because it guarantees them a certain level of privacy but also because the heir to the throne works as a search-and-rescue pilot from a Royal Air Force base on the island. Kate is sometimes spotted pushing a shopping trolley around the local supermarket, valiantly attempting to live as normal a life as is possible when you are constantly tailed by a security detail comprising three burly SAS officers and a phalanx of press photographers.
It would be tempting to conclude that William and Kate are fans of Downton Abbey not just for the same reasons as the rest of us—because it is brilliantly written and impeccably produced—but also because they can easily relate to the aristocratic characters and themes of the program, whose second series premieres on PBS in the U.S. on Jan. 8.
In fact, the heavily staffed world of Downton Abbey is probably just as much fantasy to William and Kate as it is to the rest of us.
And while the world of valets, dressing for dinner, and a crushing sense of duty is probably more real for William and Kate than most mortals, for true British bluebloods an additional pleasure of watching Downton Abbey is asserting one’s breeding by picking holes in the historical portrayal of Big House life.
For this reason, British aristocrats make very bad company when watching the show, as they are incapable of relaxing into the story without giving a running commentary on whether the scullery maid really would have been allowed to marry the valet, and what would have happened to the cook at the hall when they were young if she had initiated a conversation with Papa about her children’s academic progress.
Of course Fellowes, as a writer, is able to break the rules only because he is so well versed in them. Although a self-described “poor relation,” he grew up in and around British country estates, and in an interview with PBS he displayed a detailed knowledge of the intricacies of the servants’ hierarchy.
In fact, the heavily staffed world of Downton Abbey is probably just as much fantasy to William and Kate as it is to the rest of us. They don’t employ any domestic staff. Even plans to hire a housekeeper were halted. The gulf between Downton and the life of the Cambridges is well illustrated by a recent episode, which featured one of the Crawley sisters wanting to learn to cook, much to the amusement of the kitchen staff and the horror of her peers: ladies were not supposed to venture into the kitchen.
Kate would have no need of such lessons. According to a local butcher in Anglesey: “She was in here after the wedding, and she bought some meat and 82p of lamb’s liver to make gravy for a meat pie. I said: ‘Are you sure you can afford that?’ And she said: ‘I can now.’”