Highclere, the 1,000-acre estate in Hampshire that provides the setting for the fictional Downton Abbey, is practically a character in the drama. If that seems too fanciful, there is certainly no denying that the house and grounds give the series a legitimacy that no movie set or CGI wizardry could possibly fake. It’s believable for the bone-headedly simple reason that it’s real.
Movie makers have been trading on this fact for decades. Mansions, castles, and grand houses have been used as the backdrop locations for everything from Brideshead Revisited (one location was so apt that it serves as the house in both the television mini-series and the more recent feature film) to Harry Potter (a film series that has adopted a more cut-and-paste approach, with a turret from this castle and a chapel from that school and other bits and pieces from all over).
The result for viewers is a sort of cloudy déjà vu. You’re watching one film and five others float through your head (“I know I’ve seen this place before”). These magisterial backdrops are like character actors whose faces are instantly familiar but whose names invariably escape you. To sort out the confusion, The Daily Beast has assembled a gallery of venerable upper-class real estate, together with lists of the crucial parts each has played in this film or that.