Driven more by a sense of obligation rather than pleasurable anticipation, I watched the Downton Abbey Christmas special finale. I lapped up the first series (season, for Americans) and was keen for the second, but my enthusiasm dwindled rapidly thereafter. Catching up right at the end, having missed the next four series entirely, I found nothing to regret: the same insultingly short scenes (my concentration lasts longer than that, Julian Fellowes), the same clichéd characters and scenarios, the same self-indulgence, the same insouciance with regard to authentic dialogue. But, as ever, the costumes and the settings sucked me in - particularly as I'd been to both the main locations for the special.
Downton Abbey is, of course, Highclere Castle near Newbury, where I interviewed the lady of the manor, the rather intimidating Lady Fiona Carnarvon, back in 2011. It seems so ideal for the location that it's surprising it wasn't the obvious choice - there were competitors for the honour, despite its being so familiar to Fellowes, series creator and Carnarvon family friend. Happily for the (invisible) areas of the building that were then in desperate need of expensive renovation - the second storey was quite uninhabitable - the redoubtable Fiona won the day, and ever since has welcomed streams of visitors with their even more welcome wallets and purses.
Besides the iconic exterior shots, most of the 'upstairs' filming took place on site, and the rooms that were featured are certainly worth seeing. The 'downstairs' scenes were shot on a set, as the real areas at Highclere weren't suitable - partly because of the unexpected Tutankhamen exhibition down there referencing the 5th Earl who funded Howard Carter and took part in the discovery of the tomb in 1922. That's worth seeing, too.
All this was very familiar stuff as I sat and watched the soap-opera unfold, all the ends being super-neatly tied up, each character paired up, their futures sorted. But it was fun to spot the other main location, 'Brancaster Castle'. Big, solid, ancient, impressive, it's actually Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, which I visited in 2014. The Percy family is still in residence after 700 years, amazingly, and the staterooms are both, well, stately, and very much lived-in, which is nice to see.
It's also very well maintained, thanks to unabashed commercialisation - there were wedding photos in progress, the party sporting kilts and medals for the men and trembling fascinators and very unsuitable heels for the women teetering over the lawns; plus it was used for a Harry Potter location and you can play an organised game of quidditch in the grounds - and rewards visitors not just with opulent furnishings and paintings by Van Dyck and Canaletto, but novelties like Oliver Cromwell's night cap and Elizabeth I's gloves. Go and see.