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Highclere Castle the star of Downton Abbey

Lady Fiona Carnarvon

(Vancouver Sun) – Every star has a defining role in their career. For Highclere Castle, arguably the most glamorous featured player in the BBC’s extravagantly successful period drama Downton Abbey, that particular run will end this Sunday night when PBS airs the final episode of the six-season series.

As much as viewers have become attached to Downton’s characters Lord and Lady Grantham, their family members and household staff, the setting for the fictitious Downton is a mecca for the show’s fans who arrive by the busloads each season when Lord and Lady Carnarvon — modern day Granthams — throw open Highclere’s doors for public tours of the house and gardens.

“It’s given us an extraordinary marketing platform,” says Lady Fiona Carnarvon of Highclere Castle being the central location for the show.

“It means that you can have an idea and make it happen more easily, which is an incredible position to be in.”

With B.C. having the highest viewership for PBS, Lady Carnarvon was in Vancouver on Friday to celebrate the series finale with Downton fans at a an afternoon tea at the Hotel Vancouver Fairmont and later attend a reception at the British consulate.

Besides the big business of running a stately home, she also works with Visit Britain boosting tourism abroad.

“I think we’re most fortunate in the number of visitors we have, but then I try to share that with other historic houses,” she says of benefits of a high profile.

However, she explains that while they have always hosted large numbers — an annual games fair has had as many as 22,000 people attending — they are now open more days (50 to 60 each year) and host fewer big events. They also offer exclusive private tours, but see about 1,200 to 1,400 visitors on public days.

“It’s definitely made us busier … and I think I’ve approached building projects faster because I know I’m having visitors the following year, so I can keep on going and keep hopefully sort of balancing the books.”

Hosting visitors is what the Carnarvon’s have always done at Highclere. One piece of Canadian historical trivia is that Sir John A. Macdonald negotiated the British North America Act there in 1866 when the fourth earl Lord Carnarvon was the Colonial Secretary.

And perhaps the most influential recent visitor has been Downton creator Julian Fellowes.

“There is a tremendous friendship between the Fellowes and ourselves. He wrote Downton with Highclere in mind. We by no means thought that we would win it at the time. Luckily, we didn’t know how much we would have wanted to win it. And it’s given Highclere an international prominence and number of visitors for which we are very grateful.”

Not all of the 200 to 300 rooms — Lady Carnarvon is unsure how many there are — are open to the public, and she is constantly at work refurbishing many of them and other buildings on the estate.

“I’m not sure how many (rooms) are in use. I’m redoing some of the tower rooms and they’re not in use because I haven’t carpeted them. … It depends again what I’m doing. If I have friends to stay then those are different rooms open to the public, but on a private tour I might take them somewhere else.”

Watching Downton Abbey is a different experience when recalled in the context of it unfolding in your own home.

“You remember things for odd reasons,” she says.

A scene in the final series is memorable because of her son’s reaction to the filming; another for when she had to grab some food and hampers from her own kitchen when needed for a picnic scene with Daisy and Mr. Mason.

Mostly, she says it was just about staying out of the way and letting them get on with the work of making television.

“I tried to step back and be unobtrusive because they’re creating their own story,” she recalls.

After five and a half years, will the Downton crew be missed at Highclere?

“The fact that it’s ended is sad without a doubt, but I hope that there might be another incarnation as there are rumours of a film (of Downton Abbey) which I think would be enormous fun. Two hundred and seventy million people supposedly watched Downton, so I imagine there might be a market.”

Of course, the star still has allure — even centuries on. The Lady of the house agrees: “I rather like it because it’s old and huge, which is normally not a requisite for a star in today’s world.”

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