Although it is their magnificent gothic mansion, Highclere Castle, that stars as Downton Abbey, the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon are having great fun imagining the characters they might have played if they’d had roles in the upcoming big-screen adaptation of the celebrated TV show.
"We've never appeared in a scene so far, but it would be fun to do," says Lord Carnarvon – George Herbert, the 8th Earl – inviting HELLO! into the castle for this exclusive interview. "I'd like to be a gardener or a gamekeeper."
A below-stairs role would appeal to his wife, too. "I love cooking so I'd choose to be in the kitchen," she tells us. "Or perhaps I could play a gardener. While I'm walking the dogs in the evening, I often pick up a fork and do some weeding."
They may not have roles in the film, but the couple will be gracing the red carpet when they join the stars of the show at its premiere on 9 September.
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"It's all very exciting," says Lady Carnarvon. "It's almost as if the house is a character in its own right. The idea of a film had been mentioned, but we had to wait for the script to be ready and the cast available. It's wonderful that it all turned out well. For us, though, it's home and we love it."
Among the cast members who returned for filming at Highclere were Jim Carter as loyal head butler Carson, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley, Laura Carmichael as Lady Sybil and Allen Leech as chauffeur turned estate manager Tom Branson.
Written and produced by series creator Julian Fellowes, the film sees the abbey and its inhabitants preparing for a visit from King George V, played by Simon Jones, and Queen Mary, played by Geraldine James. Highclere has had its fair share of royal guests over the years, too. The historic stately home has hosted Edward VII and Edward VIII, while the Queen and other members of the royal family have been regular visitors.
"Not all at once, though," says Lady Carnarvon. "We've been very lucky to welcome different royals on different occasions."
The Queen was a close friend of George's parents Jeanie, who died in April, and the 7th Earl, Henry, known as Porchie, who was her racing manager. She is also godmother to George, 62, who is affectionately called Geordie by Lady Carnarvon. "She has quite a few godchildren," he says modestly.
The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and the Duchess of Cornwall are all big Downton Abbey fans, but what about the Queen?
"Well, I'm sure she's watched some of it," says Lord Carnarvon. "But she's such a busy, amazing lady that I doubt she'd have time to sit and see it all."
With its distinctive turrets and towers by Sir Charles Barry – the 19th-century architect who also created the Palace of Westminster – the image of Highclere on the Downton Abbey TV series titles creates a frisson of excitement.
"It's an extraordinary house to live in because it makes you feel as if you're walking in time," says Lord Carnarvon. "Over the centuries, Highclere has welcomed royalty, statesmen and distinguished men and women from the worlds of literature and music."
Brimming with history, Highclere has certainly gathered its fair share of colourful characters, ghosts and intrigue along the way.
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