Downton Abbey - those all important Sussex connections

Dame Maggie SmithDame Maggie Smith
Dame Maggie Smith
There are plenty of Sussex stately homes where you could well imagine the dramas of Downton Abbey unfurling.

Uppark comes to mind, as indeed does Petworth House – grand homes where Downton would also have been very much at home.

But in fact, Sussex is actually home for two at least of the Downton Abbey stars.

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Dame Maggie Smith long had an association with the Fittleworth area. In the 1990s, she appeared on the Chichester Festival Theatre stage in one of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads monologues.

When asked by Graham Norton on his TV chat show some years ago about her appearance in Downton Abbey and whether it had made people recognise her more she said: “Funnily enough I was in Waitrose in Storrington and a little boy was at the checkout with his mother and kept looking at me.

“He kept looking at me and looking at me and I said ‘can I help you?’ and he said ‘it’s alright it will come to me in a minute’. I thought it was so sweet.”

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Dame Maggie’s co-star Hugh Bonneville has long been a West Sussex resident, based near Midhurst.

And during the pandemic, he said he believed the strength of our local communities was going to be what saw us through – one of the reasons he joined Chichester Festival Theatre’s Family Fun in the Park event in Oaklands Park last summer.

He said at the time: “It is going to be wonderful. It will remind people that the theatre is trying to find a way back into life, that it is trying to find a way out of this strange cocoon by trying to bring the community together and to say that, yes, we do remember how we used to share our entertainment.”

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It was an extension, in a way, of the community spirit which emerged and had been highlighted by the crisis at a local level – the way people looked after each other during the dark times.

“This huge volunteer force that we thought might been needed to fight against the virus has not been as necessary as we might have thought, but people have still been really looking after their neighbours,” Hugh said.

“You can see it just at the level that you check on someone at one end of the village, and you find that somebody is already looking after them. And you realise that we are fortunate in our more rural areas that people do look after each other.

“The crisis brought out the toilet-paper grabbing worst in some people, but in so many other people it has significantly brought out the best. But leading from example by the centre of power has not been so great, with trips to other parts of the country when you weren’t supposed to.”