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How ‘Downton Abbey 2’ helped save one of Britain’s oldest cinemas

Lady Mary to the rescue!

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen

Since its projector first flickered into life back in 1911, England’s picture box Electric Palace Cinema, tucked away in a quiet street in Harwich, Essex, has survived everything from two world wars, to the threat of demolition, to the shuttered days of the pandemic. Then came an alarming asbestos discovery in the roof and a burst water pipe to spread damp down below. The bills racked up and the fate of his cultural jewel by the seaside was again in the balance.

Happily, the story has a happy ending – thanks in part to the surprise intervention of Downton Abbey. The location team from Downton Abbey: A New Era picked it as a key location in the movie, bringing with them vital funds, as well as a major morale boost and, soon, the chance to introduce the Electric Palace to the vast army of Downton fans.

‘We were looking at old cinemas all around the UK,’ remembers Mark Ellis, the film’s supervising location manager, ‘and when we went to see it, the production designer and I both thought: this is Downton’s world. Once we saw the inside of the cinema, we knew we had to use it. It’s absolutely breathtaking.’

In the movie, the Electric Palace stands in for a 1920s picture house in Yorkshire. It’s there that Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) is escorted to see the premiere of the silent film that’s been shot on the grounds of Downton by its gallant director (Hugh Dancy). 

Downton Abbey A New Era
Photograph: Universal PicturesThe premiere of the film-within-a-film in ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’ was shot at the Electric Palace

‘We went in to meet Michael (Offord, the cinema’s operations manager) and his face lit up like he’d won the lottery,’ says Ellis. ‘He told me they’d been on the verge of closing because we couldn’t get the funding. They opened their arms to us to film there.’

‘We’d been faced with the very real possibility of mothballing the building,’ explains Offord. ‘In the midst of that, Mark got in touch to explore the possibility of using it as a film location. To have something as big as this come to us during a very difficult time put a spring in our step.’

We’d been faced with the very real possibility of mothballing the building

By the time Dockery, Dancy and the Downton Abbey 2 crew rolled into town in May 2021 to film in its ornate 183-seat screen, the Electric Palace had repair costs of £1.5 million to deal with. Grants from Historic England and National Lottery Heritage Fund went some of the way towards them, but the fee paid by Downton to use the cinema helped underwrite key restoration work.  

Electric Palace Cinema
Photograph: Historic England Archive Stella FitzgeraldThe Electric Palace’s historic box office

‘It really helped,’ says Offord. ‘And when the film crew arrived, that gave a real boost that we would overcome our issues, as well as [reminding us] how important it was that we did. I can’t overstate how important it’s been for us.’ 

And next up on the Electric Palace programme? Downton Abbey: A New Era, naturally. ‘Screening the film will be a great way to celebrate our reopening,’ says Offord. ‘We’d do it all over again in a heartbeat.’

Downton Abbey: A New Era is in UK cinemas Apr 29. Read our review.

From the French Riviera to the port of Leith: take a tour of Downton Abbey 2’s filming locations.

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