The Man Behind Downton Abbey’s Manners

Downton Abbey
Nick Briggs/PBS
Downton Abbey

The Downton Abbey actors call him the Oracle or the Mosquito. But Brig. Alastair Andrew Bernard Reibey Bruce of Crionaich, OBE, the PBS drama’s historical adviser, describes himself as “irksome.” It’s his job to ensure that the series is fastidiously accurate about the appearance and mores of the British aristocracy and their staff in post-World War I England.

You’re of Scottish royal descent and a graduate of the Sandhurst Military Academy. How did a soldier become an enforcer of period accuracy?

I was in the Scots Guards, one of the regiments with bearskin caps that you see around Buckingham Palace. They’re very involved in British pageantry, and I learned to train my eye to look at the smallest details. I have the capacity of spotting an undone button, a wrongly planted port glass, or slightly dirty dessert forks.

What have been the most egregious or most frequent errors among the cast?

Pronunciation: An aristocrat, for instance, would say “ruhm,” not “room.” Posture: Young people are on the Internet or mobile phones. Their shoulders are falling forward and their hands are Neanderthaling down to their kneecaps. They can’t manage to sit up straight and look respectable as people did in the 1920s. And quite often, how to hold a knife and fork.

Which actor has most easily taken to the aristocratic manners?

The one I’m most proud of is Michelle Dockery [Lady Mary], who will forgive me if I say that she was not exactly born the daughter of an earl. She is more convincing in that role perhaps even than those who are born to be the daughters of earls.

Does your correction of manners carry into real life?

I lecture in America, and when I’m asked how people should behave today I just say, “Be polite to everybody, not least to the people serving you your food.”

Do you have any other jobs?

My full-time job is as commentator of national events and religious affairs for [the U.K.’s] Sky News, and I’m also one of the Queen’s heralds.