When the Producers of Downton Abbey Signed the Official Secrets Act
Just like other government departments the Foreign & Commonwealth Office requires film and TV producers to sign contracts with them to provide production assistance. The agreement signed with the makers of Downton Abbey includes an interesting clause – they signed up to abide by the strictures of the Official Secrets Act, in perpetuity, throughout the universe.
Downton Abbey is a wildly popular historical drama set in Yorkshire in the first quarter of the 20th century. For an episode filmed in the summer of 2013 they wanted to film at Lancaster House, a mansion near St James’s Palace that is owned and maintained by the FCO. The combination of rich historical architecture and upper class exuberance fitted the show perfectly, so the FCO drew up a contract that was signed that July.
I obtained this contract, along with emails between the FCO and the producers, via FOIA requests. For months the FCO delayed and avoided responding to my requests, at one point claiming that all the contracts they sign with producers are identical, so there was no need to send me the agreements for additional FCO-support products. These included Frankenstein, The Theory of Everything and My Kind of Traitor, along with the James Bond film Spectre. Eventually, I proved that their contracts weren’t all identical and they released several more to me.
What is unique about the FCO contract for Downton Abbey is that it obliged the producers and their employees to agree to abide by the Official Secrets Act.
What is it that they thought the producers and their employees might overhear? What was considered such a risk that this iron-clad boilerplate legalese had to be included in the contract? Did they think the butler was going to leak the nuclear codes?
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