Duchess Catherine tours 'Downton Abbey' set, gets kudos for helping series

Duchess Kate pays #DowntonAbbey denizens a royal visit, poses for epic cast portrait

Straighten up: The duchess has arrived!

The Duchess of Cambridge is the reason behind "Downton Abbey's" success, show creator Julian Fellowes said Thursday during Catherine's visit to the set.

The eight-months-pregnant royal toured the historic Ealing Studios in west London to "celebrate the success" of the series, Kensington Palace said, touting the award-winning show as "one of Britain's greatest cultural exports."

(Pish posh! We're quite firmly on Team Harry Potter, though we will credit "Downton" for helping us properly choose our cutlery.)

The Emmy Award-winning Fellowes praised Prince William's wife as a "functioning member of the Downton team" after she took the extensive set tour of the upstairs-downstairs series. The visit comes just months after George Clooney taped a tongue-in-cheek holiday bit with the cast.

"Thank you so much for letting me into your world," the 33-year-old royal said to the talent and crew. She reportedly stayed an hour longer than had been planned.

While there, Catherine, clad in a cream JoJo Maman Bebe maternity coat, met with cast members Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Jim Carter (Mr. Carson), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith) and numerous others. Click through the photo gallery for a visual version of the meet-and-greet).

Fellowes, who in reality is the Lord of West Stafford, said ITV's drama about the noble household and its servants took off overseas thanks to an inadvertent plug from the duchess during her U.S. visit as a newlywed in 2011.

"It's been rather an extraordinary journey aboard the good ship Downton, but this is certainly one of the high points of the voyage," the 65-year-old Fellowes said.

"And it so happens that just as we were trying to shift 'Downton' in America, you actually made a visit and someone said, had you ever heard of a show called 'Downton Abbey.' And you said you'd heard of it, you'd watched it, you'd enjoyed it. This went into the media like an Exocet missile and soon all of America and most of the world knew it and as a result our challenge faded away."

The lavish period drama, currently filming its sixth season, has been airing stateside on PBS' "Masterpiece" since 2011 and has earned acclaim in the form of Emmy, Golden Globe, SAG and BAFTA awards for its writing, directing and the acting of Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) and the inimitable Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess of Grantham). Unfortunately, Smith was feeling ill and couldn't be there for the duchess' visit. "Cinderella" star Lily James, who plays Lady Rose MacClare, was also absent.

The royal viewed some of the scenes they were shooting and even posed for an epic portrait with the cast and crew that Mr. Carson would be delighted to hang in his study. (With nary a water bottle in sight!)

She also visited the props and hair and makeup departments, where she bumped into Mrs. Hughes herself, Phyllis Logan, and actor Rob James-Collier, who was up to a bit of mischief as usual.

"You've come in at a really good point because Phyllis is about to have her Botox put in -- it's a key point in her morning arrangements," joked James-Collier, who plays scheming under-butler Thomas Barrow.

The duchess marveled when executive producer Chris Croucher explained that they aim to film four minutes of screen time each day, the palace said. Meanwhile, most exterior and some interior scenes are shot at Highclere Castle in Newbury.

"You can't tell when you are watching that anything is filmed in a studio," the duchess said. "The sets are so much smaller than you imagine -- especially when you've got all the crew in here as well."

Catherine's royal duties wouldn't be complete without her receiving a gift or two. The studio created a plaque to commemorate her visit and Mrs. Patmore and Daisy (actresses Lesley Nicol and Sophie McShera, respectively) presented her with a monogrammed cake when she visited the Downton kitchen.

She also received a bound copy of the script for the series' first episode that was signed by the cast. But the best gift of all naturally went to her son, Prince George of Cambridge. Child actor Oliver Barker, who plays the real-life prince's namesake George Crawley -- the heir to Downton -- presented Kate with a wooden train for the heir to the British throne.

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