Altman Goes Upstairs, DOWNSTAIRS

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Byline: ALEXANDER WALKER

Robert Altman knows he's 'treading on a minefield' as he turns his cameras on the English aristocracy and their servants.

Alexander Walker meets him on set

HOLLYWOOD wheelers and dealers in The Player; Paris fashion mavens in Pret-a-Porter; the Dallas ladies who lunch in Dr T and the Women. This raw, wet spring, the filmmaker who chronicled the conspicuous consumers of two continents set his multiple cameras turning on the English set of a film about the ultimate consumer society: the upstairs-downstairs world of aristocrats and their servants.

I am treading on a social minefield, says Robert Altman. Entitled Gosford Park, this is the first movie he has made in England, possibly his riskiest.

Altman, 76, sits solidly at two TV monitors, his small white beard stippling a California tan and his brown corduroys, cuffed brogues and black polo shirt padding him against the cold of the dining room in a tately home whose temperature fits game birds and goose pimples better than the illustrious cast of players he has assembled.

But if he professes apprehension at the new territory he is entering, this master social satirist of American cinema has only to look over his shoulder.

The maker of M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs Miller, The Long Goodbye, Nashville, A Wedding and Short Cuts looks as if he is enjoying going where few Americans ever boldly go: into a place more rarefied than space, the English class system.

Gosford Park is less a story than a complex interplay of people in the setting of a 1930s stately home where rank and title go hand in hand with scandal and murder.

It s Ten Little Indians meets La Regle du Jeu, Altman quips, as if making the breakfast pitch to studio executives that he satirised so well in The Player. He s not entirely joking. Julian Fellowes s bespoke screenplay tailored to fit Altman s preference for multi-character scenarios was inspired by Agatha Christie, mistress of classic English crimes among the idle classes, and Jean Renoir, master scrutineer of society s hypocrisies in prewar French cinema. It is costing [pound]13.5 million, [pound]2 million of it Lottery money, an audacious budget for an authentic British movie.

But the scale is visible the moment I enter a country house in the Home Counties, seat of a landed family descended from an earl. Its owners have vacated its cupola d east wing and the central hall with its magnificent curving staircase. While they pig it in the remaining wing, Altman and his cast and crew recreate a lifestyle no aristocrats today would think it prudent to maintain, even if they could afford to.

His cast comprises the most extravagant number of stars since the all-star Murder on the Orient Express: Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Eileen Atkins, Alan Bates, Jeremy Northam, Charles Dance, Clive Owen, Tom Hollander, Sophie Thompson, Derek Jacobi, Kelly Macdonald, Richard E Grant, Emily Watson, Kristin Scot Thomas, Helen Mirren, James Wilby, Stephen Fry ... It must take Napoleonic generalship to put all of them through their paces.

No ... easy, says Altman. When quality comes in multiples, everyone s on their best behaviour.

Nobody dares not be professional in front of their peers. We haven t yet found the weakest link. He squints into two TV monitor screens, each masked top and bottom to define the letterbox perimeters of the cinema screen.

Andrew Dunn, who photographed The Madness of King George, oversees the two cameras being used for this scene. I squeeze in behind Altman; Fellowes behind me; behind him, a distinguished gent in striped trousers and silver tie: 83-year-old Arthur Inch ( as in measurement, sir ), former footman, under-butler, then butler to some of the great families, onetime servant to the present Queen, now punctilious monitor of any social lapses above or below stairs in Gosford Park.

The murder in this film, Fellowes admits, is quite a social lapse in fact, one character is murdered twice over. …

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