Jim Carter

Jim Carter in Sky Arts' Treasures of the British Library

Downton Abbey actor Jim Carter visits the Library to explore his secret passions for magic and circus.

Jim Carter is one of Britain’s best-loved actors – known for his film, stage and television work, and most famous for playing Mr Carson the butler in the hit drama Downton Abbey.

In Sky Arts’ Treasures of the British Library, Jim had the opportunity to explore six items from the Library’s vaults that sparked his curiosity and told his story – finding his own treasures of the British Library.

Here we look at a selection of them…

Escape to the circus...

Although we now know Jim for his acting career, perhaps in an alternate universe he would have been trapezing in a circus ring. After leaving university, he joined a fringe theatre group where he taught himself how to juggle, rode a unicycle and even tried his hand at walking the tightrope. One of his greatest achievements, he reveals, was building a double height bicycle so he could ride it while on stilts!

Printed Heritage Collections Curator Helen Peden selected an evocative display of posters for Jim, reaching back to the very beginnings of the circus. First, a notice produced for circus pioneer and showman Philip Astley’s travelling show in 1784.

Jim traces the origins of the circus

Illustration of Astley's Amphitheatre

Illustration of Astley's Amphitheatre

This illustration of Astley's circus depicts a packed crowd watching the famous horse show. From Microcosm of London, 1808-10.

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Just over 100 years later, the great circus showman ‘Lord’ George Sanger took on Astley’s mantle and his venue, renaming it Sanger’s Grand National Amphitheatre. Looking at the poster, which is labelled with various feats to be performed, Jim was able to share a few of his own industry secrets:

I have to say, ‘walking up [the tightrope] backwards’: that’s tough on your hamstrings. The ‘sit slide’[sitting on the tightrope while sliding down it]: that’s not so hard. ‘Walking up [the tightrope] forwards’ – as a tightrope walker Helen, I can share this secret with you, it’s quite easy… I’ll teach you?

Finally, Helen unearthed a poster of another of Sanger’s shows entitled [Joseph] Poole’s new myriorama & picturesque trips abroad, which depicts circus performers riding animals associated with their countries: the American eagle, the French hen, the Egyptian on a crocodile, the Australian on a kangaroo. It reads: ‘This magnificent production consists of… an unrivalled company of variety artistes, orchestral and military bands, the whole totally eclipsing anything of its class ever attempted’.

‘If there’s any shows put on that can rival this, I’m going to buy a ticket now’, Jim promises.

Abracadabra

As well as his tightrope wizardry, Jim had another trick up his sleeve to share with us: his talent for magic:

When I was in fringe theatre and we were doing pub shows … I couldn’t sing or dance, so I… taught myself some magic tricks… which developed into an act which I did, like ‘The Worst Magician in the World’ – so sort of a magic act/comedy, with a couple of good tricks thrown in there.


It’s an interest I’ve always had, and I would always get excited about going to see a magician, almost more than going to see a play.

Jim and his pal, magician Richard McDoughal met Printed Heritage Collections Curator Christian Algar who conjured up a prized 16th-century work on magic – a volume considered cutting edge for its time, which contains the first description of the cups and balls trick in the English language.

Jim learns about the origins of the cups and balls trick

The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

The Discovery of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot, 1584

Reginald Scot wrote that witches are ‘commonly old, lame, bleare-eied, pale, fowle, and full of wrinkles …. They are leane and deformed, shewing melancholie in their faces, to the horror of all that see them … These miserable wretches are so odious unto all their neighbours, and to be feared’.

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Roman Britain

Next, Jim took a trip further back in time to learn about the Roman conquest of Britain, something that has fascinated him ever since his childhood:

…as a kid [learning about the Romans,] you were brought up [with the phrase] Veni, Vidi, Vici – ‘I came, I saw, I conquered’, which was attributed to Julius Caesar... But I was thinking, what did the Romans see when they landed in Britain? They sailed up the Thames Estuary and got out at Ramsgate, and looked around, and there’s [the hypothetical] Giuseppe from Rome in his little red toga and his sandals going, ‘what’s this?’ 

Becky Lawton from Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts shared her enthusiasm for one of the jewels of the Library’s collections, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People by Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, who is known as the Father of English History. The illuminated manuscript is divided into five books, tracing the history of England from the time of Julius Ceasar to Bede’s own day.

Jim took a trip back in time to the Roman conquest of Britain

Tiberius Bede

The Venerable Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People)f.5v

Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People was created in 731. It tells the story of the conversion of the English people to Christianity (British Library, Cotton MS Tiberius C II, f. 5v)

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Public Domain in most countries other than the UK.

‘That’s our history right from the beginning…’, Jim said. ‘To see a 1,300 year old document was amazing – I wanted to know what Julius Caesar saw and the Venerable Bede told me.’

The donation

Jim’s adventure at the Library was coming to an end but he admits he could have spent even longer down in the archives:

I’m amazed at the variety I’ve seen. I’d like to spend about six months in here ferreting around. You can find anything, it’s a real house of treasures.

Before he bade farewell to curators, Jim kindly donated to us two of his own personal treasures: the script he worked from for episode five of the last series of Downton Abbey, together with the fictional marriage service to his own wedding, used in the show.

  • Elliot Sinclair
  • Elliot is a Web Editor at the British Library.