Thursday, 23 August 2012


It’s back – and better than ever. Richard Barber heads upstairs (and downstairs) and talks to the stars about what we can expect as Downton Abbey opens its doors once more…

Written by Richard Barber

We are promised a marriage, a birth and the death of a leading character. Yes, Downton Abbey will be back on ITV1 in the middle of September with a 90-minute, scene-setting special followed by seven more hour-long episodes and a two-hour Christmas special. Hallelujah!

Speaking as one who has seen that first episode, I’m happy to report that Julian Fellowes’s multilayered slice of life above and below stairs is right back to the form of the first series shown in 2010. Gone is the (necessary) freneticism of Series 2, with its dramatic unfolding of the First World War replaced by the daily doings of a family trying to pick up the pieces, and of the loyal band of men and women who serve them.

Says Fellowes: ‘This series is like that moment after a crash when you feel your body to see how many bones are broken. I think society was going through that in 1919 and 1920. Just how much of the old life was coming back? Were people prepared to do those old jobs? How much more money were they going to want and so on?’

The answers keep on coming. No one is under greater strain than the Earl of Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville), who must find a way of balancing the books when the family finances are threatened as never before, a dilemma that we see in unforgiving detail.

‘The entire nine episodes of this latest series take place over 18 months,’ says Bonneville, ‘so everything moves at a much slower pace. That gave Julian the scope to really explore the characters’ relationships. The outside world still impacts on Downton, but in a much more nuanced way than in the previous series when the impact of the First World War blew the emotions of the house apart.’

For Downton Abbey’s faithful butler, Mr Carson, these are testing times as he strives to play his part in replicating the social order that prevailed pre-war. But Jim Carter, who plays Carson, is in no doubt that Fellowes has pulled off a difficult balancing act.

‘I think this series is back to the best of the first one,’ says Carter, ‘with characters you now know and love able to tell their stories in grand, cinematic style. The march of time has slowed down a bit. Yes, we’re into the Roaring Twenties but they didn’t really start to roar until the middle of that decade. I’m not sure Downton ever roared at all. It’s why I’m really looking forward to Sundays, when I can sit down with my wife [actress Imelda Staunton] and my daughter and watch something of real quality.’

Like the rest of us, Carter and his family will be enthralled by the developing relationship between Lady Mary and her fiancé, Matthew Crawley. But will sparks continue to fly between the combustible couple?

‘In the first episodes,’ says Michelle Dockery who plays Lady Mary, ‘people loved to hate my character. Mary had this icy exterior and was vile to her sister, Edith. Then, after the incident with Pamuk, the Turkish diplomat who died in her bed, she began to soften.

‘In the second series, the country was at war and every time she saw Matthew could have been the last. In series three, Mary becomes a mature woman. She maintains that pragmatic side, which can be quite bossy at times, but she’s really grown up at last. That’s highlighted in her relationship with Edith. They look out for each other a little more now.’

For Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley), this series of Downton was the best yet. ‘I had the most fun,’ he says. ‘At one point, I had to get dressed up in flannels, stride out to the middle of Highclere Castle’s own cricket pitch and have an entire team of extras bowl at me. When I got out, I was able to stay in so we could do another take. I also loved driving a vintage AC car. That and cricket. What more could you ask for?’

Lady Mary’s youngest sister, Sybil, comes back home for a family visit with her Irish husband, former chauffeur, Tom Branson. ‘In this series,’ says Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays Sybil, ‘she is truly happy. The couple live in Ireland where Tom [Allen Leech] has become a journalist espousing the republican cause. She’s also pregnant, the first of the sisters to be so.’

But it’s not so easy for her screen husband. ‘Tom Branson is trying to find the right balance between his revolutionary ideals and the happiness of his wife,’ says Leech. ‘He strikes up a good relationship with Matthew, who’s the only one who truly understands what it’s like to marry into the family from the outside. But Branson is completely lost in the world he used to work in. No one below stairs wants him because they don’t know how to act with him. And certainly no one welcomes him upstairs, so he finds it very difficult.’

For middle sister, Lady Edith, the war was traumatic. ‘But it gave her independence and freedom,’ says Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, ‘and it has given her new confidence. Also, she doesn’t want to be left on the shelf. She considers Sir Anthony Strallan [Robert Bathurst] marriage material, even if her father regards him as too old. She genuinely loves him and feels they’d be very happy together. Edith is determined to follow it through.’

One of the show’s most popular love matches between valet John Bates (Brendan Coyle), and ladies’ maid, Anna (Joanne Froggatt), is tested as never before while Bates is incarcerated for the murder of his first wife – something that his second wife (and the viewers at home) believe to be a miscarriage of justice. ‘We start with her coming to terms with the fact that Bates is in prison,’ says Joanne. ‘Anna’s attempting to carry on with her own job, trying to be strong, but she’s also trying to find out more information and see if she can gather any evidence to prove Bates’s innocence.’

The prison scenes were filmed at Lincoln Castle in a three-tiered preserved Victorian gaol set within the walls. ‘I really missed working with the gang,’ says Coyle, ‘because Anna is pretty much the only person from Downton who comes to see Bates. He no longer, of course, has his trusty stick; it was taken away from him as soon as he was incarcerated. But the limp became a reflex action, so I didn’t find it too hard to dip into it again without the stick to prompt me.’

Rob James-Collier is back as black-hearted Thomas. ‘The main development in this series,’ he explains, ‘is that Thomas and O’Brien turn on each other. He’s jealous that her nephew, Alfred, is made a footman with very little experience and, as we know by now, hell hath no fury like a footman scorned. The trouble is, O’Brien’s cleverer than him. He goes up against her and that’s his big mistake.’ But James-Collier isn’t complaining. ‘Those two at loggerheads has given us some of our best scenes.’

Siobhan Finneran returns as Sarah O’Brien: ‘I love her,’ she says. ‘She’s funny and witty and yes, she’s cruel, but a lot of the things she does are for the good of the house and the staff. She’s not backward in coming forward and I admire that quality in people. A contemporary O’Brien might be an acclaimed businesswoman or a great lawyer. She sees everything before anyone else. If Downton went on for another 50 years, she’d probably be running the country.’

Shirley MacLaine makes an entrance as Lady Cora’s mother, Martha LevinsonShirley MacLaine makes an entrance as Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson


There’s a new kitchen maid, Ivy, played by Cara Theobold, and two new footmen, Alfred, and ladies’ man, Jimmy – Matt Milne and Ed Speleers respectively – but no new arrival is more keenly anticipated than Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine who joins the cast as Lady Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson.

Says Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora: ‘I was in LA for the Golden Globes in February when I first heard that Shirley was to be my on-screen mother. And she didn’t let any of us down. In fact, she kept all of us laughing.

‘What impressed me was that she was so excited to be on the show – and she knew every character. She was a complete enthusiast. She gave everyone a boost of energy.’

‘Martha is extremely outspoken,’ says Shirley. ‘Her basic role is to plead with Violet, the Dowager Countess [Maggie Smith] to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition and to embrace change. But a gunfight at the OK Corral doesn’t happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring but it’s more sophisticated than that.

‘Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and sensitive to what’s going on with her daughter’s children. Violet is a human being with complications and a past of some pain. Martha understands that.’

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