Getting Down To The Matter…

24th August 2012

Pam Francis prepares for a new series of the melodrama everyone’s talking about…

There’s an air of excitement at London’s Mayfair Hotel. Outside in Berkeley Street a handful of photographers gather as taxis begin to pull up. Inside, there is an expectant buzz amongst the journalists awaiting the arrival of some very special guests.

“Isn’t that Lord Grantham?,” an American woman whispers loudly in the foyer, as Hugh Bonneville strides through. “Oh and look – it’s Mr Carson, the butler; I’m sure it is,” she adds, as she spots actor Jim Carter.

And so it is: the man himself, along with virtually the entire cast of the ITV1 award-winning costume drama Downton Abbey, which returns to our screens next month.

One by one, they gather under the vast chandelier of the hotel’s Crystal Room to join us for afternoon tea, and talk about the new series.

They are all here: Cora, the Countess of Grantham, and Lady Mary Crawley with sisters Lady Sybil and Lady Edith, not forgetting her beloved Matthew Crawley. And the below stairs staff, too, including Daisy and Mrs Patmore, the scurrilous Thomas and Mrs Hughes. Dressed in 21st century clothes, some are more recognisable than others. Even Bates has managed to break out of jail for the afternoon, for a tryst with his wife Anna, and there are a few fresh faces including two new footmen – Alfred, who is O’Brien’s awkward young nephew, and the incredibly handsome Jimmy, who immediately catches Thomas’s eye. Plus there is a new scullery maid Ivy, who ruffles Daisy’s feathers.

Conspicuous by their absence are Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith who rarely attends such events, and the new Hollywood star of the show, Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s American mother, Martha Levinson, who sweeps into Downton at the start of the new series, for Mary and Matthew’s wedding.

Having seen the first 90 minute episode, I can promise you won’t be disappointed. Now that the First World War is over, Downton Abbey is back to what it does best – being a family saga, with characters we care about, each with their own story.

Nonetheless, the Irish Question does loom large in some of this series’ plotlines. Writer Julian Fellowes says it’s simply because the characters at the time could not have ignored it.

For most of us, however, the big topic in the last series was that wedding, and whether Lady Mary and Matthew would make it to the altar for the most talked about marriage of the decade… apart, maybe, from that of a certain royal couple! Without giving too much away, I can reveal that they do.

“The dress was beautiful. Stunning,” says Michelle Dockery who plays Lady Mary, as she joins me at my table. “I even got wedding day nerves because everybody was waiting to see the dress. No one had seen it, not even Dan,” she adds, referring to Dan Stevens who plays her other half and is sitting next to her.

“The big difference for Lady Mary in this series is that she’s very happy. In the first few episodes people loved to hate her. She was very cold with this icy exterior and vile to her sister. Then in the second series you see the heart of the character much more, because of course we were at war, and every time she saw Matthew could have been the last. “

That’s not to say that, following the honeymoon, everything is happy ever after. ”Like all marriages,” Michelle observes, “it’s not completely perfect. Let’s just say they have their teething problems at the beginning.”

Dan Stevens is not sure that the much talked-about wedding will be quite on the scale of that of William and Kate.

“The kiss on the balcony? I don’t think so. But yes, they won’t be disappointed. Michelle looked fantastic in the dress.”

Dan is far more excited, however, about the fact that in this series he gets to play cricket. Dressing up in flannels and striding out on the middle of Highclere Castle’s own cricket pitch was, he says, a dream come true. “That was the best day of filming throughout. Standing out in the middle with a team full of extras, batting, and if they got me out, I got to stay in!”

In this series, the couple decide if they’re going to stick around at Downton after the wedding.

“And it’s not all happy days and plain sailing once the ring is on the finger,” he adds. “He is still realising quite what he has married!”
Joining us for tea, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern who play Lord Grantham and his wife, are still on a high about their new cast member, Shirley MacLaine.

Says Hugh: “I was in awe of her to start with. But she was an absolute hoot. I was in the hall when Maggie (Smith) and Shirley first met. It was like Stanley meeting Livingstone, you know… these two great adventurers of our industry meeting for the first time on the show. Often, in the dinner scenes, with me sitting between Maggie and Shirley, I felt I’d died and gone to heaven listening to some of the stories about the people they’ve worked with.”

Elizabeth adds: “Shirley was so excited to be on the show. She knew every character and screamed whenever she saw someone new.”

As you can imagine, there are plenty of humorous sparring moments between Shirley’s character, Martha, and the Dowager Countess, Violet. In the background, though, all is not well, as Lord Grantham finds himself with huge money worries. “You’re beginning to see the cracks in the country house estate as a notion,” Hugh explains, “what with the social changes brought about after the First World War. The big estates really did start to have to fight for survival. It’s up to Robert to lead that fight, in spite of business not being his strong point.”

He pauses, and then adds, “We’ve always talked about the actual house being the main character. But what if that character has to go?”

That’s just one of many questions which will be asked as we return to Downton Abbey. Will the wedding go without a hitch? Will Lady Edith ever find love like her sisters? Will Anna Bates manage to free her husband from prison (real life Free Bates campaigns have sprung up worldwide!)? Will the pregnant Lady Sybil be invited back for the wedding with her Irish husband Tom? And how will the household react to the arrival of Cora’s mother, Martha?

One storyline which is bound to have an impact is the hate that develops between Sarah O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) and Thomas (Rob James-Collier). Says Rob: “The great thing about this series is Thomas and O’Brien turn on each other. Instead of being allies they become enemies and it gets a lot worse.”

He also reveals that we see a more vulnerable side of Thomas. “You’ll see him like you have never seen him before. Completely open, and exposed. He is a homosexual man who could go to prison. It’s been a secret all his life, and there are scenes which are truly heartbreaking, and where the viewers, I hope, will have sympathy for Thomas and why is he is like he is.”

Meanwhile, changing fashions have brought one piece of good news for all the women in the cast… the costumes are much more comfortable. “I am happy to say,” confides Elizabeth McGovern, “that as the times have marched on, the outfits have become more liberated – and the corsets are a lot more flexible.”

Being comfortable on set is vital. As the cast bid us goodbye, they still have weeks of filming ahead, including a Christmas special. Their cars await, along with a few curious onlookers, who can’t quite believe what they’re seeing, as TV’s most famous costume drama characters wend their way home.

Downton Abbey, ITV1, due to start transmission in September

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