Hampshire’s own dramatic export, Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey - Credit: Archant

As the world enjoys the fourth run of Hampshire’s own dramatic export, Downton Abbey – we catch up with the stars of the show to quiz them on what the new series has in store

Could anyone have foreseen the death of Matthew Crawley at the end of the Downton Abbey 2012 Christmas special? All appeared well at Highclere Castle, the household was a happy and light-hearted place again... and yet, with five minutes’ screen time still to run, it almost seemed inevitable that tragedy was waiting in the wings. And the last act was dealt with all the Shakespearean craft that has made this costume drama a global phenomena.

That’s where the fourth series, starting this autumn, picks up. Widow Lady Mary Crawley is grieving, and with young baby George to take care of, viewers are guaranteed a new raft of high drama and engaging stories, the like of which Downton has consistently provided over the past three years.

Creator Julian Fellowes clearly knows how to deliver the goods. He sees an audience enchanted by the goings-on at what is, in fact, the fictional sister of Highclere Castle, the dominating mansion nestled into the countryside just south of Newbury. The formula simply works, and its UK home on ITV1 seems ideal for the perfectly judged collection of cliff-hangers that drape terrifyingly around every corner. It’s for that reason that the concept was not pitched to the BBC, so long the bastion of all period drama. And the decision has paid off.

“An ad break is a drama break,” says Fellowes. “It’s a clever interruption. And we all knew we had something incredibly special. But until you really throw the hat into the ring and start filming, you can never be too sure how it will materialise, or how people will take to it.

“In a sense I think we’ve reinvented the period drama through Downton Abbey. We’ve made it approachable.”

The first episode of series four is set in 1922, with six months having passed since Matthew Crawley’s tragic departure. Michelle Dockery, the 31-year-old actress who plays his impossibly proper widowed wife, reveals that her character is not exactly on the hunt for a new man, but several new cast members will step up to vie for her affections.

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“She has more than one love interest – greedy girl,” Dockery laughs. “Lord Gillingham [Tom Cullen] is an old family friend who she’s known since childhood, and he doesn’t waste much time despite her grieving for Matthew.”

Aristocrat Charles Blake [Julian Ovenden] will also be making moves on Lady Mary and, with other new characters including ex-EastEnders actor Nigel Harman as a valet, not to mention also newly widowed Tom Branson - her brother-in-law - all eyes will be on arguably the central character’s fortunes.

However, Dockery says her relationship with Tom is friendly rather than romantic. “I don’t think it’s going anywhere. I hope not. That would be very inappropriate!”

The Romford-born actress continues: “It takes time but she returns to herself as the series goes on. She has lots of support and she is grieving heavily, but life goes on. And it’s important for her to move on – we all want that, because she’s such an involving character.

“As much of a shock as it’s been to lose some great characters, it opens up an opportunity for Julian to write a new chapter of something quite different, not only for Mary, but for others who are either coming in for the first time or evolving.”

Dockery also reveals another side to the tragedy – the difficulty Lady Mary has in taking to motherhood.

“She struggles with the reality of motherhood. I like that – this isn’t a modern phenomenon. And it shows that despite a wealth of support all around her, it can still be difficult. She’s very much part-time in her involvement.”

Who’ll be looking after baby George then?

“Well the staff at the house pull together. There’s a nanny who comes in and she will essentially look after him. I have sympathy for Mary – she’s overcoming one loss whilst taking on a huge burden, so you can see why she struggles.”

From upstairs to downstairs, assistant cook Daisy – played by Sophie McShera – also lost her husband, a co-worker she hardly knew, who she married when he returned from World War I mortally wounded. The gesture made his final hours happy. This is clearly where Downton’s strengths lay – an almost overwhelming number of storylines, some intersecting, slowly developing.

To ensure accuracy at all times, the show has its own historical adviser, Alastair Bruce, who consults with the cast to ensure authenticity.

28 year old McShera, from Bradford, explains: “We get a talk at the beginning of every series from Alastair, who is amazing. He tells us everything we could ever need to know. His talk sets you up for the year. I probably ask him a question every time I shoot a scene because he just knows everything.

“I was getting a bit beyond myself bossing people around in the kitchen because I’m an assistant cook now. Then a maid came in and I started bossing her around. Alastair came over to me and said, ‘No, no. You can’t boss the maids around. They are way above you!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I thought I was really high status now!’ He’s very helpful because he just tells you exactly what to do in situations like that.”

Hugh Bonneville, who plays head of the household Lord Grantham, promises that despite the move into the decadent 1920s and something of a cast shake-up, the show remains very much in the mould that has made it the worldwide, award-winning success it is.

ITV1 will be hoping to at least match the viewing figures of series three – 11.9 million at its peak – and there’s a greater American presence this time around, reflecting the show’s success Stateside (worldwide figures are reportedly 120 million). Paul Giamatti will appear in the 2013 Christmas special as Lady Grantham’s brother Harold, billed as a ‘maverick playboy’, and Shirley MacLaine will return as the siblings’ mother.

“Time has to move on,” Bonneville says, “but Julian is very careful to preserve the winning formula. He manages to tweak it without going too far away from what makes it so good.”

Musical additions to the cast include a cameo from New Zealand opera star Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who’ll be singing in the Hampshire house, and a jazz singer (Jack Ross, from Chicago, played by Gary Carr), the show’s first black character. Bonneville says this eclectic cast is one of the key reasons behind its enduring success.

“Downton Abbey is a winner because it brings together a great ensemble and draws you in to their lives, their emotions,” continues the 49-year-old Londoner. “It’s as much a soap as a costume drama, and it just works. There’s always so much detail to get lost in. I always have to watch each episode a few times to take it all in!”

One of the show’s other leading men, bad-boy servant Thomas, played by Rob James-Collier, is keeping a lower profile since his sexual advance on a male co-worker nearly lost him his job at the house. He was saved thanks to some quick thinking by Lord Crawley. So what’s ahead? Has Thomas turned his back on his scheming ways?

“Well he’s certainly less scheming than he was in the past!” laughs James-Collier. “That said, Mr Carson is talking to applicants and he auditions a lady who Thomas knows something about, something she wants to keep secret about her background.”

The Stockport-born actor teases: “He knows her secret, but we don’t know yet what it is. She’s his eyes and ears upstairs. Any hints of gossip, scandal, anything he can use for himself. I’m sure it all will come out in the wash what the secret is but we’ll have to wait to see.”

However, he admits Thomas is a little wiser this time around, having got his comeuppance last year. “I definitely think he’s been humbled because he nearly lost everything. It made him take stock of his life. You can’t keep railing against the system. He could’ve gone to prison if he’d been outed in that way. There would have been the loss of reference and he’d never be able to work again.

“He’s got where he wants to be, or near enough, so I think he’s a bit more chilled out this year, and slightly less sinister. You still don’t want to cross him because anyone who does has to pay the price, but he’s not out actively campaigning for evil.”

So what else has this fourth run got in store? With the 1920s heralding an era of decadence, it’s likely to be a racier series from the off, but in dramatic terms it will be business as usual. And while upstairs it will be affairs of the heart, dealing with tragedy and a new focus on economy, the drama downstairs will be heightened by the introduction of an electric mixer into the kitchen – a worrying development for head cook Mrs Patmore.

Meanwhile, Lady Mary and the rest of the house will be picking up the pieces from that tragic loss. Dockery has the final word: “There’s so much happening in this series for all the characters. Anna and Bates’ story continues and Edith has a great plot unfolding. Yes, the beginning is focused on Lady Mary’s situation but everyone in the house has something going on.”

And Hampshire’s take on all this? Well, Highclere Castle has never known fame like it. When the home of the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon isn’t being taken over by film crews, extras and some of the nation’s best dramatic actors, there are a wealth of visitors all wanting to sample what has become an iconic setting. Record numbers visited last year, from all across the world, and the Jacobean Grade I listed building has truly embraced its popularity. It seems the future of this brilliant costume drama is very much in the past.