What next for Downton Abbey?
Matthew Crawley may be dead, but Downton Abbey's global audience is growing. With series four about to start, how will Carson and the Dowager Countess deal with the jazz age?
Spare a thought for Dan Stevens.
The actor probably believed that his departure from Downton Abbey and move to Hollywood would put clear blue water between him and his alter ego, Matthew Crawley.
After all, the Christmas special saw the Abbey’s heir fatally run off the road in a very unfestive fashion, sending sherries spilling across the land.
But it has not been quite that simple, as Stevens found when plugging his new movie at the Toronto Film Festival this month. There was one topic to which reporters wanted to return. Does he still watch the show? Any regrets? Did he ever complain: “I don’t want to die in a car crash.” The actor, it has to be said, acquitted himself with admirable patience (his answers were: yes; it’s complicated; and there was no time for any of that.)
So was Stevens’ decision to quit a wise move? With a worldwide audience of 120 million and counting – Chinese state TV has just started broadcasting the series – Downton fever is only growing. Now, with the start of the fourth season just over a week away, tantalising stills from the set are whetting our appetites for the stroke of 9pm on September 22.
Change, we see, is afoot. While Matthew’s widow Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery), once the house’s hard-nosed darling, is broken-hearted in black, Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) has emerged from her shadow to slink about in skimpy creations that the actress calls “daring even today”. It is not just the Crawley sisters whom we find altered. The series has whipped along at a cracking pace, whisking us through the run-up to the Great War to 1922, where season four opens six months after Matthew’s death.
The period means that much-loved Downton look, today spawning clothing and homeware lines, remains sumptuously lush. But with the march of time, hemlines are rising, silhouettes relaxing, and the neat S-shapes of the Marcel Wave – so popular that fellow hairdressers held a thanksgiving week for Monsieur Marcel – ripple across the Crawley ladies’ heads.
Tucked away in Yorkshire they may be, but the Abbey’s inhabitants are stirring to the first callings of the jazz age, the rise of the bohemian Bloomsbury set and the relaxing of the older social rules – up to a point, of course. Violet, the acidly funny Dowager Countess played by Dame Maggie Smith, still keeps a beady eye on goings on.
But there are new faces, too, including the first real-life characters – the natural progression for a show that opened with the sinking of the Titanic. Kiri Te Kanawa seems perfectly cast as another dame from down under, opera singer Nellie Melba; while Virginia Woolf also makes a cameo.
London looks set to play a more prominent role, with scenes shot at St Pancras station, the Criterion restaurant and the ballroom of The Savile Club in Mayfair. The house, in turn, is opening up to the world. Carson the butler may only just have perfected his telephone voice, but there is no let-up in the march of modernity, as a newfangled electric mixer causes a stir in the kitchen.
Underpinning all of this is relentless attention to detail. Lady Carnarvon of Highclere Castle, the stately home where the series is filmed, may chafe at the way the crew sets her table, but the show’s makers politely note that the naysayers are not always correct. After all, if you were to fill the Abbey with the “correct” number of footmen, it would become the “footmen show”, in the words of historical adviser Alastair Bruce. History must always remain second to the story – still in the hands of a single writer, Julian Fellowes – which is everything.
As ever, the twists and turns of the forthcoming episodes are shrouded in secrecy, which the producers prize. The death of Lady Sybil in childbirth in the last season came as a complete shock to the audience – as well as to the cast’s nearest and dearest. “How DARE you? And you, my own son?” was the understandable reaction of the mother of Allen Leech, who plays Sybil’s widower Branson.
But the producers have thrown us a few bones. They have promised no more deaths – “at least not straight away”. On a broader level, the thrust will be about a return to living to the full, with trailers showing Violet telling Mary that she “must choose either death or life”. (“And you think I should choose life?” sighs Mary, grief not blunting her edge.) Yet, while her happy ending may have been shattered – Dockery trawled bereavement blogs to prepare – the fact that her character has been thrown into crisis promises to give the show new energy. A single mother faced with death duties on her husband’s estate must wrestle all sorts of dilemmas. And, as Gareth Neame, the executive producer, has flagged: “Inevitably, there is going to be male interest in this eligible, beautiful young widow.”
Meanwhile, we have fledgling hack Lady Edith in a tangle with her editor, a married man. And let’s not forget Rose, the rogue cousin sent from her home in the Highlands into the hands of Lord and Lady Grantham, who have finally reconciled after the death of Sybil. Rose may have been “Downton-ed” in appearance, her wild hair tamed, but it might be too much to expect that her behaviour will be restrained.
The downstairs characters continue to wrestle with their private dramas, as Thomas, the scheming under-butler, faces life without his partner in crime, lady’s maid O’Brien, and Bates and Anna finally enjoy a taste of domestic bliss. Shirley MacLaine will also reappear, offering a weighty sparring partner to Maggie Smith’s Violet.
So what has kept all these great names coming back for a fourth series? The cast do seem to have fun, with Smith said by her peers to be a whizz at their on-set battles of Bananagrams, a Scrabble-like game. But surely the happy surprise that is their all-conquering success in America cannot be underestimated. The toughest TV market in the world has embraced Downton with a total lack of the domestic hand-wringing over whether the servants are a bit too happy, or if it all moves rather faster that the period dramas we’re used to. Indeed, the main complaint stateside is that they must wait until January for the new series to hit their screens. The lure, according to Downton’s in-house American, Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Grantham, is the “basic decency” to most of the characters. Certainly, in comparison with the cast of Breaking Bad, for instance, even Thomas looks rather cuddly.
It must also help that, though the show has thrust an international profile upon the Downton cast, they have not been forced to choose between sticking with the series and embracing the bright lights of LA. Four of them – Smith and Dockery, as well as Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) and Jim Carter (Carson) – are up for awards at next weekend’s Emmys, the “Oscars” of television. The show has now clocked up 27 Emmy nominations in total, making it the most-nominated non-American show ever, on top of its two Golden Globes.
And yet, could it be that this great British export has further to grow? Ahead of this latest season, the crew promise that the show is only getting “bigger and bigger in terms of our ambition”. Gareth Neame won’t pooh-pooh the idea of taking it to the silver screen, admitting: “That’s possible.”
Downton Abbey: The Movie? Don’t rule it out.
The official companion book to all four seasons, 'Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey’, by Emma Rowley (Harper Collins), is available from Telegraph Books (0844 871 1514)