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All you need to know about Downton as the period drama returns for a new series

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The Downton Abbey cast make a return for season five

The Downton Abbey cast make a return for season five

Maggie Smith returns as Dowager Countess Crawley

Maggie Smith returns as Dowager Countess Crawley

Do Will Branson and Lady Mary continue to bond over lost spouses?

Do Will Branson and Lady Mary continue to bond over lost spouses?

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The Downton Abbey cast make a return for season five

As the period show dripping with drama returns to our TV screens, Ceri Radford brings you the latest on the new series.

Can't remember your Lady Flintshire from your first footman? After four series and more plot twists than you can shake a walking cane at, that's hardly surprising. So here's a recap and a guide to what the coming season has in store.

Downton digested

Last season, Lady Mary emerged from mourning to string along two toothsome suitors: childhood friend Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake, with whom she rolled in pig muck. Luckless Lady Edith's fiancé vanished, leaving her to give birth to his child - and then to reluctantly give her away. Lady Rose had a fling with a jazz musician, while the world's most beleaguered romance stumbled on: Mrs Bates was raped by a valet whom Mr Bates may then have murdered. Thomas, meanwhile, remained a cauldron of inexplicable malignity, this time baiting Lady's maid Baxter with a blackmail threat.

Fire, fire!

In series five, a blaze tears through Downton. For a show that has never shunned the grandiose - from family fortunes sinking with the Titanic to trench warfare - this should come as no surprise. Rest assured that Highclere House, the setting of Downton Abbey, survives intact - the fire was partly filmed in Ealing Studios, to avoid smoke damage. I just hope Carson's eyebrows are likewise preserved for the nation.

Eau no...

Just as every great house must have its scandals, so every period drama must have its bloopers. A publicity shot for the new series showed the Earl of Grantham and Lady Edith - as well as a plastic bottle of water on the mantelpiece. This can be added to a tally of anachronisms including glimpses of a TV aerial and double yellow lines.

The mini-mes

From babies born of tragedy to uncanny mini-mes, time has moved on quickly for Matthew's son Master George and Lady Sybil's daughter "Sybbie". As infants, George has the blonde quiff and cool stare of his deceased father; Sybbie, her late mother's winsome blue eyes. They may be eerily well cast, but neither is likely to play as big a role as Marigold, Lady Edith's love child, who was stashed away to be raised by a local family.

Shaking ground

Objecting to change has been a constant in Downton, with everything from the Irish revolution to the electric egg whisk causing consternation. Expect this to intensify. It's 1924, a new Labour prime minister is in power, the denizens of Downton are "incontrovertibly living in the modern world", as Julian Fellowes, the writer, puts it - and Carson (Jim Carter) is about as happy as a bear with its foot caught in a trap. Whereas in the last series, Lady Rose discovered black people, this time round she discovers the wireless. "I feel a shaking of the ground I stand on," Carson intones.

Love and loss

Judging on previous form, Lady Mary's choice between two eligible men will be spun out beyond all bounds of plausibility or mercy. Also recovering from bereavement, Branson will be getting closer to Sarah Bunting, the socialist school teacher. He has already fixed her car, so marriage is only a matter of time. Mr and Mrs Bates' marriage is certain to be strained by the struggle to have a child.

New faces

Anna Chancellor will join the cast as feisty Lady Anstruther, while Richard E Grant is Simon Bricker, an art historian and guest of the Crawleys. His role is yet to be revealed: perhaps advising the cash-strapped Crawleys as they resort to flogging the family masterpieces?

Dowager Countess for ever

Let us take a pause before the new series begins to pay homage to the Dowager Countess of Grantham, Violet Crawley (Dame Maggie Smith): crisply spoken curmudgeon, granny of greatness, vessel for Julian Fellowes' best lines. A figure from her past will show an unexpected side to her character and threaten her truce with Isobel. Be that as it may, readers can be assured that, judging by a preview of the first episode, she has lost none of her vim and viper-like wit.

Downton around the world

Downton Abbey is the most-watched drama in Denmark; it's so popular in China that UK Prime Minister David Cameron presented premier Li Keqiang with a signed script of the first episode; and a piquant Brazilian rice dish has been named The Lady Mary. Ok, I made the last bit up, but Downton's global reach defies exaggeration. The package of nostalgia, snobbery, wit and evening dress has seen the drama exported to 250 territories.

Sneak peek at episode one

The opener doesn't trot out of the starting gate so much as bolt madly with its eyes swivelling. We see Lady Edith grappling with the tragedy of separation from her daughter, Moseley (Kevin Doyle) with the tragedy of hair dye in the pre-Grecian 2000 era. While Michele Dockery pushed Lady Mary's character to new depths with her portrayal of a grieving widow, there is a wonderful, comic moment here where her grandiloquent eyebrows barely twitch as she receives a scandalous proposition. All is galloping along nicely - until smoke starts billowing out from beneath a bedroom door…

Downton Abbey returns to ITV on Sunday and TV3 next Wednesday

Irish Independent