Sunday 21 January 2018

Abbey at War

Albertina Lloyd

Downton Abbey is back to warm us up on autumn Sunday evenings but this time the shadow of war hangs over the estate.

When the first episode of Downton Abbey was screened on a Sunday evening almost exactly a year ago, few could have predicted the level of success it would enjoy.

The series, written by Gosford Park's Julian Fellowes, was acclaimed by critics and brought in the highest ratings of any ITV period drama since Brideshead Revisited in 1981.

It was was sold to more than 100 countries, sparked numerous fan clubs and Facebook pages, and even launched 'Manton Abbey' - a group of men who weren't afraid to admit that watching Downton was their guilty pleasure.

Now the second series about the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants is hotly anticipated. Will housemaid Anna and valet Bates finally give in to their affections for each other? Can Lady Mary convince heir Matthew Crawley of her true feelings? Will some of the scheming servants below stairs stir up more trouble for their employers?

But the new eight-episode series takes on a more serious tone than the first, as the residents of the Downton estate have to deal with the outbreak of the First World War.

The conflict brings many changes and one person who seizes on them is feisty Lady Sybil, the Earl of Grantham's youngest daughter.

Jessica Brown Findlay, who plays her, says: "Sybil, not being one to take things lightly, reaches a point where she can no longer sit around waiting for the war to end.

"So she goes out and trains as a nurse. She channels all her passion and energy into that, purely because she can't stand to feel useless and doesn't really like the life of a lady."

The Countess of Grantham, played by Elizabeth McGovern, has proved to be an understanding and caring mother. But now she must adjust to a newfound burst of independence among her daughters.

"It's something that we would be going through as characters anyway," McGovern explains. "But it's exacerbated by the fact the war has created opportunities for our children to find useful endeavours for themselves."

Hugh Bonneville's stately Lord Grantham has to accept he is no longer needed on the front line, but he's proud to see his daughters helping the war effort.

"Robert finds himself having to step back and let the women take centre stage," Bonneville says.

"The girls grow up, particularly Edith and Mary, having been at each other's throats so much. They pull their finger out and get involved, and Robert takes great pride in seeing his daughters strike out into the world from this cocoon of privilege.

"The girls are still pains in the neck of course, but the whole involvement of women in society and certainly in the working environment, changes dramatically and will never go back."

Even spoiled Lady Mary, who spent most of the last series refuting the advances of her well-intentioned cousin Matthew Crawley, can't ignore there's a war on.

Michelle Dockery, who plays the eldest daughter, reveals: "Mary's not quite as willing to get her hands dirty. She does get an apron on at one point, which is remarkable for such a snob!"

But Mary doesn't just have the effects of the war to adapt to. She's still coming to terms with the devastating news that Matthew is engaged to someone else - just as she had finally fallen for him.

"She's full of regret," says Dockery. "And the idea of losing him completely only intensifies her feelings. She's deeply in love and him arriving home with a fiancee is equally as devastating."

But despite finding a new fiancee, Matthew - who as Lord Grantham's closest male relative is set to inherit Downton when he dies - has far more pressing things on his mind.

"The series is still very much about the house, Downton Abbey and life here," says actor Dan Stevens. "So we see what it's like for him to come back here having seen the horrors of the war. Having to sit around a table and pretend everything's fine when it's not. That's Matthew's main drama."

Despite the shadow of war, there's still time to explore the romance between Bates and Anna, who forged an unlikely alliance in the first series.

"It's really gratifying that the audience have invested in the slow burn of this relationship," says Brendan Coyle, who became an unlikely pin-up thanks to his role as the misunderstood valet.

"They do finally get it on, but Julian [Fellowes] has decided - for dramatic purposes - that the course of this relationship is not going to run smooth."

As second-class citizens in the hierarchical society, a fully-fledged relationship is also bound to be a problem.

Coyle says: "It's very difficult in service to conduct a relationship. People often had to leave to marry and have children. So there are all these obstacles in our way, which we both overcome and struggle with."

Joanna Froggatt, who plays Anna, says: "It's a bit of a roller coaster, but hopefully fun to watch. It's wonderful the way people have received Anna and Bates. It's lovely to play a character that's so popular."

And as the war reminds people of their own mortality, another Downton romance gathers pace.

Sophie McShera, who plays young housemaid Daisy, reveals she and footman William are brought closer together. "The war changes everything for everyone in the house. It very much affects Daisy and William's relationship," she says.

The backdrop of war may be set to turn Downton Abbey upside down, but fans can rest assured the cast are just as keen for Julian Fellowes to pen more episodes, taking their favourite characters further through history.

Dockery says: "I think there's potential for a third series and I would certainly go with it. I'd like to see Mary in the roaring twenties and where it will take her."

Stevens adds with a laugh: "We could see Downton Abbey in the Seventies! Matthew in his old age and bell-bottoms! I'd like it to go on for however long Julian can keep coming up with the stories."

But for the time being, fans will be pleased the waiting is almost over and that the magic of Downton is soon to cast its spell over us once again.


:: Dame Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess of Grantham, likes to make herself useful between takes by umpiring the cast cricket matches.

:: Michelle Dockery is delighted the corset begins to go out of fashion with the outbreak of war.

:: Rob James Collier, who describes his character as "Thomas the evil footman", was bought an espresso in a coffee shop by one fan of the series - but often gets booed in the street.

:: Downton Abbey begins on ITV1 on Sunday, September 18

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