WITH her acid one-liners and imperious air, Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess is one of Dame Maggie Smith’s most glorious creations.
But an executive behind the show has claimed that the 77-year-old actress has a similarly terrifying reputation on set.
Rebecca Eaton, who is responsible for broadcasting the costume drama in the US, reportedly made a series of indiscreet comments during a Downton Abbey screening for American audiences.
“Maggie Smith is a handful, it’s true. She’s very difficult,” Eaton said.
“She knows her worth, and she’s tricky on the set, but she delivers when the time comes.”
Miss Eaton is executive producer of America's PBS Masterpiece series, which screens British dramas including Downton Abbey.
The show is returning for a third series in the autumn and the Dowager Countess will have a new adversary in Martha Levinson, the wealthy mother of Lady Grantham (Elizabeth McGovern).
Levinson is played by another veteran actress, Shirley MacLaine.
Discussing the showdown between the two characters, Miss Eaton said: “There are some wonderful scenes between Maggie and Shirley MacLaine - Shirley MacLaine being as ditsy as ever and Maggie barely restraining her sneer in having to deal with this American.”
Dame Maggie’s reaction to the comments by Miss Eaton, another American, is unrecorded.
ITV bosses have been at pains to keep all storylines under wraps until the series returns. But Miss Eaton divulged a number of secrets at the screening in Florida - including the death of a major character.
“Somebody will be born, and somebody will die - somebody pretty key in the cast is unfortunately not going to make it,” she said.
She also announced that Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley will wed - a plotline ITV attempted to safeguard when the scenes were filmed recently in Oxfordshire. Security guards were employed to keep photographers away from the set, hiding the identity of the bride behind a wall of umbrellas.
“Matthew and Mary do get married,” Miss Eaton confirmed.
As executive producer of Masterpiece since 1985, Miss Eaton is credited with bringing BBC shows Cranford and Sherlock to the US, plus the Andrew Davies adaptations of Bleak House and Little Dorrit.
Initially, she turned down Downton Abbey because she thought it sounded too similar to Upstairs, Downstairs.
“Thankfully, no-one else in this country snapped it up,” she said.
“Then I heard that Maggie Smith had been cast to be in it and I thought, ‘We have to do it’. Because she, like Judi Dench, like Eileen Atkins - there are a few British actors, if they’re in, I want it because I just think they’re going to be good.”
Miss Eaton admitted she had been taken aback by the popularity of the drama in the US. A ratings hit, it has won four Emmys and a Golden Globe for best mini-series.
“Nobody had any idea it would take off the way it did,” she said, describing the recently-broadcast second series as “the biggest thing that’s happened to Masterpiece in 25 years”.
Miss Eaton’s remarks about Dame Maggie’s “tricky” nature do not reflect the views of other cast members.
Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham, said: “Off camera, she’s naughty, funny and is the mistress of the flinty stare delicately edged with twinkle”.
His view was echoed by Michelle Dockery, the actress who plays Lady Mary, who said: “She is wonderful to work with. We have a lot of fun with her, she has an incredibly witty sense of humour and she sometimes has us in stitches right before the take.”
A spokesman for the ITV show declined to comment on Miss Eaton’s description of Dame Maggie. Referring to her disclosures about the new series, the spokesman said: “We never comment on future storylines.”