IN­SIDE: Seven days of TV view­ing

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - Front Page - DEB­BIE SCHIPP Down­ton Abbey, South­ern Cross, tonight, 8.30pm

A PE­RIOD drama with 18 main char­ac­ters – the up­stairs and down­stairs res­i­dents of a sump­tu­ous coun­try house – might seem an un­likely head­line grab­ber.

But throw in Ju­lian Fel­lowes as its writer, spicy soap-style sto­ry­lines, a fast pace, stel­lar acting and a real-life cas­tle and you have the ad­dic­tive Down­ton Abbey.

The se­ries, as rapier-wit­ted as it is pompous, is the story of the Earl of Gran­tham, Sir Robert Craw­ley ( Hugh Bon­neville), and his fam­ily be­tween 1912 and 1914.

It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing in­sight into the English ob­ses­sion with class and his­tory, with a dis­puted in­her­i­tance and a yawn­ing class di­vide at its core.

The lives of the up­stairs and down­stairs in­hab­i­tants are wo­ven like a dys­func­tional fam­ily. It’s that rich ta­pes­try which drew Michelle Dock­ery, who plays the Earl’s old­est daugh­ter, Lady Mary Craw­ley, to the show.

‘‘ As soon as I started read­ing the script, I wanted it,’’ says Dock­ery of the beau­ti­ful but trou­bled Mary.

‘‘ At first she’s very much a cold fish and very tough and ac­tu­ally can be quite a bitch at times and I hadn’t re­ally played a role like that be­fore.

‘‘ As time goes on she might soften and be­come a bit more vul­ner­a­ble, but I love that witty, tough side of her.’’

Dock­ery had carved out a name largely in theatre, so the Ed­war­dian set­ting is not un­fa­mil­iar. ‘‘ Over the past cou­ple of years I’ve never re­ally been out of corsets,’’ Dock­ery says with a laugh.

But the ar­moury of her Ed­war­dian un­der­wear in no way pre­pared her for meet­ing vet­eran Bri­tish ac­tor Maggie Smith, who plays Mary’s for­mi­da­ble grand­mother, the Dowa­ger Count­ess Vi­o­let.

Dock­ery says Smith is an ab­so­lute riot, al­though she was not to know that when run­ning late for the very first read-through.

‘‘ All I could think of was how I des­per­ately didn’t want to be late for the likes of Maggie Smith,’’ Dock­ery says.

‘‘ As a child I watched her and I had been in com­plete awe of her since I was a kid, and it was quite scary meet­ing her at first be­cause she’s amaz­ing.’’

Down­ton Abbey drew more than 11 mil­lion view­ers in the UK last year and Dock­ery be­lieves it’s be­cause all the in­gre­di­ents work to make it bril­liant drama.

‘‘ The writ­ing first and fore­most. And hav­ing 18 strong char­ac­ters all with their sto­ry­lines in­ter­wo­ven keeps an au­di­ence com­pelled to watch it,’’ she says.

‘‘ Then on top of that the cos­tumes, the whole nos­tal­gia of the time and the cherry on top is the mu­sic. John Lunn [ the com­poser] is our un­sung hero – that brings it all to­gether.’’

Dock­ery sus­pects if she had lived in those times, she would have been the ser­vant rather than the aris­to­crat.

‘‘ I come from a very tough work­ing-class back­ground. If I was trans­ported back in time, I would more likely have been down­stairs. The thing is there’s some­thing quite un­happy about Mary – I don’t envy her that.’’

POMPOUS PE­RIOD: Jessica Brown Findlay, Michelle Dock­ery and Laura Carmichael star in Down­ton Abbey.

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