INSIDE: Seven days of TV viewing
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.