The Abbey’s back!
Sit back and enjoy as TV Week celebrates the return of ITV’s period masterpiece
We return to Downton Abbey in the dead of night, six months after the death of Matthew Crawley. The honeyed stone of the great house is sheathed in darkness. Only a single bedroom light glows, high up near the eaves. A shadow moves across the window. What’s that noise? A baby crying? A bat? Mrs Patmore strangling a pheasant for lunch? There’s no way of telling. The walls of Downton must keep their secrets just that bit longer.
For yes, the fourth series of Downton Abbey is almost here. This year it will be accompanied by the brilliant new book Behind The Scenes At Downton Abbey, a fascinating insight into the making of the show, serialised here exclusively. Some of the chapters give a tantalising insight into what promises to be another classic series, although some of us may not have recovered from the trauma of our last visit to Downton – the tearstained Christmas special that ended with the death of Matthew Crawley. A crumpled fender, a trickle of blood running down his noble brow, a man cut down in his prime. Just what happened? Your guess is as good as ours.
All that was clear was Matthew lying at the side of the road, gone forever. The episode ended with Mary holding her baby, unaware her husband was dead.
In the new series all that’s left of Matthew is a photograph in a frame, glinting in the lamplight on Lady Mary’s dressing table. A photo – and an heir, of course. Lucky him – but how is everyone else coping?
Mary, of course, is still in mourning. Brother-in-law Tom Branson will be a comfort, for he’s been through a similar bereavement with the death of his wife, Lady Sybil, in series three. Not too much of a comfort, perhaps, as before long keen admirers will no doubt be crunching up the gravel drive. Meanwhile Lord and Lady Grantham continue to flourish despite all that’s happened. That unpleasant affair with Pamuk the Turk. O’Brien and The Inexplicable Soap Incident. The mysterious cousin who may or may not have survived the Titanic. Those wrinkles have been smoothed over, like the newspapers ironed each morning for his lordship’s perusal.
Dowager Countess Violet – played by Maggie Smith – continues to stalk the corridors with her cane, looking for people to argue with. Now, she has a new sparring partner. Her old school chum Lady Shackleton (Harriet Walter) is one of the few who is not intimidated by waspish Violet, so expect some delicious clashes.
Elsewhere, Downton is in flux. We are in 1922, but it’s not quite the Roaring 20s yet. The world is changing – but some characters are keener than others to embrace the new. In this, Lady Edith leads the way. She is almost unrecognisable from the dowdy frump of series one, seduced by a different life in London and her relationship with Michael Gregson, her editor at The Sketch. In one scene in the first episode, she has dinner with him at the Criterion, a big step for a woman whose mother once told her she was never to eat in public. Now here she is drinking champagne and flirting with an older man.
Downton is moving into the Jazz Age in more ways than one. Gary Carr plays Jack Ross, the drama’s first black character, a jazz singer who performs with his band at a party at the house. He then becomes embroiled with the Crawleys in unexpected ways – particularly with Lady Rose MacClare. Downstairs there’s a new boot room where the servants can gossip and plot without being overheard. Carson and Mrs Hughes are still locked in a dysfunctional relationship, and all the old favourites are there, too. Producers have promised there will be fewer departures and deaths in this series, and there’ll be guest appearances, including one from opera star Kiri Te Kanawa. It’s shaping up to be a real swell season!