Be­hind the scenes at Down­ton Abbey

AS THE LAV­ISH PE­RIOD DRAMA RE­TURNS TO OUR SCREENS, WE GO...

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - FRONT PAGE -

For the post-First World War gen­er­a­tion, there is a new mantra: life is for liv­ing. For a new age is dawn­ing, a new tune play­ing. The spirit of the Roar­ing 20s, with a mu­si­cal ac­com­pa­ni­ment of wild jazz and even wilder danc­ing, is sweeping the so­phis­ti­cated cities of Amer­ica and will soon be head­ing for Lon­don.

But there is a dread­ful pall hang­ing over the Earl of Gran­tham and his fam­ily. It is 1922, six months on from Matthew’s death in a car crash, and Lady Mary has only the so­lace of their son Ge­orge to ease her pain. And the emo­tional im­pact of Matthew’s death is not con­fined to Mary. Penelope Wil­ton, who plays Iso­bel Craw­ley, Matthew’s griev­ing mother, was re­lieved to be given full rein to ex­plore the depths of be­reave­ment in los­ing an only child. ‘The death knocked her side­ways, as it would any mother,’ she says. ‘In a lot of se­ries, when some­one dies, ev­ery­one gets over it im­me­di­ately. But both Mary and I are left hav­ing a very dif­fi­cult time, which is much more re­al­is­tic.’

Yet Down­ton re­mains a multi-strand story, with a plot that can­not be pre­dicted. ‘A mas­sive part of the show’s suc­cess has been writer Ju­lian Fel­lowes’ ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to write ro­mance, ha­tred, ri­valry, love, jeal­ousy, laugh­out loud hu­mour and tragedy,’ says Gareth Neame, the show’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer. The bal­ance is del­i­cately judged. ‘In a sense we go for chuck­les rather than guf­faws,’ says Fel­lowes. As he sees it, the hu­mour has to fit with the re­al­ity of the sto­ries and the char­ac­ters. ‘We have es­tab­lished that Vi­o­let, for in­stance, is quite a witty woman and so we can give her cracks to make without dis­turb­ing her re­al­ity, be­cause that is who she is. You could say the same for the cook, Mrs Pat­more. So we’ve got two women above and be­low stairs who pro­vide a lot of the hu­mour.’

What about old stagers such as valet Bates, newly re­turned from a prison sen­tence for a mur­der he didn’t com­mit? And head house­maid Anna, now his wife, Down­ton’s lev­el­headed moral com­pass on what’s right and wrong? Or Tom Bran­son, the ex- chauf­feur, with an­other Gran­tham grand­child, Syb­bie, to bring up on his own? And rel­a­tive new­com­ers such as wild cousin Lady Rose from Scot­land, with her love of danc­ing in ritzy Lon­don clubs? The view­ers will have to wait and see what hap­pens to their char­ac­ters, and so must the ac­tors. ‘I don’t know what’s around the cor­ner,’ says Charles Ed­wards, re­turn­ing as Edith’s love in­ter­est, news­pa­per ed­i­tor Michael Greg­son. ‘Very oc­ca­sion­ally you will re­ceive a script for an episode and there’s a new piece of in­for­ma­tion for the char­ac­ter which is a sur­prise to you. It’s rather ex­cit­ing.’ Yet there is al­ways a logic. Says Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Gran­tham), ‘When Ju­lian takes a char­ac­ter in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion, it’s not re­ally new, it’s just an­other layer of onion skin be­ing peeled off.’

This is the for­mula that keeps the view­ers com­ing back again and again. ‘Ul­ti­mately, the show is about re­la­tion­ships,’ says ac­tress Joanne Frog­gatt, who plays Anna. ‘A lot of the is­sues in Down­ton are ones that we face today – some­body fall­ing in love, or fall­ing in love with the wrong per­son, or ex­pe­ri­enc­ing ri­valry at work. I think the pe­riod it’s set in is near enough to our time that it feels fa­mil­iar to us, as well as be­ing very dif­fer­ent. There’s a real ar­ray of char­ac­ters too, so there’s some­body to love, or to love to hate. It’s a pe­riod script, but in a very mod­ern way.’

‘Mary’s still got her snob­bish edge’

A grief-stricken Mary now faces the chal­lenge of build­ing a life for her­self and her baby, Ge­orge, without the man she loved af­ter Matthew’s death in a car crash. ‘That was the hook we left the au­di­ence with at the end of the last se­ries,’ says ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Gareth Neame, ‘with that very long-held shot of her with her new­born baby, not even know­ing she’s a widow. In­evitably, there is go­ing to be male in­ter­est in this el­i­gi­ble, beau­ti­ful young widow. How she re­acts, how peo­ple re­spond to her and how we see her move on in her life without Matthew is go­ing to be very in­ter­est­ing.’

The se­ries opens with Mary in full mourn­ing dress – all black – which af­ter a pe­riod of time lifts into the pur­ples, mauves, greys and black-and-white of half-mourn­ing. She could bury her­self in sor­row at Down­ton, but the chang­ing times help her put her grief aside and join the dance. In­evitably hand­some bach­e­lors come into her life. As the el­dest daugh­ter of the house, Mary

MICHELLE DOCK­ERY (LADY MARY)

re­mains the fo­cus of its hopes. That’s why Neame picks her as his favourite char­ac­ter. ‘ The over­all dy­namic has al­ways been about her fu­ture, from the suc­ces­sion is­sue, to who’d be the right man to marry, or the ups and downs in her re­la­tion­ship with Matthew. And know­ing where the story goes in the fu­ture, she will be at the heart of it.’

Michelle Dock­ery, who plays Mary, be­lieves her char­ac­ter has blos­somed from ‘a spoilt, pe­tu­lant young girl’ to a softer, yet stronger woman. ‘ Be­cause of ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pened she’s be­come less vain with each se­ries.’ At the same time, she re­tains her bite. ‘ Mary still has that in­cred­i­bly snob­bish edge. As much as she’s grown and got more vul­ner­a­ble, that side re­mains. I like see­ing that.’

Both at Down­ton and at a jazz club in Lon­don, Mary is tempted to the dance­floor by fam­ily friend Vis­count Gilling­ham ( Tom Cullen). ‘ There’s an em­brac­ing of the 20s, a sense of the war be­ing over and ev­ery­one be­ing in cel­e­bra­tion – but ob­vi­ously not Mary... yet,’ says Michelle. Be­hind The Scenes At Down­ton Abbey by Emma Row­ley is pub­lished by Harper Collins and on sale from Septem­ber 12

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