Behind the scenes at Downton Abbey
AS THE LAVISH PERIOD DRAMA RETURNS TO OUR SCREENS, WE GO...
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