Don’t mess with Mary!

Downton’s back, and our ex­clu­sive pre­view re­veals why TV’s feisti­est hero­ine is go­ing into bat­tle for her son

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

It’s now, in se­ries five, that we see Lady Mary’s true met­tle. In many ways a tra­di­tion­al­ist, she is nev­er­the­less drawn to the fu­ture – even when she feels un­cer­tain how to re­spond to new dilem­mas. Pro­ducer Gareth Neame re­sists nam­ing a favourite character – ‘There’s not a weak link, I love all of them’ – but says of Mary: ‘She’s cen­tral to the fig­ures in the show. Her grand­mother knows her day is gone and Mary knows she is like her, but sees that she be­longs to a dif­fer­ent era. She has to be a mod­erniser and where Robert is cling­ing on, Mary is a prag­ma­tist.’

De­spite her old-fash­ioned out­look in many ways – she is far less a suf­fragette than her sis­ters Edith and Sy­bil – she be­gins to be at­tracted to the idea that she might be the pro­tec­tor of her son’s in­her­i­tance. At the time of his death at the end of se­ries three, Matthew, Mary’s hus­band, owned half of the Downton es­tate, while Robert, the earl, owns the other half. When Matthew ap­par­ently died with no will, it was be­lieved his as­sets would trans­fer almost en­tirely to his son George, by­pass­ing Mary (her small share is only a life in­ter­est).

Added to this, Robert is keen to be the sole per­son in charge of the en­tire es­tate again – in other words, con­trol­ling his and Matthew’s halves as he did be­fore he had to sell out. For­tu­nately, the dis­cov­ery of a let­ter in which Matthew named Mary as his sole heir, en­sures that she now owns his half of the es­tate; it is this she seeks to pro­tect on be­half of their son. Still, it doesn’t dodge the ques­tion of the high death du­ties (taxes levied on in­her­ited prop­erty) that need to be paid and now she and Robert have to find a way to pay them with­out break­ing up the es­tate. Robert is not keen to re­lin­quish con­trol to his daugh­ter. At one point he says to Mary, ‘Since I own the other half of ev­ery­thing, isn’t it more ap­pro­pri­ate for me to man­age the boy’s for­tunes?’ ‘ My des­tiny is to save Downton for George,’ says Mary.

The ques­tion is whether she de­cides to pro­tect it in the tra­di­tional way, through a sec­ond suit­able mar­riage to a man with money and power of his own, which would sta­bilise Downton, or in a new way, through in­dus­try and mod­ern farm­ing. Still young and beau­ti­ful, there’s no short­age of ad­mir­ers, a fact her fam­ily are apt to tease her with. ‘What’s a group noun for suit­ors?’ asks Lady Rose. ‘What do you think? A de­sire,’ replies Cora. ‘If you’re go­ing to talk non­sense I have bet­ter things to do,’ says Mary.

One of the most com­pelling as­pects of th­ese large houses is the lack of pri­vacy. Ser­vants did not al­ways knock on the door be­fore en­ter­ing a room, ei­ther be­cause they knew they were ex­pected or be­cause they were in and out so of­ten it would have slowed things down too much to do so. ‘Even now we must de­cide whether to share our lives with some­one with­out spend­ing any real time with them. Let alone... you know,’ says Mary. Mar­ried cou­ples con­ducted their re­la­tion­ships almost en­tirely in a pub­lic space. ‘The way things are go­ing, life will be lived in much closer quarters in the fu­ture. My grand­par­ents lived in vast rooms sur­rounded by staff. If they dis­agreed they’d hardly have known it. But it won’t be like that for us. I must be sure I’m right to want this man, as my friend, my lover, my hus­band,’ says Mary.

Mary’s be­witched suitor, Tony Foyle, Lord Gilling­ham, whom we met for the first time in se­ries four, was brought up a gen­tle­man. The ac­tor play­ing him, Tom Cullen, en­joyed learn­ing the rules and eti­quette for a young man in 1924, in­clud­ing not slouch­ing and get­ting in the sad­dle. ‘The par­al­lels are in­ter­est­ing, with him and Mary both tak­ing on their es­tates. His fa­ther has died re­cently and he’s strug­gling with the enor­mity of the task be­fore him. He’s in­her­ently quite a sad man, trapped in a sys­tem he no longer be­lieves in. You get the feel­ing he’s hid­ing away and when he meets Mary, she makes him feel alive, that maybe he does have a chance to live a life he might ac­tu­ally want. She gives him vi­tal­ity.’

The 1920s were a con­stant bat­tle of try­ing to out­wit the weather, ma­chin­ery, in­ter­est rates and mar­kets – a bat­tle the farmer of­ten lost. But Mary works to find new ways for the es­tate, in­clud­ing pig farm­ing. At this point Charles Blake (Ju­lian Oven­den) en­ters the fray, a rather hand­some knight in tweed, although Mary doesn’t see him that way at first.

He is part of a gov­ern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion into food pro­duc­tion. The rev­e­la­tion about Charles is that he turns out to come from an aris­to­cratic back­ground, some­thing the ac­tor wasn’t aware of when he ac­cepted the part. ‘I knew they wanted some­one who was a match for Mary, but who em­bod­ied a slightly more lib­eral point of view that would clash with her and the fam­ily’s pol­i­tics. When I found out he was up­per class it was rather nice. He’s a free-thinker and mod­ern for that time. He be­lieves women have as much right to free thought as men.

‘They have sim­i­lar­i­ties. They’re both quite dom­i­nant and speak their minds, but are ac­tu­ally quite prac­ti­cal when it comes down to it. I also think he finds her frus­trat­ingly mys­te­ri­ous. She wrong­foots him, she’s ob­vi­ously in­tel­li­gent and very ca­pa­ble, which he finds at­trac­tive.’

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