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
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.’