Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - mered­ith.blake@la­times.com

Pre­par­ing for a last trip down that abbey road.

The se­ries, which airs state­side on PBS un­der the “Mas­ter­piece” ban­ner, has bro­ken out well be­yond the niche au­di­ence of An­glophiles and cos­tume-drama en­thu­si­asts to be­come not only the most-watched drama in the net­work’s his­tory but also one of the most pop­u­lar shows on Amer­i­can tele­vi­sion, full stop. It has racked up 51 prime-time Emmy nom­i­na­tions, and its sprawl­ing cast has twice won the Screen Ac­tors Guild Award for drama en­sem­ble.

The fifth sea­son, which ended with the crowd-pleas­ing en­gage­ment of Car­son, Down­ton’s cur­mud­geonly but­ler, to Mrs. Hughes, the es­tate’s quick-wit­ted house­keeper, av­er­aged nearly 13 mil­lion weekly view­ers — barely a dip from the previous year. So why end it now?

“Well, you know, life is a process of hel­los and good­byes,” said se­ries writer and cre­ator Ju­lian Fel­lowes. “We all know that noth­ing lasts for­ever, and you want to leave when they’re still sorry you’re go­ing.”

The orig­i­nal plan had been to end the show af­ter Sea­son 5, but ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Gareth Neame pushed for one more sea­son in or­der to tie up the many nar­ra­tive loose ends. It also feels right to end the se­ries as it pushes into the late 1920s, said ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Liz Trubridge. “We’ve hit a time in his­tory when things are chang­ing. We’ve gone a long way from 1912 to 1925; that’s a huge piece of so­cial his­tory that has never been told this way be­fore.”

Some­time in more re­cent his­tory — circa 2008 — Neame came to Fel­lowes with the vague idea for a se­ries that would tell the in­ter­twin­ing sto­ries of an aris­to­cratic fam­ily and their ser­vants in the wan­ing days of the Ed­war­dian era. Fel­lowes, who won an Academy Award for his screen­play for “Gos­ford Park,” was ini­tially re­luc­tant to re­visit the up­stairs-down­stairs mi­lieu but soon sent Neame an out­line for what would be­come “Down­ton Abbey.”

Bri­tish net­work ITV quickly scooped up the project, but an Amer­i­can dis­trib­u­tor proved more elu­sive. Over lunch at High­clere’s tea shop, Neame re­called an un­named TV ex­ec­u­tive who told him that no­body in the U.S. would ever be in­ter­ested in the se­ries. “Down­ton Abbey” has clearly proved the skep­tics wrong.

“The way this story is told, it’s fast- paced. It’s not Charles Dick­ens or Jane Austen,” said Neame, who ar­gues that the se­ries, de­spite its ex­act­ing pe­riod de­tail and sharp so­cial com­men­tary, is “more soap than cos­tume drama.”

But the show’s sudsi­ness has been a stick­ing point for some crit­ics, who have scoffed at plot twists that oc­ca­sion­ally strain credulity and a sec­ond sea­son that raced through the en­tirety of World War I in just eight episodes. Many fans were ap­palled by the sud­den death of Matthew, Lady Mary’s hus­band and heir to the es­tate, in the third-sea­son fi­nale, but ac­cord­ing to Neame it was the only plau­si­ble way to write the char­ac­ter out of the se­ries once ac­tor Dan Stevens de­cided to leave.

Fel­lowes now con­sid­ers Stevens’ exit a bless­ing in dis­guise.

“We didn’t want Dan to go at all be­cause we all loved him, and if he’d stayed we would prob­a­bly have cre­ated some other kind of is­sue, you know, they couldn’t have chil­dren or what­ever. But by go­ing, he gave us back Mary as a char­ac­ter in search of her fu­ture, and that be­comes more in­ter­est­ing for Michelle [Dock­ery] to play than just hap­pily ever af­ter.”

“Down­ton Abbey” has turned its large en­sem­ble cast, in­clud­ing vet­eran charac- ter ac­tors Jim Carter, Phyl­lis Logan, Pene­lope Wil­ton and Les­ley Ni­col, into iden­ti­fi­able celebri­ties. “I’ve been act­ing for about 44 years. So to be in some­thing which is the most suc­cess­ful thing any of us will ever be in­volved in at this time of my life, it’s odd re­ally,” says Carter, who por­trays the punc­til­ious Car­son. “Be­fore, it was, ‘You’re that bloke off the telly’ or ‘Haven’t I seen you in some­thing?’ And now I get, ‘Oh, strange to see you sit­ting down. I thought you’d be serv­ing.’ ”

For younger cast mem­bers, the ex­pe­ri­ence has been equally life-chang­ing — and not just be­cause of the op­por­tu­nity to act op­po­site the likes of Mag­gie Smith. As the spir­ited Lady Mary, Dock­ery has blos­somed from a promis­ing stage ac­tress into a three-time Emmy nom­i­nee.

Though it can be dif­fi­cult for some ac­tors to move on from pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion roles, Dock­ery in­sists she isn’t wor­ried about be­ing pi­geon­holed as her aris­to­cratic coun­ter­part.

“Pro­duc­ers and di­rec­tors, they have an imag­i­na­tion. I had a ca­reer be­fore ‘Down­ton’ and I’ve done stuff in be­tween,” said the ac­tress, wear­ing a fuzzy pink robe over her beaded flap­per gown as she sat on a tree stump on High­clere’s vast lawn. “I’m very proud of the show. I don’t think I could ever be an­noyed about it.”

Joanne Frog­gatt, who por­trays lady’s maid Anna Bates, is also ea­ger to prove her range. “I’ve got a lot more to give, and it’ll be nice to be free to do that again, but at the same time, I will cry on the last day.”

Aware that their days to­gether are num­bered, the cast mates have be­gun to or­ga­nize group out­ings, like a re­cent pub quiz in nearby New­bury. It’s hard to get too sad just yet — in part be­cause few out­side of Fel­lowes and his in­ner cir­cle of pro­duc­ers know just how the story will end.

Laura Carmichael, bet­ter known as the per­pet­u­ally un­lucky-in-love Lady Edith, said she’s “dy­ing” for her char­ac­ter to find hap­pi­ness but has learned the tight-lipped Fel­lowes “won’t tell you any­thing.”

There are many other ques­tions to be an­swered in the sea­son ahead: Will Car­son and Mrs. Hughes work to­gether ro­man­ti­cally as well as they do pro­fes­sion­ally? Will Daisy de­cide to leave ser­vice and be­come a farmer or, bet­ter yet, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary? Will the Bate­ses get a break al­ready?

The sense of an­tic­i­pa­tion is high all around, said Carter. “We wait for the thud of the script through the let­ter­box.”

BE­TWEEN TAKES with the cast of “Down­ton Abbey,” clock­wise from top left: Jim Carter and Phyl­lis Logan; Les­ley Ni­col; So­phie McShera, with makeup and hair artist Amy Boyd and his­tor­i­cal ad­vi­sor Alas­tair Bruce; and Joanne Frog­gatt and Brendan Coyle.

Pho­tog raphs by Matthew Lloyd For The Times

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