THE Christmas tree is being decorated as the house prepares for the festive season.
Before the Granthams hand out presents to their servants for Christmas Day 1919.
Welcome to the Downton Abbey Christmas special, screened for the media at London’s Mayfair Hotel this afternoon (Tuesday Dec 13).
Followed by two question and answer sessions with the cast.
We were all required to sign embargo forms preventing us from disclosing the secrets of this two-hour ITV1 episode, broadcast at 9pm on Christmas Day.
Not that I would ever publish any serious spoilers.
But I can say that the Downton Abbey Christmas special is a joyous festive gift to the nation.
With laughter, tears and, yes, snow.
Yet more wicked one-liners from Dame Maggie Smith.
Plus guest appearances from Nigel Havers as Lord Hepworth and Sharon Small as lady’s maid Marigold Shore.
You will already know that valet John Bates is facing trial, accused of murdering his wife.
And that this visit to Downton takes us into the New Year of 1920, including the annual Servants’ Ball – where “upstairs” dances with “downstairs”.
Allowing a glorious above stairs glimpse of cook Mrs Patmore and Daisy in their gladrags and finest party hair.
Brendan Coyle (John Bates) said the cast felt it was the best episode they had produced so far.
Adding: “The stakes are very, very high for all sorts of characters.”
We also learned that the third series begins filming on Feb 13 2012 and will be set a short time on from the Christmas special.
It will consist of eight episodes plus – it was revealed – another separate two hour special.
Although Julian Fellowes’ scripts for the first two episodes are still in their early drafts, cast members said they were looking forward to fresh horizons ahead.
Producer Liz Trubridge explained: “It will inevitably move on. But I honestly can’t tell you where because we don’t know yet. Each series should be distinctive and this is moving into the Twenties.”
Liz also told me that there will be another Christmas special 12 months from now – that two hour 2012 episode – although it may not actually be set during the festive period.
Rob James-Collier (Thomas) spoke again about dancing with Dame Maggie Smith, and what happened when he stood on her toe.
While Lesley Nicol (Mrs Patmore) told of her hopes for romance for the hard-working cook.
It also emerged – if we didn’t know already – that Tom Hanks is an alleged celebrity fan of the show.
Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) spoke about the global reaction to Downton:
“The happy, friendly vibes from all over the planet about our show is terrific.”
Below is my edited transcript of this afternoon’s two post-screening Q&A sessions, removing questions (and answers) that would obviously spoil the episode.
Cast members at the launch included Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley), Brendan Coyle (John Bates), Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley), Lesley Nicol (Mrs Patmore), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason), Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow) and Siobhann Finneran (Sarah O’Brien).
Plus director Brian Percival and producer Liz Trubridge.
Q: Dan – we’ve been asked to sign an embargo today to keep the secrets (in this episode) which I’m sure we all will. But how do you keep the secrets? Because I’m sure you get asked all the time about the fate of Matthew and Mary?
Dan Stevens (Matthew): “Yes. I generally threaten people and say, ‘I could tell you but then I’d have to eat you / kill you,’ all the rest of it. No, it is quite easy. It’s part of the fun of the show, certainly as far as I’m concerned, our storyline. That ‘will they, won’t they’ element is one of the enjoyable things about being part of Downton, really, is the game that you play outside of it. Trying to keep the scripts from my wife is the biggest challenge.”
Q: How do you feel being the highlight of ITV1’s Christmas Day schedule?
Brendan Coyle (Bates): “Christmas television has become such a part of the Christmas culture – British television, British Christmas. So to be a part of that, it’s really gratifying. It’s significant. It’s indicative of the success of the show – I think we deliver. We’re very proud of this episode. I think collectively we’re starting to feel it’s our best. So we’re very happy with it.”
Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes): “I agree.”
Q: Are you aware of the international appeal of the series and the reactions from abroad?
Dan Stevens: “Yes. Mainly via Twitter. I’m amazed…there’s not a week that goes past and there’s somebody in Ulan Bator or Rio de Janeiro or whatever and they suddenly say, ‘Oh, Downton starts this week.’ And you completely forget that it’s staggered across the world. I think the second series started going out in Italy on Sunday? And a few tweets from the Netherlands very recently. It just started the second season there, didn’t it? It’s amazing. Just the happy, friendly vibes from all over the planet about our show is terrific.”
Q: Why does it work so well internationally?
Liz Trubridge (Producer): “I’ve asked a Spanish journalist that question, actually. I said, ‘Why is it so huge in Spain?’ And she said, ‘Beautiful people, lovely costumes, gossip, love. Why not?’ So that’s the best answer I can give you. I think good storylines are universal.”
Q: What do you hope for your characters in series three?
Phyllis Logan: “As for Mrs Hughes, I think finding things out about her, ‘Ah, I wouldn’t have expected THAT of Mrs Hughes.’ But then he always comes up trumps Julian with something which I can identify with. So there may be yet more skeletons in cupboards…not skeletons in cupboards but aspects to her character which lead her in a certain path. Who knows? I can’t wait to find out. They won’t tell us.”
Brendan Coyle: “We’re the last to know.”
Phyllis Logan: “We will be.”
Dan Stevens: “I think Matthew and Mary could reprise their musical duo and get into jazz and tour Paris or Berlin. I’m not fussed. That might be an interesting direction.” (laughter)
Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith): “I don’t know. More heartache? Who knows. Possibility of finding love. I don’t know. Maybe I’ll take up driving now that I can drive.”
Q: Brendan – can you sympathise with viewers’ frustration that because it’s on ITV we get a few minutes of action before it goes to an ad break, which is annoying a lot of fans?
Brendan Coyle: “It’s the nature of the beast. We rely on revenue to pay for the programme. So that’s just simply the nature of it.”
Q: With regard to the Christmas episode, obviously you have a huge following in the States and the cat’s going to be out of the bag. So how is this episode actually rolling out internationally?
Liz Trubridge: “It depends on the countries. But I think certainly in the States this episode is just going to follow on the whole series. So it will become their episode seven I believe.” (Downton series two begins PBS Sunday Jan 8th 2012)
Q: You are all optioned for the third series. What happens at that point? Are there plans to continue?
Liz Trubridge: “The re-commission doesn’t really happen until the end of each series. So it’s just further down the line. And if there’s still a will to make it and there’s still an appetite for it, I’m sure people are going to be very happy to do that.”
Q: How many of you had to take dancing lessons in order to do the Servants’ Ball?
Phyllis Logan: “All of us. Well you notice you never saw any feet during that whole section. But we sweated up a storm didn’t we, that day?”
Laura Carmichael: “It was a very small, hot room and it was hilarious. And we were all learning how to waltz, which is very hard. I don’t think anyone was as nervous as Rob who had to go up and ask Maggie for a dance. But he did it beautifully.”
Phyllis Logan: “But I don’t think we’ll be vying for a place in Strictly.”
Q: There’s a kind of element of sadism in Julian Fellowes’ script writing. He delays pleasure for all of you and you all have to keep it buttoned down the whole time. Is there a frustration in always having to repress – you can’t do big emotions very much in your various performances?
Laura Carmichael: “I find that satisfying to play. I think it’s more interesting. As nice as the idea of, say, Edith being very happy, it’s far more interesting to play those moments as there are in life, when you don’t get what you want. And the added element of the period and how you have to play maybe different how we would today and keeping a lid on it – again, that’s a challenge and I think brings something extra to the stories. It’s not all running round and screaming and smiling and crying. It’s subtler than that. Which is a challenge. But I enjoy it.”
Dan Stevens: “I don’t think many people get to play big emotions, really, in life, actually. Particularly in this country. And I think the kind of, ‘Get aahht,’ or, ‘Leave it, it’s family…’ sort of school of acting, that’s actually our modern melodrama in a way. That’s far less naturalistic and everything than what we’re engaged in. And actually there are moments of quite high emotion. I think the structure of how we shoot the show serves that quite well. We see two scripts at a time. So when we started the series we hadn’t seen episode three, let alone episode eight. So in terms of where your storyline is going, you have to as an actor keep the arc in such a place that you’re not committed to, ‘Well, Matthew clearly hates Mary and this is never going to work,’ or the opposite. So actually the ball is kept in the air for us and we have to play with that.”
Phyllis Logan: “It’s almost strangely liberating to have those constraints on you where you don’t go about screaming and bawling the odds and gesticulating like an idiot all over the place. It’s quite challenging as well to feel that you’ve got to get a certain emotion across but in a more subtle way than giving it full welly.”
Brendan Coyle: “And it was a different time in the way people expressed themselves and communicated. Now we’re all encouraged to say what we thing and what we feel, to express ourselves. People not so much then, especially amongst the lower classes. I think that restraint is part of the appeal of the show, the way people communicate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t convey high emotion, which I think we’ve seen in the Christmas special. The stakes are very, very high for all sorts of characters.”
Brian Percival (Director): “I think it’s also more interesting for an audience as well because it allows them to work a little bit harder. Not everything’s there. It invites you to think a little bit more about the characters and the stories. What they’re about. I think that is part of its appeal because it allows you to sit there as a viewer and form our own opinion. It’s not all given to us. And so in that way, hopefully, the audience feels more involved.”
Q: How important is it for you to beat EastEnders in the ratings on Christmas Day?
Brian Percival: “It’s not at all, really. We just set out to make the best show we can and something that we’re all proud of. I started off right at the very beginning with Downton, the very first episode with Liz, and we didn’t anticipate any of the success that it would have. We just wanted to make something that we were proud of and that we all felt involved in and that we all worked together, as a team, to achieve that goal. We don’t set out to beat anybody. I think if you make television to do that then it’s the kiss of death.”
Brendan Coyle: “As a viewer, if you want to watch just one or the other or both, you will, regardless of how they’re scheduled.”
Q: Dan – how are you coping with all the female attention you must be getting and how is your wife taking it?
“Well, the female attention I have to struggle hardest with is my two-year-old daughter. She’s just entered the terrible twos. So that’s my biggest challenge at the moment.”
Q: What are your hopes for your characters in the third series?
Sophie McShera (Daisy): “My basic hope for Daisy is a new dress. That’s about it. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
Lesley Nicol (Mrs Patmore): “I want a bloke. I think it would be nice to see her in love.”
Rob James-Collier (Thomas): “Whatever comes along. We’ll see what happens. A valet would be nice because he’s been banging on about it for two series. So it would be nice to be a valet. We’ll see.”
Siobhan Finneran (O’Brien): “Mine’s similar to Sophie’s. I’m quite hoping she discovers false eyelashes and a bit of red lippy. And a new hairdo, a new frock. And a new outlook on life. I want a broomstick to fly above the turrets of Downton on…” (laughter)
Q: Rob – you were quite nervous about approaching Dame Maggie Smith for a dance?
Rob James-Collier: “Well wouldn’t you be? On the day I was really nervous. That coupled with the fact that I can’t actually dance. Unless it’s break-dancing. But frankly we’ve got a great director in Brian Percival who allays your fears and you’ve just got to jump in there. Maggie was cool, she had a laugh. I stood on her toe and got the death ray glare. But I got through it. But it was extremely nerve-wracking. I pitched the lift from Dirty Dancing, where she jumps, but she wasn’t happy with that. I don’t think she was convinced I had the upper body strength.” (smiles)
Q: More evil Thomas?
Rob James-Collier: “Whatever comes. I’m just happy to be working. I don’t think of it like that. I just wait until I get the script and then see what’s there and then work with that.”
Q: Period drama costumes?
Siobhan Finneran: “Well the girls upstairs wear amazing costumes. We’re usually neck to floor in black. There’s a lot of costume envy goes on. But you’re not constantly having to get changed throughout the day, so that’s a bonus. And they’re comfortable.”
Q: (I asked this one) Is there scope for another Christmas special next year or do you think this is very much a one-off idea?
Liz Trubridge: “We are doing an episode to go out at Christmas. I wouldn’t necessarily say it will be set at Christmas next year but it will go out.”
Q: What is about Downton Abbey that makes it such a good show for Christmas?
Brian Percival: “There’s a character in there for everyone, I guess. To begin with when we started there was such a diversity of characters that for most of the viewing public, they would identify more with one or two characters than they would the others. Hopefully, the idea was, that then through looking out for or rooting for their favourite character they would become involved in the other storylines and the other characters and they might be drawn eventually to characters who they might not initially spark from. It got a broad appeal initially because literally there was somebody in there that everybody either liked or liked to hate. And the mixture of comedy, drama and pathos. I think there’s moments in there emotionally that we’ve all come into contact with in one way or another and has left a mark on us. I think it gives the audience an opportunity to explore or to re-visit things in their own lives where they’ve felt similar emotions.”
Q: Rob – are your recognise now more from Downton than Coronation Street?
Rob James-Collier: “It’s not a different fan base because Downton has got something for everyone so it spreads right across the whole audience. So people who watch soaps will watch it but people who watch gritty drama will watch it. It’s got that crossover. I don’t pay attention to what I get recognised for. I just act. If you start paying attention to that you would just go insane.”
Q: Could Downton eventually reach the 1950s or 60s?
Siobhan Finneran: “None of us lot would be in it. We’d all be dead.”
Rob James-Collier: “I think it would be crazy if it did.”
Liz Trubridge: “I can’t see it myself, to be honest. It would just become something else.”
Rob James-Collier: “But I would love to see Carson in the midst of Beatlemania. That would be a nice storyline.” (laughter)
Q: Would any of you ever suggest something for your character to Julian Fellowes?
Lesley Nicol: “I did say to him. Because my agent said, ‘People keep saying to me, why doesn’t Mrs Patmore have a love interest?’ And it’s a bit insane because she looks like the back end of a bus, to be fair. But on the other hand people say to me, ‘Well, actually, that would be an interesting diversion.’ So I did say to Julian, ‘I know it sounds crackers, but that’s what’s happening.’ And he said, ‘Never say never.’”
Liz Trubridge: “He’s actually pretty open to people’s suggestions. He really is.”
Q: Have you had any reactions from abroad?
Siobhan Finneran: “My cousin’s kids think I can speak fluent Spanish. So I’m delighted with that. Because they sat in Madrid and watched it. She called me and said, ‘You’re going to get a shock at Christmas when they come over because they’re going to expect you to speak in Spanish.’ I’d quite like to see it dubbed.”
Rob James-Collier: “Apparently the Spanish guy, whoever it is, who does the voiceover has got an infinitely sexier and deeper voice than mine.”
Siobhan Finneran: “And the man who does mine…” (laughter)
Rob James-Collier: “So if I ever go to Spain, they’re going to be disappointed.”
Q: Rob and Siobhan – reaction from fans?
Rob James-Collier: “For me, it’s almost pantomime-esque. It’s all playful banter. I’ll go into a Post Office and get booed and stuff like that. I’ll get a bit of stick from a guy with a load of kids in a coffee shop. But then at the other end of the spectrum he’ll pay for my Latte or Cappuccino or something. So swings and roundabouts.”
Siobhan Finneran: “Usually the reaction is, ‘Oh my God, you’re not as fat and you’re not as ugly.’ That’s my usual reaction. And then the next one is, ‘Could she be nastier?’ Because they really like her being nasty. ‘Are you going to be nasty and what are you going to do next?’ That’s it really.”
Rob James-Collier: “I’ve found that if a softer side to the character inches in, people are offended by that. They don’t like you being soft. So I get stick for going soft.”
Q: Where is the weirdest place that you’ve been recognised from Downton and the oddest request from a fan?
Lesley Nicol: “Just last night at the (cast) showing, a very drunk man came up to me and he went, ‘Oh my God, you look 30 or 40 years younger than you really are.’ Which makes me 10.”
Sophie McShera: “I don’t really get recognised that much.”
Siobhan Finneran: “I had somebody come up to me and say, ‘Oh, could I just have a word. I need to just say to you – television does nothing for you.’ I had to just take that as a compliment.”