IT’S back and, I’m pleased to report, better than ever.
Downton Abbey series two begins on ITV1 on Sunday September 18.
My first MEN feature on this much anticipated return is below.
DOWNTON Abbey star Rob James-Collier admits he was shocked when he researched the latest twist in his TV career.
The former Coronation Street actor felt a duty to the fallen of the First World War as he filmed battlefield scenes for the second series of the global hit.
Fans are counting the days until the return of the television phenomenon, one of the biggest drama successes of recent years. It will see the stakes raised for all the characters.
The opening minutes of the new ITV1 series are not what they might be expecting. Two years on from where we left them, some familiar faces are in the bomb craters and trenches of The Great War.
The nightmare 1916 world of The Somme is about as far from genteel Downton as you can get. And there, among the muddied and bloodied faces, are ex-Manchester solicitor and heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) and Thomas Barrow, played by Rob.
First Footman Thomas planned to sign up with the medical corps to avoid action. But his scheme has backfired, with him and his colleagues sent into the thick of action.
Swinton star Rob, 34, spoke to series historical advisor Alastair Bruce before filming his battlefield scenes in the trenches. Alastair saw active service in the Falklands War and, as a reserve officer, spent a period on active operations in Iraq.
“It’s a conversation I’ll never forget,” recalls Rob. “The most amazing, exhilarating and sad conversation I’ve ever had in my life. It helped me immensely to get in the mindset. It couldn’t not. I won’t reveal what he told us – I don’t want to breach his privacy. But I’m forever grateful. It gave me the inspiration to try and do something with this story.
“Once you’ve heard it from someone’s mouth who’s been there – you hear these experiences and think, ‘I’ve got a duty as an actor to lock off and try and do it as best as I can.’
“I didn’t want to mess around on set. I just wanted it to look as good as I could make it look. You’re paranoid about not getting it right. It’s impossible to re-create it – I wasn’t there, I don’t know what it felt like. All that was on my mind was to try my best and represent it how it should be.”
The costume drama, created and written by Oscar-winning Julian Fellowes, was Rob’s first TV role since charmer Liam Connor was murdered in Weatherfield.
Viewers loved cunning Thomas, complete with slicked-back hair and white bow tie and tails, who made his mark with a gay kiss.
He looks very different when we first meet him in the new eight-part series, to be followed by a Christmas special, at the start of a dramatic story arc for Thomas. “It was nice to be back because you never know whether you’re going to make it into series two.” grins Rob.
“Then to see the journey he goes on is brilliant. Julian gave me the chance to show a frailer side to Thomas. A vulnerability and a sensitivity that, perhaps, we didn’t see in the first series. You can’t go on being bad all the way through, otherwise people get bored.”
The battlefield scenes were filmed near Ipswich. “The trenches were as close to real life as you could possibly get them. We had a guy called Taff who was part of a World War One re-enactment society. So he had his band of 30 merry men who came with their own gear. They knew all the stuff about how to conduct yourself and what went on in the trenches.
“When you hear the bombs going off, even though you know it’s just full of organic peat on the top, you still feel scared. It’s such a deafening noise, we had to have earplugs in for health and safety. But you could hear it even through that. So your reactions are natural because you are genuinely nervous. There was almost no acting required.
“I wanted us to do justice to how horrific Word War One was. And sometimes, if you haven’t got the budget, you can miss that. But I think the war scenes look superb.”
Thomas is desperate to find a way to return to the Yorkshire country house and eventually decides on an extreme course of action. “You see that number of dead people every day, you couldn’t blame anyone for doing it after two years of service,” he argues.
“We were in the trenches for just a couple of hours at a time. We can go and change our socks and get a brew. It wasn’t raining, it wasn’t cold. Our lives weren’t on the line. What those men went through is unbelievable.”
He adds: “Once the horrors of the war are over and he’s got out of that, his ambition to get where he needs to go is still there. He will scheme and trample over anyone to get where he wants to be.”
Yet with Downton turned into a home for the recovering injured, Thomas is a changed man. “When he deals with the wounded soldiers at Downton Abbey we see Thomas let the shutters down, let someone in and genuinely care for someone for the first time.”
Like the rest of the cast, Rob was stunned by the huge success of the drama. “The public seems to have taken it to their hearts and really latched on to it. So any banter I get, it’s in an affectionate, almost pantomime style.”
Julian’s original plan was to write three series. A third – set in the Roaring Twenties – is expected to be filmed in 2012, with pre-production ready to go as soon as ITV gives the green light.
“If they want me back next year, I’d love to do it,” confides Rob.
“The war started the first cracks in this wonderful life and brought about its downfall.
“People getting slaughtered on the battlefields and the survivors coming back home to service. They wanted more. I think that will be very interesting.”
*Downton Abbey series two begins on ITV1 at 9pm on Sunday Sept 18.