THE world of Downton Abbey has expanded for its second series, set against the backdrop of The Great War.
There are more characters, storylines and locations than last year.
Including those 1916 scenes at The Somme.
With plenty of shocks and surprises to come.
I’ve been lucky enough to see – so far – the first three episodes of Downton Abbey 2.
It’s captivating Sunday night drama with an extra spring in its step, having raised an already high bar.
You may also be surprised at just how quickly some storylines progress.
Every second of screen time draws viewers in, transporting the audience into that Downton world.
Captivating, escapist Sunday night drama at its very best.
With the relationship between Lady Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) and Downton heir Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) still very much part of the magical mix.
The new series begins on ITV1 at 9pm on Sunday, when we learn that Matthew is now engaged to solicitor’s daughter Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle).
While newspaper proprietor Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen) looms large in Mary’s life.
One of many highlights of the first 90-minute episode is a beautifully filmed scene at Downton station.
Where Mary has risen at dawn to see Matthew off as he returns to the Front, and possible death.
Giving him her lucky little stuffed dog to keep him safe.
Scroll down for my series two round table interviews with Dan Stevens and Zoe Boyle.
Plus a short extract from Michelle Dockery.
I met the cast again at the Highclere Castle press launch in July. You can read about that here.
With my first series two Downton feature interview – Rob James-Collier – here.
And you can meet new housemaid Ethel Parks, played by Amy Nuttall, here.
There will be even more in the MEN – and this blog – tomorrow (Saturday) from Lesley Nicol (Mrs Patmore) and Joanne Froggatt (Anna Smith).
Update: You can now read that latest feature here.
Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley):
“Her main concern is with Matthew. They both are with other people. So she moves on very quickly because she realises it’s not going to happen with Matthew. But things do change as the series goes on. She’s full of regret for messing things up with him, what you saw at the end of the first series. But we still don’t know what happens.
“She’s matured, she has a lot more sincerity, she’s not as much of a snob. I think the war changes her in that sense. There are more important things going on than just who she sits next to at dinner. And the rivalry between her and Edith is certainly a lot less in this series.”
Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley):
Filming the war scenes?
“It was absolutely amazing. It was one of the most extraordinary filming weeks of my career. Exhilarating most of the time, pretty gruelling for another portion of it. But it was really, really special. I think the cast and the crew that were involved just really loved it. I think the crew, particularly, those camera guys with the cranes and the top shots of bombs going off. They live for that kind of thing and so do I. It’s brilliant.
“There were moments that were incredibly exciting, running through No Man’s Land firing at the Germans, dressed as a soldier. Boy’s Own stuff. There were also moments inbetween shooting scenes where you might have 15 minutes while they set something up. And you wander around No Man’s Land and there are very lifelike, or rather dead-like, dead horses, corpses lying in craters. And if you look in one particular direction, you could literally have been standing in the middle of No Man’s Land on The Somme. You turn around and you see an entire film crew and guy’s in Parkas rigging up TNT. It was a really bizarre week and so different to filming somewhere like here.
“I don’t think we can ever come that close to what those guys really went through but it was insanely muddy just after a week. And you think some of these guys were there for months on end and if they fell off those duck boards they could drown. I can actually believe that now. It did bring it home just how extraordinary it was, what those guys went through. It was pretty grim but obviously not as grim as the real thing.”
How much does it affect Matthew?
“It changes him massively. Where we see the biggest change is really when he’s back at Downton and struggling to come back to Downton all over again. The first series, it was quite weird getting used to this place and now he has to get used to it all over again from a completely different perspective. His life is constantly being turned upside down.”
Hurt your back?
“Yes I did. There’s a scene, which I think you probably saw, in the opening sequence. I carry this really enormous man – no, he was quite small, he was about five foot four, I think, but dense bones, very heavy guy…carrying him across No Man’s Land, dropping him down into the trench. Obviously we didn’t do that in one take, you were doing that all day. And by the end of that day I was a little bit knackered. There was physio on set, actually, and he’s been back since for that back injury. But apart from that it was relatively safe. But there are real explosions going off and all sorts of things flying through the air.”
Did you know much, aside from general knowledge, about The Great War before this? And did what you learned shock you? (Dan visited the site of The Somme when he was at school)
“Yes, I suppose it did. We all have our schoolboy knowledge of it and I thought I had mine and then it turned out it was all wrong, a lot of it. I read an extraordinary book called Six Weeks, which was about the officer class, particularly. It was only published about 18 months ago and it was an incredibly useful resource in terms of the kind of soldier that Matthew would have been – public schoolboy from an upper, middle class aristocratic background, going in at very much the social level but just in the trenches. He starts off as a Lieutenant. The things that they were asked to do, their relationship with the men, coming back from the Front. Emotional and practical things. An incredible amount that was learnt. And I also was given a facsimile of a handbook that officers were given in the trenches, which involves everything from digging latrines in trenches to how to treat trench foot. Amazing stuff. I like researching, reading around different roles and projects like that.”
Did you scan each new script to see if Matthew survives?
“There was a little bit of that going on. We started this series, as we did with the last one, only having read the first two episodes. And there is a real buzz that goes around set when the next episode comes in. We anticipate it and enjoy it as much as we hope eveybody watching does. What’s going to happen? Yes, there was certainly for me, ‘Do I make it to page 96 or not?’ Yes, it’s quite exciting. But I am in the Christmas special. Maybe I’m a ghost.”
The romance with Lady Mary takes another turn?
“From the get-go it was obvious it was going to go in a different direction, largely owing to Lavinia, who he’s met on leave and fallen quickly in love with and got engaged. So, yeah, quite a different tack I suppose.”
Matthew and Mary?
“There’s something every episode that sends the relationship in a slightly different direction. There is, obviously, still a little bit of a spark there, as there probably always will be. But, no, he’s very devoted to Lavinia at the top of the series. There’s quite a mature understanding reached, certainly between Matthew and Mary and Lavinia as well. It’s not a catfight in one corner with Matthew going, ‘Oh, I’ve made the wrong decision.’ It is much more multi-layered than that and that’s really exciting to play and, hopefully, to watch as well. It should keep the series ticking along. There’s a spark there that never quite goes away.”
Does he realise that Mary still holds a torch for him?
“I don’t know how early on he realises that, if at all, really. The show starts two years on and they ended the last series in a pretty bad place, drifting well apart. And you can see that they’ve both moved on. The relationship has certainly become a little bit more mature and complex and there is that thing that you sometimes get between exes, a mature understanding or whatever. But things sort of bubble away under the surface throughout the series. It’s quite an interesting, complex network of relationships. Maybe he’s moved on a bit more. But things happen in almost every episode that sway the balance. Given what they went through in the first series, they’ve learned a lot and they’ve hardened, perhaps, as characters. It’s a different kind of ‘will they, won’t they’ than we saw in the first series.”
The lucky stuffed little dog Mary gives Matthew?
“He’s quite a key character. It becomes quite important for Matthew, throughout the war.”
Filming today in Beaconsfield?
“We were actually doing bits from episode seven and eight this morning. So we’re still dovetailing end of series with the Christmas special – it’s over winter and the New Year. We’re doing all the Downton stuff – and I imagine there will be a turkey scene or something…that will be here in October. We have to come back here in the autumn when it’s a bit more wintry…I’m determined to get a Slade number in there somewhere!”
Reaction from public wanting Matthew and Mary to get together?
“It’s funny, there’s an almost 50-50 split between people who desperately want us to get together and who stop me in the street…and another lot of people just saying, ‘Oh, I hope you don’t get with her, she’s a bitch.’ A really visceral reaction to her. Which is great. And that, I suppose, creates drama within the viewers, which is even better. You can’t ask for any more than that, where people see the show in different ways and while loving the whole thing, they have favourite characters or different storylines that they take to. It’s great.”
Recognition after first series?
“It is extraordinary. Michelle went to New York and said she was stopped in cafes and stuff. It’s in the strangest places. I was at Lord’s on Saturday and Graeme Swann’s dad and mum came up to me and said how much they love the show. And I’m a huge cricket fan. That was a very weird moment. It was like, ‘Well, I’m a huge fan of your son.’ A weird exchange.”
Costumes this series?
“For the majority of the series it is Army uniform. But the Mess kit, the red, the very fetching uniform, that’s all quite stiff collar stuff. It’s nothing compared to the corsets the girls have to wear.”
“From what little we know, I think it would jump on a couple of years again. So we get to see Downton in the Twenties. Maybe get a bit of jazz into the soundtrack.”
Newspaper baron Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen)?
“Like a lot of media moguls, he threatens to throw a bit of a spanner in the works. But he doesn’t hack our phones. (laughs) Although there is a phone in Downton now, so you never know! He’s a really interesting character. It’s the rise of a new form of power in the country. As the aristocracy teeters on the brink of something very different, you get the rise of the insurgent middle classes and you get the rise of the media. He represents a challenge to somewhere like Downton. So he’s an interesting guy to have in the mix. Not just another Lord.”
Zoe Boyle (Lavinia Swire)
What like joining an established cast?
“It was pretty daunting to begin with, just because I was such a huge fan of the first series. So, for me, I was just so excited to be a part of it and to be working with actors who I really, really admire. So the readthrough was pretty daunting and frightening. But everyone’s so welcoming and lovely and it just makes your job so much easier. And it’s amazing how quickly it becomes normal and just loads of fun. It’s just great. I’ve loved it.”
Lavinia and Matthew?
“Lavinia is absolutely hoplessly devoted.”
Lavinia and Mary?
“There’s definitely a complicated relationship. But they’re not going to become enemies. It’s more complex and layered than that, which is lovely. I think they actually have a mutual respect for each other.
‘She’s aware of the spark between Matthew and Mary. But she really likes Mary. That’s what I like about the writing – it’s not this typical rivalry. And I think Mary quite likes Lavinia as well. It’s a more interesting dynamic than your typical love rivalry. And Michelle and I got on really well. I love working with her and we do quite a lot together in the series.
“In the context of the war, that pales into insignifacance because she could lose him at any time. That is more important than anything to do with Lady Mary.”
You’re ‘the other woman’ – how feel about that? Fear audience backlash?
“I know. I’m prepared to be hated. She’s all right. She’s a lovely girl, Lavinia. Pretty sweet and lovely. So, hopefully, she won’t be hated too much. But, yeah, I’m ready for it. I’m ready for the backlash. As an actress you just play your character’s intentions – although before I started, I did actually see a blog saying, ‘We hate her already!’ So I’m ready for it.”
There’s obviously a secret of some kind in her background?
“Yes…” (Have cut the rest of her reply so as not to spoil the storyline)
“It’s definitely more snug after lunch. It does affect your digestion a little bit. But my first job was a theatre job and I wore a corset for a year. So I’m quite used to it, so it doesn’t bother me too much. But they’re not my favourite things.”
Getting this job?
“I was a huge fan of the first series. It had already all aired and then I auditoned in February and we started shooting at the end of February. I was so thrilled.”