Downton Abbey 3: Upstairs Interviews

He’s not writing about us again, is he?

“I’m looking forward to all sorts of things,” exclaims Matthew Crawley.

He’s talking to his wife-to-be Lady Mary in the first episode of Downton Abbey series three.

I’m guessing you’re also looking forward to all sorts of Downton fun in the coming weeks.

So you will find only the mildest of spoilers below.

Will Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) wedding go ahead without a hitch?

Or will there be last minute complications?

Can Downton be saved in the face of a financial crisis?

And how long before Mr Bates (Brendan Coyle) hits his cell mate?

I saw the 90 minute opening episode and highlights from the rest of the series at the London press launch way back in July.

The verdict of the massed ranks of Her Majesty’s Press?

Julian Fellowes’ Downton is very much back on top form.

I know Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and co have their critics.

But, frankly, I could watch Mr Carson (Jim Carter) saying, “That treacle tart just hit the spot,” all night long.

There are other delights.

Not least the much trailed arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Cora’s mother Martha Levinson.

Adding an extra dimension to life at the big house in the early part of the series.

Including some delicious sparring involving Ms MacLaine and Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, the Dowager Countess.

It’s Spring 1920 as the new series begins.

Daisy (Sophie McShera) is wheeling her bike towards the village.

Inside a wedding rehearsal is underway for Matthew and Mary’s big day.

Just a few of the other notes I made in my notebook during the screening from the early scenes in the opening episode:

“Thomas up to mischief again.”

“Sybil threatens to be a county scandal.”

“Robert phone call – worried.”

“Anna visits Bates in prison.”

And that’s just the start.

Filming of eight new episodes plus a Christmas special started in February and ended in mid-August.

So the cast were still making the new series when we spoke to them.

The press preview was followed by a press conference and then by a series of round table interviews.

Below are some extracts from the “upstairs” round tables.

Which left me hoping we will meet Tinky Bonky later in the series.

There will be more to come on another day from those who also serve – or are in prison.

Including Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle, Lesley Nicol, Sophie McShera, Rob James-Collier, Jim Carter, Amy Nuttall, Siobhan Finneran and Phyllis Logan.

Downton Abbey returns to ITV1 at 9pm on Sunday (September 16) and will be screened in America from January 6.

Dan Stevens plays Matthew Crawley:

We last saw Downton at Christmas:

“It’s not snowing anymore. The inevitable stress of wedding preparations takes its toll, amongst other things. We’re in 1920 now.

“The scripts are a constant surprise. We get them two at a time, generally. It’s interesting, hanging in the balance really as to where everything goes and where we all end up.

“Matthew staunchly refuses to acknowledge the medical evidence of Lavinia’s death and remains convinced that she died of a broken heart, which he caused. He’s never quite bought the Spanish flu theory. And that hangs over him quite a lot in this series. Which is to some extent sympathised with by Mary and to some extent not.”

Any recent surprising encounters with famous fans?

“There’s so many of them. It’s still a surprise to go over to America and be recognised. Just so far from home and in a country where, historically in the arts, it’s long been a British ambition to break America and many have tried and failed. And we – without actively trying, certainly not on our parts – can go to New York or LA and be recognised by most people in our own industry. That’s a huge privilege and a great honour. And also to be recognised in drugstores and cafes all over America, which is also quite strange.”

Being spotted by American fans?

“It’s often a non-lingual quite hysterical reaction. You try and make a noise back. Also online, something I’ve noticed – you only have to go on Tumblr or Twitter or see any of the YouTube mash ups to see the hours that people pore over our show in order to re-cut the whole series to fit the trailer of Mean Girls or something like that. It’s amazing. Mocked-up posters, people have written rap songs about us. There’s a Fresh Prince of Downton Abbey spoof opening. All sorts of stuff. And it’s great. There is this hysterical reaction to it which is channelled into these extrarordinarily creative – and sometimes quite uncreative – ideas online.”

Fashion in the drama?

“It’s influencing women’s fashion outside of the show. Whereas actually women’s fashion goes fairly unremarked in character within the show. Actually it’s the men’s fashion that causes the biggest stir and the hugely controversial advent of the dinner jackets replacing white tie. This causes almost as much rupture as World War One. It’s remarked on by almost everyone in the cast at some point in the series.”

Working with Shirley MacLaine?

“It was fantastic. She was hilarious. She’s an incredible energy to have on set. Just non-stop. She’s been honing the one woman show anecdote style for many years all over the world and she brings that on set very much.”

Did she decide she’d met you in another life?

“We didn’t quite get that far but we were discussing all sorts of things. Some quite extraordinary conversations.”

Matthew and Mary in this third series? Will viewers be surprised?

“Yes, I think so. There’s a few twists and turns.”

Have any of Downton’s standards of etiquette made it into your everyday off screen life?

“I do occasionally find myself standing when women come into the room now when I might not have done before. Sort of inadvertendly rise to my feet.”

Any dancing in this series?

“There is some dancing. Cocktails before dinner – that’s creeping in. Some good hair. Not for me personally. It’s been pretty much the same.”

Michelle Dockery plays Lady Mary Crawley:

Mary and Matthew”

“We’re now engaged, as you remember, from the end of series two. The wedding plans are underway. But whether bells ring or not, you’ll have to wait and see. It’s never plain sailing with Matthew and Mary.

“Mary is panicking about the financial state of Downton…she feels like he’s (Matthew) not on their sides. So invevitably they reach yet another barrier, which teases the audience again.”

Any recent surprising encounters with famous fans?

“Gary Oldman we ran into at an event in New York and he’s a fan. So that was nice to hear because we’re all fans of his.

“Americans are more confident. Especially in somewhere like New York or LA, they are a bit more forthcoming.”

The wedding dress?

“It’s beautiful, as you can see. It was a long process, the design. It will be interesting to see how it influences women in their own weddings. Downton has had quite an effect on fashion in the past few years and I’ll be interested to see if there’s some copies – people attempting to copy it.

“The fashions for the third series are gorgeous and actually quite adaptable. I could wear some of them today, some of the styles. The Ralph Lauren autumn / winter collection was influenced by the show and even the theme tune was played during one of the catwalk shows. It seems to have taken effect in the fashion industry and I think it could do even more so for this series because it’s slightly more modern, the style.”

Will viewers be surprised by Mary and Matthew in this third series?

“Yes. I think they’re expecting us to be happy and skipping around the grounds this season and it’s not quite like that.”

Any dancing in this series?

“We’re not quite into the Roaring Twenties yet. Gradually the changes are beginning to happen. The Marcel Wave in the hair. It does take a while. Make up doesn’t take very long because we don’t tend to wear very much. But the hair does take a while.”

Hugh Bonneville plays Robert, Earl of Grantham:

Financial crisis at Downton:

“Yes, times are troubled. It’s pretty horrendous to think that I’ve put it into my head that I could be a businessman. But if you think about the end of the industrial revolution era and a bit like the dot com boom, everyone was making money and it was a sure thing. If Tinky Bonky from the next estate said, ‘Put in a hundred grand,’ everyone was doing and everyone was making two hundred grand. And then, of course, reality kicks in. The post-war era, things aren’t as certain. For the whole of the war they were completely uncertain and now trying to re-structure, re-build the estate afterwards, you can’t go back to the way it was before and this is just one example. That the money has gone and we are in really, really dire straits. And what makes it even worse is that it wasn’t even my money – it was hers. So that’s pretty doom laden.”

Tears on screen for Lord Grantham:

“Really, it’s his whole life has gone. Bear in mind they married originally as a business contract in order to secure Downton. And his own folly has meant that it’s gone – apart from the guilt of having played and lost with her money, it is actually his whole reason for living is potentially going down the drain. So that hits him pretty hard.”

Shirley MacLaine took a while to get used to Julian’s writing?

“She found it hard to learn because Julian’s writing style is very particular. And I think that’s one of its strengths, that it is formal language. It’s not Shakespearian, old fashioned, it’s easy to understand. But there is a certain muscularity about the language, there’s a certain rythmn to it which if you tinker with it, it doesn’t quite feel right. You ad lib at your peril and I think Shirley learned that – not through any sense of him being draconian, just that it doesn’t quite work. It’s like a car that’s not quite in gear. He’s a great wordsmith and as you see whenever Maggie opens her mouth he does write these fantastic zinging lines that have a wonderful rythmn and structure to them. And I think that’s something she picked up on fairly soon. Often with scripts that aren’t of such good quality you do make them sound more like you would speak and improvise a bit around them. But it doesn’t require that so much.”

Robert is proud that his daughter is due to be married?

“Yes. Matthew and Mary continues to be…it’s not an easy ride along the way. And then obviously Sybil and Branson and there’s dear Edith, who’s got her intentions. So I think he’s probably a bit like Mr Bennet – sort of wants to get rid of them and go and sit in his study.

“In series two it became very clear that Matthew was the son he never had. And in series one that had been a bit of tension with Lady Mary. But now it’s the perfect solution. They are together, the estate is secure – or is it? – and so long as they can produce an heir then he’ll be very happy. It’s all about the handing on to the next generation for Robert. When he says his chest is about to explode, he really means it. Mary has grown up a lot since we first met her, from a rather capricious, at times spiteful, girl sparring with you (Dan) into this young woman who has found the man that she should be with.”

Does the money crisis test the marriage?

“It doesn’t explicitly but it does in terms of what we’re going to do to save the situation. That bubbles under for rather a long time. We might move – to a smaller house. We’re not tied to the physicality of the house. We might have to go and live somewhere. Downsize as they call it.”

Elizabeth McGovern plays Cora, Countess of Grantham:

Financial crisis at Downton? Cora able to cope more with the news than Robert?

“I think she’s a more emotionally revealing character in some ways or fluxable character. And also keep in mind that we’re not talking about going to a tiny little flat in Soho. We’re talking about going to a slightly smaller estate. So Cora is happy to embrace that transition.”

What’s it like having another American on set?

“Well, there was having another American on set and there was having Shirley MacLaine on the set. I think having Shirley MacLaine on the set speaks for itself. Having another American on the set was very reassuring and nice. It was having a compatriat that understands where I’m from and what that means. So it was really nice for me. It was reassuring. It was like a balm.

“I thought she cracked in incredibly well. She brings a different energy to the proceedings but that is exactly what we wanted, that the story required was…like she’s a breath of fresh air. Because she’s different. And that’s the intention of the dynamic. So she definitely did that.”

Laura Carmichael plays Lady Edith Crawley:

It looks like Lady Edith won’t have a straighforward series?

“No. Nothing is straightforward in this. You wouldn’t want it to be. She’s powering ahead with plans for Sir Anthony, whether he wants it or not. She’s determined. And I love playing that naievity, that lack of awareness, being bold, stepping into his car without an invitation. It’s great fun and Julian writes it so beautifully. She’s no wallflower.”

Tell us about the people you met at the Met Ball in New York?

“Oh yes. So Michelle and I went. It was fabulous. We met Mick Jagger. Brooke Shields came over and was very nice. Martha Stewart came over and was very nice. Beyonce was there – who I am obsessed with. It was crazy. It was a room full of very famous, beautiful faces. And the oddest thing was, they seemed to know who we were. They all watch the show. And it was my first trip to America since the show’s been on. So it was incredible.

“I didn’t meet Beyonce. Michelle turned to me and went, ‘There she is Laura.’ I just…we couldn’t do it, we couldn’t go over there, because what if it was awful and she didn’t…no, we just watched from afar.”

Does Sir Mick watch Downton?

“I don’t know. He just was very friendly and went, ‘Hello, I’m Mick.’ To which we went, ‘Yeah, we know.’ It was very exciting.”

Other famous fans?

“Gary Oldman was there, he was very lovely. I did a day on Tinker, Tailor, so that was the first time to actually meet him. Yes, he’d just watched it. And Brooke Shields was doing the spoof that she does for one of the shows the next day, playing Cora. So, you know, it’s surreal stuff.”

Jessica Brown Findlay plays Lady Sybil Crawley:

“Sybil is just trying to keep everything at peace. It’s difficult. They knew what they were getting themselves into. They’ve got a season ticket to keep coming back to Downton.”

Acting with the prosthetic baby bump?

“It was incredibly comfortable – no corsets. It was lovely. It’s actually really nice being pregnant. Sybil looks very sweet. She’s found this quite bohemian style and look. Obviously of necessity. She’s got no-one to dress her – not that she would want that anyway. So she’s found her own style.”

Does she have any regrets?

“No. I really don’t think she does. Like anything, in the cold light of day there are always hardships that when you’re running with love in your heart you’re not really paying attention to. But she thought about it for a long time. She really did take her time in deciding and I think she’s found a real peace and happiness. She’s with someone who completely understands her and is fine with her being different. And that’s what any of us would want. So I think she’s very happy.”

Working with Shirley MacLaine?

“It was insane. I just kept sitting there going, ‘What’s happening?’ It was wonderful. A real privilege to be able to work with people like that. It’s a pinch yourself moment. It was great. God. Amazing. Mad.”

Sybil giving birth?

“Obviously it’s a delicate show. It’s exciting. You’ll have to wait and see. It’s always an event.”

Is she still quite political?

“She is. I think now, because of the fact that Tom and her are married there is also a huge…she’s followed in the footsteps of feminism and she’s broken out. She works. She’s been nursing in Dublin at the time but I’ve just heard the scene’s been cut. So who knows? I haven’t seen the rest of the cuts of the other episodes.

“Now she’s heavily pregnant she can’t work in what she does anymore but she will be carrying on doing so when she has her child. But she’s very caught between the politics of Ireland and the politics of her home country. What does she do? There are huge ramifications either way. It’s exciting that that element hasn’t just disappeared. That fire in her belly is still there. She’s got a baby in it as well.”

Huge impact of Downton around the world. But for you, when you turn up at 6am on set, it’s a job with a working company of actors?

“Absolutely. And it hasn’t really changed in its feeling at all. That’s what’s wonderful about it. Because really your experience on a job is when you’re filming. Everything else is a bonus. But this is just so lovely. Great, good people. It hasn’t changed anything in that regard at all. We’re still standing outside in the rain eating sandwiches and chatting. It’s lovely.”

Allen Leech plays Tom Branson:

The former Downton chauffeur is now upstairs and dining with the toffs:

“Yes. Big change. They don’t have a penny. He starts working for a newspaper back in Ireland which pays him a pittance. So they’re mainly living off Sybil’s allowance. It’s something that Branson doesn’t really want. Looking at it when they left for Ireland, they had a rose-tinted version. The harsh reality has hit home. Especially now with baby en route.

“There’s always events and happenings at Downton that end up bringing them back. So they do come back a lot.”

Does Tom have any regrets?

“I think Branson has some regrets. Mainly that he didn’t steal more silverware on the way out to pawn.

“That’s what’s been really interesting to play this year is the fact that – he fell hopelessly head over heels in love with this lady and finally won her heart, got her to move over with him. But obviously the ramifications of that are you’re marrying into that family as well and you have to play a role a certain amount in relation to turning up at events and having respect for the fact that this is her past as well. This is her family and her heritage – as much as she has respect for his. That’s what’s been really lovely, because he’s such an outsider. All the people that he knew of this life are downstairs, don’t know how to deal with him. And certainly the people upstairs have no idea how to deal with him either. And the only person who really undertstands him is his wife. So that’s been really nice to do.”

Tom forges a relationship with Matthew?

“Yeah, there is a bit of a bond. I suppose, in a way, Matthew is the only other person who would have an understanding of what it is to be thrown into this life. That’s a nice relationship that builds as well, which is good.”

Plus the Irish Question is highlighted?

“Yes, of course. It’s another element that he has to play – the fact that at the time Irish history was going through such changes. It’s been great and the storylines are really nice and reflect that.”

Working with Shirley MacLaine?

“It’s brilliant. She was amazing. Like Maggie as well, they are two Hollywood legends. Her stories…between herself and Maggie when they used to start chatting. Normally you’d have everyone at the table talking. There was just silence. There was just the two of them talking about people they knew. ‘When I opened for Frank…’ Sinatra? OK, yeah, yeah, fine. It was amazing.”

Sybil giving birth?

“We team up with Call The Midwife and we have a Christmas special…”

On set?

“The only addition was the Espresso machines this year which have changed our lives. They have been amazing. It’s the little things in life. It’s not the beautiful house behind you. It’s granulated coffee changing our lives. But we’re not allowed to take it in the house. Water is the only thing allowed in the house. There have been a couple of people with sneaky flasks, which is a very clever idea. Maggie Smith was the first to cop on. Is that just experience?”

Branson is centre stage with big speeches at dinner after being in the background?

“It was daunting when I first got the script. Suddenly you are thrust out into the centre and people are going, ‘OK, here’s your chance. You’ve been around for two years and this is your opportunity to actually come to the fore.’ It was very exciting. And it played quite interestingly in that the first time I sat down at that table with all of them, I went, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ Just as an actor even, it felt kind of alien. ‘I drive you people in the show. And now I’m here sitting down.’ It was fascinating. Jess was helping me out because I didn’t know the etiquette. So in a way she was like a wife, going, ‘Darling, it’s not that one…’

And you went back to Ealing to film a downstairs scene in episode one?

“That was again very strange. Jim (Carter) had a good joke going, ‘Oh, are you talking to us now?’ All of that. Everyone kind of plays up on it.”

Well, at least it was freshly ironed.

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