THE big house is in pitch black gloomy darkness.
Aside from one solitary light in a top floor window.
Downton Abbey series four, episode one.
It is 1922 and six months on from the death of Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens).
His baby son George is crying in the nursery.
Somewhere else in the house Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) lies awake in bed.
Night turns to day and an early morning mist cloaks the trees on the Downton estate.
As a specially composed variation of Downton Abbey’s opening titles music heralds the new 2013 series.
Or the 2014 season – from January 5 – if you’re watching in America.
Stony-faced Mary remains a woman in black, struggling to move on from the fatal accident that left both her and millions of UK Christmas Days devastated.
A return to the frosty young woman of Downton days gone by.
This week I was lucky enough to be among journalists invited to the London launch of series four at the Mayfair Hotel.
Set to begin on ITV next month (September).
The five-hour plus event started with a premiere screening of that first feature length episode plus a showreel of highlights to come.
Followed by a surprise guest appearance, on-stage Q&A and then an intensive session of round table interviews with cast members.
The latter are embargoed until next month while we were urged, as ever, not to give too much detail away about the contents of the episode.
My full transcript of the non-embargoed Q&A is below, along with that little surprise for Her Majesty’s Press.
There is no doubt that Matthew’s death at the end of the 2012 Christmas special infuriated many fans.
Even though writer Jullian Fellowes was left with little choice once Dan Stevens had made his decision to leave.
Episode 4.1 will do much to soothe hurt feelings.
Like relaxing in a warm bath with a large box of chocolates.
Forrest Gump’s momma always said, “You never know what you’re gonna get.”
Except in Downton’s case, you do actually know that it will be a mixture of champagne truffles, double nut delights and a bitter lemon crunch.
As usual, you’ll get no major spoilers from me in this blog.
Except to say that Downton remains in rude health, unlike poor Matthew and Sybil in series three.
Michelle Dockery and Jim Carter (Mr Carson) are just two of the outstanding performances in the opening 90 minutes.
There are some beautifully tender moments, scenes of real laugh out loud comedy and the enduring magic of Dame Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess Violet.
The arrival of a “Mixer-Beat” machine causes a rumpus below stairs, where one notable face is missing.
While that promotion of bowler-hatted Thomas Barrow to under butler gives Rob James-Collier a delicious platform to further develop his character’s naughty haughty ways.
An ever more daring Lady Edith, played with increasing relish by Laura Carmichael, is a regular on that steam train between Yorkshire and London.
Will she finally find happiness on the arm of newspaper editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards)?
Who, you will recall, has to somehow edit an insane wife out of his life before he can think of marrying the lovely Edith.
Isn’t that always the way?
Julian Fellowes, who seems to be taking a step back from publicity duties this year, continues his own “Mixer-Beat” approach to Downton.
All of the main characters are seen on screen in the first episode with the promise of something for each one in the story mix as the weeks go by.
That showreel of future highlights also promised plenty of twists and turns to talk about through the autumn.
Even so – having attended every Downton Abbey series launch since the very start, this was the most tight-lipped about what is to come.
There are some clues in my transcript below but nothing to spoil your enjoyment.
Which is just as it should be.
It’s always dangerous to judge any piece of television after seeing it on a big screen in a posh hotel.
But my instinct tells me that series four of Downton may well top anything we have seen before.
Now pass that box of chocolates…
*The UK version of Downton Abbey 4 will be eight episodes long, with the opening and closing episodes again feature length, plus an extended Christmas special.
Downton Abbey Series Four Launch August 2013:
Steve November, ITV Director of Drama, spoke before the screening:
“It’s actually quite hard to imagine this is already series four. As having had the great pleasure and privilege of seeing some of this series already, I can tell you that it’s as fresh and vibrant and exciting as it was in the very first episode of the first series. Hopefully you’ll agree when you see it.
“But it’s equally hard to image, I think, that it’s only series four. Because in its relatively short life for us, Downton has become such an event and taken such an extraordinary place in the TV schedule. It feels like it’s been there forever for us. I find it quite hard to remember a time before Downton, to be honest. But I do know that it was a much less dramatic and engaging and witty and warm and tragic and romantic time – a lesser time before Downton. So thankfully we’re now post-Downton, or in the midst of Downton.”
Gareth Neame, executive producer:
“Thank you Steve. Any producer, though, would be slightly alarmed to hear that we’re in a life ‘post-Downton’. I’m going to have to run out afterwards and say, ‘Are you cancelling the show?’ (laughter)
“Somebody said there were about 15 photographers outside in the street and we haven’t had that before at a Downton launch.
“So many of you have been with us on this extraordinary journey over the last four years but I thought perhaps I’d just summarise some of the achievements to date. We’re now in more than 220 territories worldwide. I don’t know how people estimate the number of people that watch this show. I have no idea how that is worked out. But the number I’ve been given is in excess of 120 million people. It makes it the most successful of our home-grown British dramas that has travelled globally.
“As you know, not only are we a much loved show in our home territory, clearly there’s something of a phenomenon going on in the US. The show has recently received another 12 Emmy nominations for this year. So the total haul of Emmy nominations is 39. Some time ago the show became the most nominated non-US show in Emmy Award history.
“We’re on PBS. Many of you will know that network in the US is the traditional home for British drama in America and I’m sure many of you will have read, or indeed reported, about the fact that we’re the highest rating drama that has ever run on PBS in its 40 year history. So we’re very pleased for PBS as we are for ITV, that for both of our main broadcasters the show has had such an impact.
“We didn’t quite beat the Superbowl in the ratings. We came second to the Superbowl. They had 99 million more viewers than us. But with the knowledge I have about season four I feel really confident that this could be the year where we eclipse that. (laughter)
“But the last episode, the finale, which you will all remember so well, was the highest rating show on American television that night. That means across all the network television, cable, the works. It’s a really phenomenal achievement for a British-written, acted…a show that was not designed for the American market at all. It was made for us here.”
Gareth added: “I really would ask you to continue to go with us on the Downton journey. Which is to know when it’s right to reveal story and to know when it’s not right. I really hope that everyone will resist the temptation to write out the synopsis. As has happened in the past. I really hope you enjoy the first episode and talk generally about its themes.
“By way of reminder, in case any of you forgotten, where we’re about to come back in…the last thing that we saw, some of you may have forgotten this, (laughter) Matthew Crawley was left dead on the road – that’s where we come back in, several months later.
“We’ve loved making this season. I am incredibly pleased with it and confident about it. I echo Steve’s comments that the show is in very very strong health.”
After the screening, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa was introduced on stage as the “surprise guest” along with her pianist Gary Matthewman. She plays Dame Nellie Melba – a real life Australian soprano – in episode three, hired to sing at a house party at Downton Abbey.
Before singing the aria O Mio Babbino Caro (Oh My Beloved Father) by Puccini and Songs My Mother Taught Me by Dvorak. It appears she sings both in Downton.
Dame Kiri said: “This has been a great pleasure for me, to have been chosen. There could have been thousands of other opera singers chosen to take this part of Dame Nellie Melba in Downton. But I happened to get the job. I think it was possibly influenced because I actually once met Julian (Fellowes).
“It was the most wonderful experience and to be with such incredibly special actors on a set is just quite unusual – and I keep on saying it was special. Both Gary and I kept on pinching ourselves, saying, ‘How did we get this job?’
“So this is one of the songs I sang during the episode. It’s O Mio Babino Caro. And also the other song that Dame Nellie Melba was very, very famous for was Songs My Mother Taught Me.”
After singing O Mio Babino Caro, she explained: “When we performed this, it was performed in the Great Hallway of Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) and it was really quite a beautiful acoustic. So we were very spoilt by the acoustic there.”
Post-screening Q&A with:
Gareth Neame (Executive Producer) / Liz Trubridge (Executive Producer) / Historical Advisor Alastair Bruce / Allen Leech (Tom Branson) / Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.
It began with questions for Dame Kiri, who would have to leave after a short time:
Q: Kiri – how did you end up in Downton?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “I felt sometimes it might have been because I met Julian (Fellowes) but I’m not sure. But what happened is I saw an email that came through and it said, ‘There has been an accident at Downton.’ And I looked and thought, ‘Well, why are they telling me this?’ But I didn’t have my glasses on. It was an ‘enquiry’. And I went, ‘Oh my God, My most favourite, favourite programme in the entire whole world and someone’s mentioned my name in Downton!’ And then I met with Julian and Liz and some others and they said, ‘Would I like to do it?’ Well I nearly choked. I couldn’t say yes fast enough. It was the most wonderful experience.”
Q: Kiri – what’s your favourite thing about Downton and why are you such a fan?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “Well I think it’s obvious. The story is…it’s very special…I find delicate. Beautifully written with the most beautiful actors and actresses. A lot of them we haven’t seen and a lot we have seem. And some new wonderful faces on the stage now. These wonderful actors who are incredibly special. I sat next to Allen here through the whole thing and he said, ‘What will you do after?’ And I said, ‘I might go and play golf.’ And he said, ‘What do you think about the staff here?’ I said, ‘I’d fire the lot.’ (laughter) All of it was special.”
Q: How did you go about researching the role of Dame Nellie Melba?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “I have somebody in New Zealand who knew quite a lot about her and I’ve got a lot of information that the Metropolitan Opera had. But I’d been very interested in her anyway. I got her log sheet of all the performances she did throughout the 1890s and the 1920s and saw how much she earned and how many roles she played throughout her life. And it was almost every second night she was doing another role in another town in America. Her wage for the one year of 18 something or other, I can’t remember exactly what it was, would have been about three million in today’s money. So I’ve got a lot of stuff on her…I was very interested in her.”
Gareth Neame: “We won’t go into how Robert Grantham manages to afford her, then.” (laughter)
Q: Did you choose the songs?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “The person I happen to know…he said that Songs My Mother Taught Me was one of her most favourite songs and she sang it everywhere. And we’ve got a recording of her doing it. So we tried to copy it. It’s very beautifully done and the recording is very special. So we had to put that one in. And then Babino Caro was another and we decided she would also sing that. I was trying to stay true to the character because as Julian Fellowes said, she’s the only true character that actually lived during the whole of the Downton series, I think.”
Q: Would you like to do more acting?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “I’m not sure if I was acting. (laughter) With that group of people. I’m not sure about that. They’re pretty special.”
Q: Do you have spoken lines of dialogue and which characters do you interact with?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “I interact with Lord Grantham and Branson. We were sat talking. And I have a few lines, yes.”
Allen Leech: “She held her own.”
Gareth Neame: “The really enjoyable thing, though, was the day that we were all fortunate enough to hear you singing – and it was the sight of all these tough electricians and grips and all the people that you see on a film set with little tears in their eyes, wiping a tear away as they heard you. It was quite a special day.”
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “The most incredible thing was I took my two dogs along and Lady Carnarvon (mistress of Highclere Castle which doubles for Downton Abbey) didn’t want those anywhere near the place. But anyway…the thing is during the time I was expecting doggie number three and she’s called ‘Abbey’ as in Downton. She’s my little Downton prize.”
Q: Kiri – the costumes are obviously a huge party of Downton, so were you excited to see what you were going to be wearing?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “Very much, yes. It’s exceptionally beautiful. I had a dress fitting in Vienna because that’s where I was at the time for the dress fitting. And then I saw it when I arrived on the set and it’s pretty stunning. I just love it.”
Q: Had you met any of the cast before?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “No, none of them. But they were really nice.”
Q: Can you talk us through the day and how it felt walking on the set. And also how many takes you had to do?
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “The day started quite early because we stayed down in a hotel nearby. And you can’t sleep on something like this. So don’t tell me what time I got up but it was a long day. I made it longer by just staying awake most of the night. And I got there and I think my first line went…(she makes a garbled sound). And Lord Grantham looked at me in wonderment and thought, ‘I wonder if she is going to get anything out of her mouth?’ And the second time I sort of got it out but it was just the most exciting but frightening thing to do. Because you’re with people who really are incredibly comfortable at what they’re doing.”
Liz Trubridge: “She’s actually being very modest because what she did was, she sang everything live. Although we did do the recording in Vienna, she sang it all live, all morning. And it wasn’t until after lunch that we gave her any time off, where she was just miming to playback. But she was so good live we just kept doing it.”
Dame Kiri Te Kanawa: “I did make one request. I said, ‘Could I please start as early as possible?’ And so I started singing at 9:30. I think I finished about 12, 12:30, something like that.”
Allen Leech: “The buzz around the unit base for everyone, I’ve never seen excitement in four years of so many people suddenly rushing to set. Everyone. Hugh (Bonneville), Elizabeth (McGovern), a lot of us, all running down to make sure that we could hear you live. It was spectacular.”
Liz Trubridge: “It happened to be my birthday and I had said nothing. In fact my assistant was told not to tell anybody. Needless to say that was a disaster. Kiri, just before lunch, not only sang me an aria but led everyone to sing happy birthday. And it was the most amazing thing. Do I need to say that? It’s now on my laptop because we had behind the scenes footage rolling as well. I have to actually see it because I couldn’t remember a thing after it. I was so shocked.”
Dame Kiri then left the Q&A.
Q: Allen – now you’re the veteran, how does it feel when some of the big names leave the show and do new cast members coming in give it a new lease of life?
Allen Leech: “I think like any show, characters come and go. It definitely gives it a new lease of life and a new energy as well when people come in and they’re bringing something to their characters, something you haven’t seen before. So it definitely makes it very exciting, all these new faces we have. It’s been really interesting and I think the show really benefits from that in relation to…the intensity of the drama has definitely upped this year. It’s sad, (when people leave) you miss them but then for the story a lot of the time it works very well and your character continues to develop. You keep going. That’s showbiz.” (laughter)
Q: Alastair – did the servants often go into the bedroom when the lords and ladies were sleeping at that time?
Alastair Bruce: “Imagine you’re asleep and at five ‘o clock you hear a rustling in the bedroom. And it is a kitchen maid coming in to make up the fire. So that when you decide finally to wake up, maybe an hour or so later, the warmth of the room is satisfactory. I’m sure we’d all like that. But that would be stage one. So, yes, that would be perfectly normal. A male servant would never go into the room where Lady Grantham was. And, of course, Lord and Lady Grantham sleep side by side. So a male would always knock on the door before going in. But a housemaid can go in at any time. And you probably notice that Lord Grantham leaves his bedroom and goes into his dressing room where, of course, it’s all male and no female would ever go in there. So there is a politeness about it. But, yes, staff went in and out.”
Q: Allen – could you talk us through your character’s relationship with Lady Mary now and what it’s like for your character to really take over that role as the younger head of the house, after Lord Grantham?
Allen Leech: “The relationship with Tom and Mary – they’re unified in their grief and they’re the only people who really know what the other person is going through. They’re both now widowed, they both have a young child and they form a great friendship from that because they help each other. I think Tom really tries to help her through this mire of grief and sorrow. In relation to his new job, there’s a huge amount of responsibility for him and the show, for Tom this year, you definitely get a sense of trying to find ownership in who he is and his place in that society. Although he has a job it doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s comfortable with his surroundings. And that’s definitely something that Tom tries to find – his place within this household.”
Q: Any plans for romance for Tom?
Allen Leech: “I think the relationship that he had with Sybil was pretty special. In fact he crossed the class divide as well. I think it’s going to take some time to match that.”
Q: (From me, as it happens) Julian has been quoted as saying this series has got a slightly more subtle pace to it. Can you talk us through and expand on that? And also perhaps tell us a little bit about some of the new incoming characters, something that we don’t know already?
Gareth Neame: “It’s by and large set in 1922 so it’s not spanning…some of the other seasons we spanned more years. But I think the energy and the rhythm of the show is exactly the same as it’s always been. Hopefully you’ve seen from the first episode. New characters coming in – we have some below stairs, we’ve seen some of that stuff happen in the first episode. More new servants come in. And also, of course, there are new family friends coming in above stairs, the house party that we were talking about that Dame Kiri’s in, the episode she’s in, a number of guests come there. And although, rather like Branson, Mary is not really open to moving on from Matthew at all, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t interest from other men in her. Even though she’s not really interested. She can’t see a life beyond Matthew. So it’s the usual dynamic where the core cast is the same, some have left and some new characters come in. It keeps the whole thing energised, as Allen was saying.”
Q: Highlights and challenges of filming series four?
Liz Trubridge: “With a show that’s been lucky enough to be this successful the challenge is always to keep the standards as high, and higher, if you possibly can. We always feel that responsibility very keenly and I think there’s no doubt we are getting bigger and bigger in terms of what we are…our ambition is growing. But the highlights…one of them is just sitting here. Every season we think, ‘Well this is the biggest thing we’ve done.’ And then the next one comes along. We’ve just done something which we never thought we could pull off in the way we have. Largely thanks to Alastair who helped us to this, which is going to come up later in the series. So it’s those things. It’s huge set pieces and characters and scenes – I think Allen would agree – with more people in them. Which, of course, takes longer to shoot and is more of a demand on the directors too.”
Q: Allen – do you miss your character’s chauffeur duties?
Allen Leech: “Well, being an estate manager I now have to travel around lots. So Branson has his own car. I prefer not having the worry of Maggie Smith sitting in the back as you’re hurtling towards the house and being told to stop on a very specific mark. The fact that it’s just me up front driving around, I’m quite happy with that. But weirdly enough, the Renault that I drove is an absolute dream compared to the Ford Motel T that I have at the minute. It’s pretty tricky.”
Q: After the dramatic death at the end of the last series, do you need to worry about upsetting people and how dramatic it is?
Gareth Neame: “Well, I’m conscious of about eight, 10, 12 million Christmas Days having been brought to a sudden and abrupt end. (laughter) But I think we’d be pretty shocked if there hadn’t been a lot of noise about that overnight. It was the whole circumstance. At least with the death of Sybil, you had a sense – the episode was about this very complicated delivery. So you had a sense that something might be happening. But, of course, we did a complete reverse trick to that in the last episode where we almost indulged ourselves in the highest modes of happiness that Mary and Matthew ever had and then, suddenly, after what was actually a relatively light episode with that holiday in Scotland, suddenly there’s the sting in the tail. I just think these moments are the stuff of this kind of drama. Although it is very romantic and it is hopefully laugh out loud funny at times and it’s got big, sweeping dramatic stories, it is about those big twists and turns and surprises. It’s almost like watching a horror movie that scares you and therefore it stimulates your senses. But you come back for more and you enjoy it. So as shocking as all of that was, those big life and death situations will happen to any family from time to time and in a drama, that’s what we go for.
“There were rumours about Dan’s departure from the show, so that had been talked about and we did our best to keep fudging what was going on. But I think the one thing we were really astonished by was that Sybil’s death was genuinely kept a secret. And I’m so sorry that we couldn’t share that episode with previewers who were all wondering why the episode apparently wasn’t finished. But we just knew that we couldn’t show that to anyone. And, of course, in this day and age where there are…once again we’re seeing one or two of these big watercooler – awful expression I know…we are seeing a return to must see in the moment drama. And so those kind of episodes are really things that we have to protect and cherish to keep…with the stakes as they are…to keep this a show that everyone has to watch.”
Q: Plot twists – there have been moments in the past that have been criticised as being slightly outlandish. I was thinking in particular of someone becoming paralysed and then actually not being paralysed at all and being able to walk afterwards. Have you felt the need to rein anything back in to make it still more realistic?
Gareth Neame: “Well, medically – you’d expect me to say this – that story is a convincing story. It was all looked into and researched. That an injury that is, in fact, severe bruising could be mis-diagnosed. I grant you, this show has got very heightened moments of drama. It has got big dramatic twists and turns. So I can see that some people would say that’s an outlandish moment. But I think it’s really in keeping with the spirit of the show. We have these big story dimensions, we have laugh out loud comedy sitting cheek by jowl within the same scene as grief and bereavement. So, for me, yes, there are more operatic moments than others. But I feel that they are all justified.
“We have never really set out to change the approach to the storytelling from what we did in the first season. Me and Liz and Julian work on these scripts and these story ideas and we haven’t at any point sat down and said we think we want to do this differently from what we’ve done before.”
Alastair Bruce: “Can I add something? In addition to the story. For instance today we’ve been filming and we’ve put as much care and thought into what the supporting actors are carrying in the background as we did on day one. And it’s that kind of almost ludicrous detail that matters to creating the sub-conscious satisfaction, I hope, that when carried on this journey into the past, to be entertained by the story, you feel that it’s legitimate. But that’s a challenge and something we really enjoy doing, and I love getting involved with.”