THE opening titles and theme music remain reassuringly unchanged.
Unlike the world around Downton Abbey.
It’s 1924 with a Labour government in Britain for the first time in history.
Lord Granthan (Hugh Bonneville) is convinced this threatens the Downton way of life as never before with that modern world continuing to encroach on the family.
I attended the London launch today of Downton Abbey series five – eight episodes plus a Christmas special, all written by Julian Fellowes.
Due on screen in the UK next month and in the USA in January.
We were shown the opening 90-minute ITV episode plus a teaser trail from episode two.
Followed by a 30 minute press conference, which I can report. My edited transcript is further down the page.
Although subsequent interviews with a total of 17 cast members over a number of hours are subject to an embargo.
Episode one includes Lady Edith’s (Laura Carmichael) maternal torment. So close and yet so far from her secret daughter Marigold.
Having handed the child into the care of Downton farmer Tim Drewe (Andrew Scarborough) and his wife.
With still no news of Marigold’s father – newspaper editor lover Michael Gregson, who is assumed to be dead.
Robert and Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) are about to celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary.
While Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) is embracing life once again and, perhaps, Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen).
Along with lines like: “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat.”
Downstairs Daisy (Sophie McShera) announces: “I want to be grown up.”
Keen to better herself, she sends off for some mathematics books.
Other things in the house that didn’t add up become clearer as lady’s maid Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) makes a decision about that “secret” of hers.
Before Edith’s anguish leads to a fire at Downton with smoke and flames engulfing her bedroom.
As ever, Violet’s (Maggie Smith) one-liners sparked the most laughs at the press screening.
Julian also up to mischief with the return of Dame Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton and Isobel’s (Penelope Wilton) prospective love life.
Other delights include Molesley’s (Kevin Doyle) efforts to catch Baxter’s eye.
Jeremy Swift doing his usual superb turn as Violet’s butler Spratt.
And Anna Chancellor as Lady Anstruther, former employer of Jimmy (Ed Speleers) – a woman who won’t take no for an answer.
Did John Bates (Brendan Coyle) kill Green, the visiting valet who raped his wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt)?
After the first episode we’re still none the wiser.
But I have a feeling we’re going to find out before series five is done.
The 17 cast members who took part in the series of embargoed round table interviews were (in alphabetical order): Hugh Bonneville; Laura Carmichael; Jim Carter; Raquel Cassidy; Brendan Coyle; Michelle Dockery; Kevin Doyle; Joanne Froggatt; Lily James; Rob James-Collier; Allen Leech; Daisy Lewis; Phyllis Logan; Elizabeth McGovern; Sophie McShera; Lesley Nicol and Penelope Wilton.
Introducing the screening, Steve November, ITV Director of Drama, said:
“There are some wonderful, surprising stories in this series and some really spectacular set pieces, I think. Probably some of the best we’ve seen.”
My edited transcript of some of the highlights of the Q&A with Executive Producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge, Joanne Froggatt (Anna) and Allen Leech (Tom Branson):
Gareth Neame: “The show right from the beginning has been about the dying of the light. It’s the end of this era. We started in 1912 because it was really the apogee of the aristocracy, the country house, everything about the world at the height of its powers. And slowly we’ve seen that decline, largely as a result of the First World War. So it was inevitable that we would use the first ever socialist government. Because, of course, those who are above stairs see it as a direct threat to their way of life. The characters below stairs see it as an opportunity for huge change. And a character like Tom Branson, as ever, is caught in a no-man’s world between his own political views and the life that he’s adopted.
‘Our approach is to show that these characters are more like us than they are different to us. We as human beings are motivated by showbusiness, celebrity, politics, culture, we’re befuddled by technology. The experiences that these characters go through are very similar to the experiences we go through. So showing real events and having characters comment on politicians who are long since forgotten shows that they’re very like us.”
Liz Trubridge: “We’re very lucky. We have lots of actors who say, ‘I’d love to be in Downton.’ And they’re great actors that we’d love to work with. But we won’t be led by that. It’s got to come out, it’s got to be organic in the story. We have a very well established world and we have rules and regulations within that.”
Allen Leech: “It’s a very exciting time for Branson in the fact that you constantly see the blurring of these lines between the classes and the fact the first socialist government comes into power. He has an opportunity to see change from the inside out. It’s definitely the challenge for Branson this year, the fact he has to decide not only where he sits within these class systems but what kind of man he wants to be and what kind of father he wants to be for his daughter.
“I think he’s such a changed man through his circumstance, it would be impossible for him to go back to the man he was. I think he’s not as naive as he was when he first arrived. He’s completely changed his outlook. He’s still very strongly politically minded – but he was a bit of a firebrand and very strong in his views. He’s more educated now than he ever was before.”
Q: (From me, as it happens): We saw a glimpse of Richard E. Grant as Simon Bricker in the trail at the end of episode one. Can you talk a little bit about his character and some of the other new faces we’ll see throughout the series?
Liz Trubridge: “Simon Bricker plays an art historian. We know that Downton Abbey has some rather beautiful paintings in it. So he’s introduced through a character and he stays with us for a few episodes. There are several guest cast this year and, particularly as the series has progressed, there have been more. I can’t say too much about any of them without giving the storylines away. We are very lucky on this show. We can attract incredible actors to come and play guest roles, which you would think that in many shows they wouldn’t look at. And Julian’s writing is such – I think this is part of the reason we attract them – that he has a great skill in economy of writing. That he writes very satisfying stories in a very short space of time. So you can have three cracking scenes that means that we get the pick of casting.”
Q: How many series can you go on for?
Gareth Neame: “We think season five is a really fantastic season. We’re very focused on this. We hope to be back again next year. We think one year to the next and we’ll see. I think we have to make that judgement. That’s all of us. It’s the producers, it’s the cast, everyone. We’re all in this thing together. The strange effect that this show has..it’s a show about a family, a soap if you will, that this community of characters…the more that you get to know them, the more of a journey that you go on with these characters and all the others, somehow I find myself more compelled by them. I don’t find myself getting bored or feeling that their stories are told. The more I’m feeling that I’m living my life with those characters, the more compelling I find them.”
Q: Is there going to be anything shocking this year, like the series four rape?
Gareth Neame: “Each season there’s, hopefully, one of those right angle moments that you don’t really expect to happen. It’s an effective part of the storytelling. So I hope you’ll think so.”
Q: Are you recognised on the streets of America?
Joanne Froggatt: “None of us would have dared expect the success of Downton as it’s become. When we’re in America we’re often doing press trips and stuff and there’s often a group of us. So as a group we’re quite conspicuous. I remember one night we went to see Dan Stevens’ show on Broadway and I think we caused more of an attraction than the show did that night because we couldn’t leave our seats for people stopping us. It was lovely. Again very positive.”
Q: Is this series happier than the last?
Liz Trubridge: “There is in all our series a good mix of high drama and laughs. And there is certainly that mix this time. Of course the last series was straight after Matthew’s death. We couldn’t go in with great fun from that. But we do not have that this year and there is, you will be happy to hear I’m sure, great rivalry again between Mary and Edith.”
Q: Shooting the Downton fire scene?
Liz Trubridge: “The house, because of the very nature of a stately home, you can’t have smoke because it causes damage. And although they did say we could have smoke on their gallery, by the very nature of it being a gallery it’s open and you can’t contain it. So actually our designer re-built the galleries on the stages at Ealing. So we did some of the sequences at Highclere and we built a room which we could burn at Ealing – Edith’s bedroom. And so it was a mixture of both with obvious VFX. So we had special effects, visual effects and we built up during the day to…because we had gas bars everywhere…so that we got worse and worse and worse. And then the cameramen at the very end, they got themselves in complete waterproof gear and were hosed down.”
Q: Joanne – would you like to see Anna happy and settled down with a baby?
Joanne Froggatt: “I don’t think Anna thinks for a moment that Bates is a serial killer. What I’d like to see for Anna and Bates as a viewer is probably different as what I’d like to see as an actress. Because as an actor you like to play the drama. But it’s also important to have the fun times and the nice times and the happy times inbetween as well to earn those moments. So I’d like to see a mixture of the two. And I think that’s what they get in season five. They’re trying to move forward and there are certainly moments of happiness and positivity for them. But obviously that’s not going to be an easy journey.”