“IF I could stop history in its tracks maybe I would.
“But I can’t, Carson.
“Nor you nor I can hold back time.”
Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) in the opening episode of the sixth and final series of Downton Abbey, which begins early in 1925.
Setting the scene for what is to come.
I attended the London premiere of Downton Abbey 6.1 yesterday.
Followed by two press conferences and then the usual afternoon of embargoed round table interviews with the cast.
Executive producer Gareth Neame asked the media not to publish running commentaries of what happens in the first episode.
Which I am more than happy to comply with.
I typed out eight pages of A4 notes about the opening 90-minutes, so rich is it in things to admire, like and love.
With writer and creator Julian Fellowes, cast, crew and entire production at the very top of their games.
Including exquisite performances from the likes of Lesley Nicol (Mrs Patmore), Jim Carter (Mr Carson) and Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes), to pick just three from many.
The great Downton Abbey farewell begins on ITV on Sunday September 20 and on PBS in America in January 2016.
A total of nine episodes, concluding in the final 90-minutes screened in the UK on Christmas Day.
Where we will leave these much loved characters to live on, wherever fate has taken them.
But unseen by millions of fans around the globe.
Talk of a Downton Abbey film is just that at present.
With obvious hurdles to overcome in terms of a storyline and the inevitably ageing cast.
Although there is, perhaps, potential to explore what may happen later in life to Downton heir George Crawley.
It may well never happen.
So let us cherish this final season at what is truly the end of a television era.
I was there in September 2010 at the launch of the first series when nobody was really sure whether viewers would take Downton to their hearts.
And have been at every subsequent launch over the last five years as the production became a global phenomenon.
Including having the real honour of covering yesterday’s final event for ITV.
Downton Abbey has been one of the greatest popular TV dramas of my lifetime.
Thanks to the talent, skill and love invested in the production by the hundreds of people involved in bringing it to the screen.
Today (Friday) is the very last day of filming.
My instinct is that this final series may well be the best of all.
There is a huge amount to look forward to.
As Downton Abbey departs in the best way possible, leaving the audience wanting more.
And while it is certainly not all about saying goodbye, one thing is certain:
It’s going to be emotional.
Executive Producer Gareth Neame introduced the screening of the first episode.
“Here we are, everyone. This is the first screening in the world of the premiere episode of the last series.
“Julian and I took this project to ITV. Everyone always speculated that it was a BBC project that got turned down.
“But not one phone call was made to the BBC in respect of this project. It was always destined for ITV.
“We always saw it at Sunday night at nine o’clock in a very broad entertainment channel because that was all part of telling a new story and re-booting this much loved genre.
“It’s been part of a real golden age of drama at ITV and we’re thrilled about that.
“We’re also thrilled that this has been a truly British representative in this so-called golden age of drama around the world.
“Last night at 7pm we wrapped all of the servants. They shot their last scene.
“It’s an incredibly emotional, moving scene in the very last episode. It was very cleverly scheduled that they had that scene to do and then we clapped them all off the stage.
“I can tell you that quite a few tears were shed by grown men in the form of butlers and footmen that I never expected to see.
“I think the final season is very strong and I believe the fans of the show around the world will be happy and satisfied with what happens to our characters.”
My edited transcript of the second press conference is further down this blog.
Including Dame Maggie Smith’s thoughts on the end of the series.
A revelation about a game the cast played while waiting for the cameras to roll on those big set piece Downton dinner table scenes.
And a strong hint that Winston Churchill will be making a guest appearance.
While Hugh Bonneville put the sixth and farewell series in perspective, also revealing that the cast had known about the final curtain for some considerable time.
“Actually it’s an extension. We haven’t been cancelled. We’ve been extended,” he explained.
“We were all contracted to do five series and then Julian and Gareth and the creative team all got together and said, ‘We’d like to do one more.’
“So it’s been a lovely experience in that regard. It’s been a bonus. We’ve known for about 18 months.”
Julian Fellowes said the decision has been a joint one with his co-executive producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge.
“We jointly, we three all decided that the sixth series would be the last,” revealed Julian.
“We had actually thought of ending it at the end of five but then it just seemed a bit cramped and we thought we needed one series that really was essentially all about resolution of the whole thing.
“And that was a joint decision and then we told ITV, or Gareth did. And they were fine.
“With any show, you don’t want it to go on and start to fall away and start to dwindle. I think that’s completely standard.
“We wanted to try and be sure that we would go out when people were still sorry.
“It’s a general feeling that if we stop now, the audience will not be conscious of having had enough of it.
“But if we go on too long, they will start to feel, ‘We’ve had enough of this.’ That’s what we wanted to avoid.”
Gareth Neame added: “There’s been such integrity of the whole way that the show’s been looked after. And when we said to ITV and to PBS in the States that we think this is the end, there was total support.”
Liz Trubridge told how a sixth and final series had been decided upon.
“It became very clear that at the end of series four we weren’t going to be able to wrap up everything by the end of five.”
She also explained how some of the farewell had been seeded in the last series.
“We knew, obviously, some time ahead that we were bringing this to an end. And by some time I mean a year and more ahead. So it helped us plant these things very definitely through series five.”
On a possible film version, Gareth said:
“That remains to be seen. Were there ever to be a Downton movie, it strangely has to be just like the TV show and yet, at the same time, completely different. I think that would set a number of really interesting challenges and I think would be a whole other medium for the audience to enjoy. As I say, if and when it ever happens.”
Asked if he had any favourites among the characters he created, Julian replied:
“I think I’m in love with them all. But also it’s a joint thing. When a part is very well cast, the actor starts to bring qualities into the characterisation that you then start to write for. So it becomes completely collaborative.
“And I think that was true with all of them. Mrs Patmore wasn’t all that funny at the beginning. But when we realised how funny Lesley Nicol was then you start to write for that. And then she becomes the ‘Downstairs Violet’ in a way. So these things develop.”
Press Conference with Dame Maggie Smith (Dowager Countess, Violet), Joanne Froggatt (Anna) and Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham). Hosted by ITV News presenter Alastair Stewart.
Q: How difficult was it to take on board the fact that this is it. The final series?
Maggie Smith: “I’m just surprised that I got to the end because just before this, which is six years ago, I’d done about 10 years with Harry Potter. So I felt very old indeed by the time I got to the Dowager. I’m honestly just surprised that I got through it and I’m still here.”
Q: Joanne – were you almost relieved that at last it was over?
Joanne Froggatt: “No, not at all. Anna and Bates have certainly been on quite a rollercoaster ride of emotions. But I never imagined when we started…none of us imagined that we’d be here six years later talking about this huge success. And we’re all so grateful for that. But I also never imagined that Anna would go through so much. So as an actor, as well, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have such fantastic scenes to play and to have Brendan to play with and Phyllis and Michelle and all the guys that I work really closely with. I think we’re all glad that we’ve got Downton on our CV. Maggie doesn’t really need it.”
Maggie Smith: “I didn’t have much to do with this one.” (Laughter)
Q: Hugh – you were the cornerstone of this. Were you aware of being, as it were, the ringmaster to the family and to the piece?
Hugh Bonneville: “Well I think, as we all know, the house is actually run by the women. People like Robert are allowed to think that they run the place. But really it’s Cora and Mary and everybody else who are pulling the strings. The most central character of the show is actually the house and that’s what’s been the strength of the piece throughout. That we are visitors in that house – it’s the house that’s the big rock. That’s the real cornerstone of the piece and we’ve been very lucky to be there. Albeit freezing cold in February but then lovely barbecues in the summer.”
Q: The historical aspect of the series?
Hugh Bonneville: “It’s delicious when historical characters either pop in or are referred to. We have minister of the government coming in to this series who audiences will recognise when he does appear. He has a significant part to play in the future of the country. Of course this is a complete romantic fictional world. But it’s lovely when little dots of reality creep in. If it sends someone to look at a history book, fantastic.”
Q: Violet’s magnificent one-liners?
Maggie Smith: “That’s Julian. In Gosford Park, which was before this, I had a few of those put downs and I think he bore that in mind. They’re wonderful put downs. But, believe me, they are all Julian’s. I get accused of making things up myself and I absolutely don’t. They are all his.”
Q: Do you seek them out when you get the script for the next episode?
Maggie Smith: “We’re usually scrambling to keep up with what’s there. And because it’s out of sequence, a lot of the shooting, that’s pretty alarming. It’s very hard to keep up. Well, I find it hard. It is incredibly hard to go from one to five to four to six, in the episodes. So thank God they are written with clarity otherwise you would never be able to keep up. And they are written with clarity and they are in shortish bits.”
Q: A very close community of actors?
Joanne Froggatt: “Absolutely. We are a true ensemble. Downton is a show that, as characters, we’re all either supporting a scene or leading a scene. We all have our share in both of those roles equally. And that’s what makes it so nice.”
Q: Hugh – what aspect will you miss most?
Hugh Bonneville: “The ensemble. By that I don’t just mean the actors. I mean the crew as well. We’re the visible tip of the iceberg. And, of course, as anyone who works in television knows, there is a vast army beneath the surface who aren’t seen. They work tirelessly. They work far harder than any of us actors do. But we’re the ones who are here talking to you. But on behalf of literally hundreds of people who work on the show. Luckily there is a lot of very high standards out there in the British film and TV industry so, hopefully, we will all bump into it again. But I haven’t worked on a project that has had every department working to such a high level of its game, consistently for over six years. So that’s what I’ll miss. The absolute attention to detail. They are a remarkable bunch of people and all credit to them. I will miss them.”
Q: Were your last scenes emotional?
Joanne Froggatt: “Yes it was. It was quite a lot of our last days for downstairs characters yesterday. I finished at lunchtime. That was my final scene. So I got away quite lightly. So I just had my own tears. But I think it just developed into everybody in tears by the end of the day. I think I would have been in absolute pieces if I’d been there for that very last moment. It was a wonderful final day, actually. It was all of the things you’d hope it would be. It was happy, sad. It felt like a good time to finish this and we were all doing it together. But it’s the people that we’ll miss.”
Q: Maggie – was it slightly closer to being a theatre company?
Maggie Smith: “Well yes, it was. But Hugh is quite right. It was extraordinary and incredibly reassuring to see these people day after day and know that they were the first people there and they were the last people to go. You’ve no idea how incredibly exhausting that must be. I do not know how it’s done, quite honestly. And there they are, all of them, and always in a very good mood, which I can’t say for myself. They were wonderful. And I would go and feel really ashamed that I was all gritty because it was a very early call.”
Q: Do we know what you will be doing next?
Maggie Smith: “I’m going to be lying down. I believe for quite some time. The other thing I will be doing is watching it. I will get the box set and have a good look. I certainly haven’t watched anything that I’ve done. I have seen some of it. But I want to sit down and look at it all.”
Joanne Froggatt: “I start a new job on Monday…”
Maggie Smith: “Mad girl.” (laughter)
Joanne Froggatt: “…I won’t be lying down. I’m doing a two-part drama for ITV called Dark Angel. It’s a true story about a woman called Mary Ann Cotton, who was the first female serial killer in the Victorian era. So I go from lovely Anna Bates to a poisoner.”
Hugh Bonneville: “I’m rapidly trying to grow a beard because I’m reprising a cameo I did in a mad show for ABC called Galavant, which is a medieval musical and I play the Pirate King. So I’ve got a month to grow a beard. Then I shave it off the next day and I play Lord Mountbatten in a film about the partition of India.”
Questions were then thrown open to the assembled media with Jim Carter (Mr Carson) and Rob James-Collier (Thomas) in charge of the roving microphones:
Q: Maggie – would you like to see a Downton Abbey film and would you want to be involved?
Maggie Smith: “Yes. My wig has been around for a long time. I’m not sure if the wig will be around. But, hopefully, I will be. But I think the wig is slightly more tired than I am. But, no, it would be fun.”
Q: Have you taken any mementos home?
Maggie Smith: “We wouldn’t dare. We absolutely wouldn’t dare.”
Hugh Bonneville: “I wanted to liberate one of the mustard pots from the dining room. Because that’s where we kept the wink murder paper…”
Maggie Smith: “Yes, that was our game.”
Hugh Bonneville: “But I thought that would be a bit rotten on the props department. But I did liberate one of the letters that we read. The audience never knows this but they’re beautifully written and they’re always appropriate to the scene we’re in. They don’t just say ‘blah, blah, blah’ on them. They are actually to do with coming to build a new house on the estate or something like that. They’re gorgeously researched and beautifully written. So I’ve liberated that and put it in my scrap book.”
Joanne Froggatt: “Well, strangely, there’s not a great deal of Anna’s wardrobe or props I really wanted to take home. It’s either a tray or a dress, was my choice. So I decided to leave it all where it was.”
Q: Maggie – do you share anything in common with your character?
Maggie Smith: “Me? Oh yes. I’m like that all the time. (laughter) Every single moment. I never let up. Everything I say is brilliant just like Julian.”
Q: Maggie – has being busy contributed to good health for you?
“I think that’s debatable. This is why I want to lie down. It’s very good. Because moan one might but I think it would be very alarming to be completely on your own and have nothing to do. Except lie down.”
Q: Favourite lines?
Hugh Bonneville: “I’m going upstairs to take off my hat.”
Joanne Froggatt: “What IS a weekend? That’s become the line of the whole six series. Everyone just knows that line.”
Maggie Smith: “And I have no idea, really why. I was totally unaware of it when it came, in truth. And I think that’s true of everyone. Probably not Julian, though.”
Q: Did Downton Abbey prompt you to investigate any particular piece of history?
Maggie Smith: “I feel as though I’ve lived through most of it. (laughter) What I always find really hard is the Great War. I find that one of the most difficult periods to go near. I have done it in a kind of jolly way in Oh! What A Lovely War. I remember my mother saying she would never, ever watch it because she had lost so much during it. So that period has always been very unnerving. It’s when we know what’s ahead, too, that you find it really heartbreaking. So it has a lot of effect.”
Joanne Froggatt: “For me, starting out the first series it was very much getting my head around what it meant to be a woman at that time and what it meant to be a working class woman at that time. The lack of choice and the lack of opportunity that I take for granted living in a free society. That’s stuck with me throughout the whole series. And seeing those slight progressions for women over these six series as we’ve spanned over this time.”
Hugh Bonneville: “I think exactly that, chiming in with both those comments. When you hear people today saying, ‘My vote doesn’t count.’ And you think people have thrown themselves in front of horses to get the vote. Use your vote. And also, again, the First World War, particularly. I had not, in my schoolboy history, really taken on board the impact of the Spanish Flu. So it’s things like that. You wake yourself up a bit and go, ‘My goodness.’ The impact of that was catastrophic.”
Q: Were the cast shocked when they found out this was going to be the last series?
Hugh Bonneville: “Well no. Actually it’s an extension. We haven’t been cancelled. We’ve been extended. We were all contracted to do five series and then Julian and Gareth and the creative team all got together and said, ‘We’d like to do one more.’ So it’s been a lovely experience in that regard. It’s been a bonus. We’ve known for about 18 months.”
Peter Fincham, ITV’s Director of Television, also spoke before the screening.
He began by recalling that first press launch in Knightsbridge.
“There were about 50, 60 people there. And all of us who were there, I guess, had no idea what Downton Abbey was going to go on and become.
“The question I’m asked most often about it, is, ‘Did you know all along it would be an enormous success?’
“And the answer, of course, is no. You never do know.
“We loved it from the beginning. We loved the script. We heard that filming was going very well. We thought it was wonderfully cast.
“I can remember particular moments during the development of it. Discussions that now seem almost comical.
‘We talked about the word ‘Abbey’. Would people think that it had nuns in it or monks or something, that it was a religious series?
“But we sort of satisfied ourselves that they wouldn’t. We did a bit of marketing about it.
“I can remember talking about where Downton Abbey was. And because it was a big, posh house, I was mildly in favour that it wasn’t in the south. Could it be in the north?
“And Julian very graciously said, ‘Yes it can. They will go shopping in Ripon. You will have that.’
“I can remember being a bit worried about the entail. And saying, ‘The only thing is, Julian, I’ve had to look it up in the dictionary to find out what entail means.’ He said, ‘Peter, I will make the word entail clear to a mainstream audience.’ And he did.
“So we had lots of those discussions. They are all the things that you have when you’re nervously hoping that the world will like something.
“We weren’t sure whether we should do a 90 minute opening episode. Would it try people’s patience? But we did. And it didn’t.
“If I was in the business of teaching television drama and I wanted to say to people, ‘What the best first episode in terms of exposition, introduction of characters, you’ve ever seen?’ For me it would be the very first episode of Downton Abbey.
“One test you might put to a television drama in its first episode is, ‘Will I come back next week? I am interested to see these characters again?’
“Normally when you say that, you might mean two characters. A cop and the cop’s sidekick.
“But I swear that after the first episode of Downton Abbey you would come back and follow 10 or 12 characters the very next week. And that’s an extraordinary achievement. And absolutely Julian’s achievement.
“Of course, Downton Abbey has an image as a posh series about posh people. But I think one of its great achievements is its extraordinary even-handedness between upstairs and downstairs. The lives of the characters downstairs are as richly drawn.
“Now that we do get towards the end of it – I don’t know whether Julian would agree with this – I wonder if you tried to tot up the sum of human happiness for all the characters in Downton Abbey, those that have had their dreams fulfilled or frustrated or had disappointments or tragedy and so on, I would argue that it’s a truly democratic series because the sum of human happiness is as great downstairs as it is upstairs.
“So we are getting to the end of Downton Abbey. This is a bittersweet day in a way. We absolutely respect Julian and Gareth’s feeling that this is the right time to bring it to an end, to leave the audience wanting more.
“Of course it’s been a fantastic thing for ITV and around the world. We all know it plays in 250 territories around the world. It’s fair to say that all the discussions we had, the idea of its international appeal was never mentioned once.
“Nobody ever said, ‘I think this will play well in Botswana.’ All we had an eye on was to create a series that would work on Sunday nights for the ITV audience.
“I do remember a moment in the pre-production when my colleague Laura Mackie trotted in to my office and said, ‘We’ve got Highclere Castle.’
“And I remember thinking, ‘So what?’ Because I’d never heard of Highclere Castle. One country home looks pretty much the same as another. How wrong I was. Of course Highclere Castle has been an enormous and fantastic character as well.
“So we’re very grateful for Downton Abbey. It has been a landmark. A wonderful series on ITV. It’s one of those things where it all went right and that’s a fantastic thing.
“We’re very excited about this last series.”
The final word goes to Julian Fellowes, who told us:
“I think you always leave slightly open-ended stories because life is a slightly open-ended story until you die. And you can’t kill the entire cast. We haven’t completely plugged everything. But we’ve shown what the next chunk of everyone’s life would be. I think that’s right. I think it’s satisfactory. I hope it is.”
I asked Julian to describe his emotions now that Downton Abbey was drawing to a close:
“The characters have been so real to me for six years. So I do think you have a little sadness. You do feel rather sorry to say goodbye to these people because I’ve enjoyed the creation. I’m sorry to see them go. I’m very unlikely to be involved in anything that is as successful again and so, of course, I say goodbye to these golden years with a slight pang. But it seems the right time to go while we’re still firing.”
Downton Abbey was honoured with a special BAFTA this week in recognition of its contribution to television both in the UK and around the world.
I was, again, honoured to be asked to write for the BAFTA brochure given to guests at the very special event, attended by Julian Fellowes and many cast members past and present, including Maggie Smith and Dan Stevens (Matthew).
You can read the brochure by clicking on the link below:
The evening, hosted by Jonathan Ross, was recorded for broadcast on ITV later this year.