For decades, PBS' "Masterpiece" delivered high-quality dramas to modest-sized audiences. Then "Downton Abbey" found just the right mixture of classy characters and soap-opera twists. The result has drawn big audiences, lots of awards ... and high interest in the fourth season, which starts Sunday (Jan. 5). Here's the story I sent to papers:
By MIKE HUGHES
As he began molding “Downton Abbey,” writer Julian Fellows
sent a note that was prophetic.
The first sentence, producer Gareth Neame recalls, described
a stately home in a beautiful park, then added: “It looks as though it will
stand for a thousand years. It won’t.”
The building might last, but the lives inside would keep
changing – sometimes quickly and profoundly. That’s partly by plan and partly
because actors leave … setting up crises for Sunday’s season-opener.
The first three seasons had taken Matthew and Mary (Dan
Stevens and Michelle Dockery) from strangers to marriage and a newborn son.
Then Stevens was leaving to do movies; as the season ended, Matthew was killed
in a car accident.
“I thought, ‘Where can the story go now?’” Dockery recalled.
“We’d spent all this time having this on/off, will they/won’t they
relationship. And then, suddenly, it was coming to an end.”
Others were stunned by the script that ended with the death.
“It was quite shocking to read that,” said Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, the
young cook. Worse, they had to keep it a secret –- then see the shock of
friends and family who saw the episode on Christmas Day, 2012, in England.
Still, that death seems to typify two things:
For all of its elegance, this ratings hit is
full of soap-opera twists. There have been sudden deaths for Mary’s husband …
and her sister Sybil … and her one-night lover … and Matthew’s fiancé … and
Daisy’s brief husband … and John Bates’ estranged wife. There have been schemes,
accusations – everything except a rape (which happens this season).
Beyond those soapy touches, change was inevitable
in this place and this era. So far, the show has gone from 1912 to 1922 – a
time when British lives and estates were transforming.
Downton had started to change when Matthew took over. He
believed in modernizing and got support from Mary and from Sybil’s widower Tom.
Now his death leaves the estate in limbo, with Mary being little help. “She’s
kind of slowly, throughout the season, coming back to life,” Dockery said.
That gives the new season fresh material, Neame said. “There
is Matthew’s death to get over and this whole change of direction for Mary. And
(we see) all of these characters coming into this modern age.”
Downstairs, Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes (Jim Carter and
Phyllis Logan) run the staff with even-handed honesty. “We do have a mutual
respect,” Logan said of the characters.
Their workers keep being juggled. O’Brien. Molesley is
jobless, Daisy keeps trying.
“She was wide-eyed and a little naïve” at first, McShera
said; she thrived at work (becoming a cook), floundered at romance. McShera has
only a few things in common with her: Both are small and from Northern England;
also, “I’m as delusional as she is.”
And upstairs, there are big changes ahead for Edith, Mary’s hard-luck
sister. She’s dating the editor of a newspaper she writes for. “I like to think
of her as the Carrie Bradshaw of the ‘20s,” said Laura Carmichael, who plays
No, we don’t often hear “Downton” characters compared to
ones from “Sex and the City.” Still, the shows have things in common – Sunday slots,
short seasons and a big fuss when they return.
“Downton Abbey,” 9 p.m. Sundays on PBS' "Masterpiece" (check
Two-hour season-opener is Jan. 5