Austerity, Irish republicanism and a formidable arrival from the United States in the form of Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine will provide the latest challenge to the aristocratic Crawley family, when Downton Abbey returns to screens.
Following the ITV drama’s success on US television, Hollywood star MacLaine joins the cast as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora’s mother, who clashes with Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess, and imports a New York-cultivated impatience with Downton’s fusty traditions.
The Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, faces financial ruin in the third series, which opens in 1920. Julian Fellowes, creator of the ITV drama, said: “The world is changing after the Great War. The Downton family have to work out if they’ve got a future of if they’re going to the wall, because plenty of those families did.”
The suffragette movement begins to inspire rebellion among the female household members and the Irish question looms large. Fellowes said: “We have a character who is very committed to Irish freedom. Unusually, I was always brought up very firmly on the Home Rule and freedom side by a fierce great Aunt so it’s very nice to exploit that a bit.”
MacLaine’s arrival caused a stir on set. Brian Percival, director, admitted: “I was terrified beforehand, she’s a living legend but she was so warm-hearted and witty.”
MacLaine, 78, was taken aback by Downton’s brisk shooting schedule. Liz Trubridge, producer, said: “She struggled at first with the rhythm (of the dialogue) but she worked really hard in the evenings to get it.”
The Oscar-winner was even more confounded by the costumes. MacLaine said: “The first day they were putting my costume on, the buttons were so small and located somewhere that I couldn’t even reach. The corsets were so demanding. Did they make a class system out of the necessities of a wardrobe or the other way around?”
MacLaine said she had not been a fan of the show but was persuaded to sign up when her hairdresser, who was, told her all about the character she would be playing.
Fellowes said he had been seeking a star name to lock horns with Maggie Smith on screen: “The Countess thinks things were better in the past and everything is falling to bits. Martha thinks everything changing is great and that the future will be terrific.” The new series is due to being next month.
With 16 US Emmy nominations, Downton is now Britain’s biggest drama export, its producers, Carnival Films, claimed. Cast members are signed up for a further two series at least, with Fellowes promising that the Roaring Twenties and the “madcap Charleston era” was still to come.
However there are concerns that Dame Maggie Smith’s disdainful Dowager may be written out as the actress has not yet signed a contract for future series.
Gareth Neame, producer, said Downton had become an international success because it embraced the pacey storytelling and multiple plot lines of contemporary US dramas, like The West Wing.
He accepted that the story-telling had been “too fast-paced for some” during the second series, which had been criticised for lacking the focus on characterisation of the first.
The producers admitted that Britain’s miserable weather this year had disrupted shooting, with several key scenes having to wait until the sun emerged to give the series the “chocolate box glow”, which has helped its export prospects.