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Heirs and graces: We talk to the cast of Downton Abbey

As Downton Abbey's final series hits our screens, we talk to the stars about their characters, their co-stars and what they plan to do next. By Una Brankin

Published 12/09/2015

The cast of Downton Abbey
The cast of Downton Abbey
Jim Carter and Phyllis Hughes
Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery
Penelope Wilton
Maggie Smith

There wasn't a dry eye in the house during the filming of the final scenes of Downton Abbey. "Blubbing like lunatics, most of them," says the charismatic Jim Carter, who plays the butler, Mr Carson. "I'll miss it too - at home on a Sunday night, my wife (actress Imelda Staunton) and I would curl up to watch it like everybody else. There will be tears."

In contrast, the journalists gathered for the recent preview of the first episode of the new series were frequently in fits of laughter.

Writer Julian Fellowes has ramped up the comedy element - upstairs and down - for the last series, which opens in 1925 with a fox hunt. And there's a feel-good celebration which sees Lord Crawley bringing Champagne down to the servants' quarters and raiding Mrs Patmore's new-fangled fridge for a midnight feast.

But there's also plenty of dramatic tension, including some nasty blackmailing of Lady Mary. In a scene inspired by a Punch cartoon Fellowes once read and never forgot, a lowly witness to Mary's hotel dalliance in series five declares: "You're on the way down and we're on the way up." With a new Labour government in power and the Crawleys having to consider down-sizing their staff, that pointed vignette sets the mood and theme for the final instalments of the Big House saga. Change is in the air - and no character is safe.

"I love them all," declared Fellowes at the post-screening press conference, where he asked journalists to speak up as he's "deaf as a post". "I've a slight pang saying 'goodbye', but I was concerned that it would go on too long. We were going to finish it at the end of series five but as we got nearer there was too much story that needed to be tied up."

So, what's in store for the Crawleys and their faithful servants? At the preview in London's Mayfair Hotel we met some of the cast to find out.

They all look quite different in their civvies - Joanne Froggat (Anna Bates, Lady Mary's maid) is much prettier with a bit of make-up on her unusual, wide-set eyes and her hair flowing in loose waves. Extremely slight, she looked fresh as a daisy in a sheer white sleeveless dress, which showed off her lightly tanned arms.

Her character, Anna, isn't in a good place at the beginning of series six. With a murder charge hanging over her, she has just had another miscarriage and is beginning to think she's unable to have children.

"She's hugely upset and depressed and feels she's not doing her job as woman," says the former Coronation Street actress (she played teenage mum, Zoe 1996-98).

"I think this is the point where she starts to lose faith in herself. She's really hard on herself about it; Lady Mary notices and is desperate to help, and tries to get Anna to open up about it."

Lady Mary and Anna have an interesting dynamic and some great storylines over the years - who can forget Anna's embarrassment at buying contraceptives for her boss at the village chemists?

Joanne says: "They do genuinely care for each other - Anna even says to Lady Mary, 'No-one's been kinder to me to me than you have, except Mr Bates'. She's had all these trials and tribulations but she still has that essence of having a very good heart and being a very caring person."

She imagines Anna and Bates having their own guest-house in the future - "call it the Bates motel," she jokes. Her next role will be as one of the first female serial killers, Mary Ann Cotton, in Dark Angel, a two-part drama for ITV.

She says: "I've loved playing Anna but I probably won't be rushing to play a maid again. I did get little pang of being really sad when the announcement came that the series was ending. There will definitely be tears when we finally wrap. I'll probably blub."

Joanne (35) had very few scenes in Downton with the legendary Dame Maggie Smith, as the dowager countess Violet, but the two actresses appear friendly off-set. Between takes, Maggie (80) played scrabble with the fine-featured Samantha Bond, who plays her daughter, Lady Rosamund.

"I worked with Maggie 20 years ago - she can be formidable but I nearly fell off the chair at times, laughing at some of her one-liners in Downton," says the svelte Samantha, who returns to the Home Fires drama series shortly. "She's hilarious but she gets cross because I'm better at scrabble than her."

Dame Maggie was greeted like the Queen Mother at the preview and appeared to enjoy the attention, smiling sweetly and drawing in her shoulders coquettishly.

Dressed smartly in marl tweed jacket and well-cut black trousers, she's looks taller and younger than the imperious Violet, and wears her hair in thick ash-blonde bob.

As Violet, the veteran actress gets all the best lines.

"Oh, I'm like that all the time - I never let up," she jokes. "That's all Julian; I didn't ad-lib at all. He had all that mined from Gosford Park and he writes wonderful short scenes with clarity."

Claiming she "wouldn't dare" pinch anything from the set as a keepsake, she has asked for DVDs to watch the series the whole way through.

"I'm just surprised I got through it to the end and I'm still here," she quips, sounding just like Violet. "I've lived through some of that history. I'm going to lie down for quite some time and have a good look at the box set and do nothing."

Hugh Bonneville chooses a line from the first episode of the new series as one of his favourite dowager put-downs: "Doesn't it ever get cold up there on the moral high ground," she enquires of her verbal sparring partner, Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton).

Sporting a five o'clock shadow that will become a beard for his next role as Lord Mountbatten, Hugh is tall and tanned, and trim in navy suit and open shirt - a better looking Paul Burrell.

"The house is run by women, not the men," he says of the famous Abbey. "They only think they do; it's the women pulling the strings. And the battle to save the modest Downton hospital from modernising forces provides an entertaining battle ground for Violet, Isobel and Cora, Lady Crawley."

"Robert's role in all this? "He sits firmly on the fence. He's absolutely stuck in the middle between his progressive wife and his ultra conservative mother. As always."

Hugh's accent is more BBC English than upper-crust. He's more low-key than some of his more garrulous male co-stars - Robert James Collier (Thomas, the gay valet) has a slightly irritating cheeky-chappie persona in real life, and Jim Carter booms entertainingly in a loud baritone, announcing, at one point, that when the hounds saw the fox in the opening sequence of series six, they "went off in the other direction".

But Hugh brightens when recalling the filming in Hampshire of the garden party sequence at the end of the first series, when the First World War was announced.

"It was the time of the ash cloud and there were no planes in the skies for ten days, and Maggie and I were standing out on the lawn with this beautiful, clear blue sky, in these costumes, and there were no vapour trails, not the echo of a plane anywhere. I remember her saying 'This is what it must have been like', and suddenly I was transported back a century, and she was right."

Like Elizabeth McGovern, who plays his on-screen wife, Robert has some Irish blood, with a grandfather hailing from Howth, Co Dublin. Elizabeth (54) has some Scottish lineage, too, but declines to elaborate.

I tell her I'd recognise her immediately from her role in Once Upon A Time In America, opposite Robert de Niro, when she was only 23. "Oh thank you - I saw Robert two weeks ago," she drawls, adding that she's playing Cora at 57 in the final series of Downton. The dollar princess will be flexing her muscles and trying to take more control over the house and the estate as the series proceeds.

"She's instrumental in ensuring that Mrs Hughes (the housekeeper) has exactly the wedding reception she wants, rather than allowing her to be bullied by the men," says the raven-haired actress. "It's becoming more and more important to Cora to put her foot down when she feels strongly about something. She's much more inclined to interfere and make sure people do the right thing these days."

From Illinois, Elizabeth has promoted Downton back home in the States and has seen a revival in her career.

"I feel it's the right decision to end it now but it will be sad. I think I was in one of the very first scenes ever shot, Maggie Smith and I, so it's especially poignant."

The wedding of butler Carson and housekeeper Mrs Hughes promised to be one of the highlights of the final season of Downton.

"The truth is, they can't stand each other," jokes Jim Carter, who plays Carson, wagging his abundant eyebrows. "The secret to a happy marriage, like mine, is never seeing each other. My wife Imelda's so busy in Gypsy (the current West End hit), we're like ships in the night."

Phyllis Hughes (59) wears a wig to plays Mrs Hughes; her real-life natural fringe and layers make her look younger and softer in real life.

"Because of the wig, I don't get recognised so much," she says in a warm Scottish burr. "But I did get mobbed with the others when we went to New York and Los Angeles for publicity. Some would say that's a down-side - but it was amazing."

Feminine in a white lace blouse, chandelier earrings and a huge amethyst ring, the former Heartbeat and a Touch of Frost actress admits she didn't like going make-up free for her role as the sensible Elsie Hughes, and she's looking forward to getting dressed up for the housekeeper's wedding day - "if there is one," she adds cryptically. "As the story goes, she was just going to wear some old brown day dress that she had knocking about in the cupboard but as it transpires, helps comes to the rescue in the shape of Her Ladyship and Lady Mary.

"Mr Carson wants the wedding a certain way, of course; more traditional, and how the family would have it. Mrs Hughes wants something more informal. But she sticks to her guns. It's good to see her asserting herself."

Phyllis admits to her plan to take a memento from the set. "I might just steal my keys or something. Don't tell anybody!"

Downton Abbey has made Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) a major star, who is very much in demand for voice-overs in America. Although very well spoken, 33 year-old Michelle's voice isn't as clipped as snooty Mary's - it's more Essex, where she grew up, with no trace of her father's Irish heritage. Willowy and fair-skinned, she has wavy shoulder-length hair and a much more animated face than her character's, which swings from cheery to teary when she speaks of her close friend and screen sister Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith).

"We had never met before and now we're friends for life. Laura and I have in some ways, I feel, um, I mean, some of the strongest moments have been with Laura," she says hesitantly, her dark eyes welling up slightly. "Oh, excuse me; I get a bit emotional. "We've been together much of the time.. we have grown up together. We go to pubs a lot and we'd pop round to each other's in North London all the time to watch Mad Men."

Mad Men's actresses were instructed by the director not to go to the gym while filming, as he wanted them to look as authentic as possible as women of 1950 and 1960s - and that meant no overly toned limbs on display. Downton's directors went one further in their requirements, frowning on sun tans as real ladies did not go out in the sun in those days.

"We're not gym bunnies any way but I love that excuse," chips in Laura (26), who's curvaceous and prettier than her character Edith - but just as posh, by the sounds of her. "Edith and Mary didn't get much sun but Michelle and I are going on holiday together soon; I can't wait."

"Actually, I get to wear sunglasses for the first time in this series," adds Michelle, who's dressed in a simple cream top, black tuxedo trousers and strappy heels.

"Mary is really on trend and her clothes are beautiful as always. The designs could be worn today - the clutch bags and the coats are all very contemporary. We've come out the other side of Mary's mourning, when she was forever in lilac and black. Now she wears a lot of pastels and green - I seem to be in quite a lot of green."

Lady Mary is very much in business mode in the final series and takes over as estate manager, now that Tom Branson has moved to America.  Romance blooms for her once more when racing car driver Henry Talbot (played by Good Wife actor Matthew Goode) turns up again.

"Yes, my many men," the actress smiles, arching those famous dark eyebrows (they even have their own Twitter account). "Dan (Stevens, who played Mary's late husband) was so great and my latest, Matthew Goode, is a joy to work with.

"Mary was instantly attracted to Henry at the end of series five. He intrigues her but she's put off by his lifestyle and his racing. His lack of wealth is also a bit of an issue but it's mainly his racing that is getting in the way, because of how she lost Matthew.

"But she's a rebel at heart and Henry is also a rebel, and she's attracted to that in him."

Be warned what appears to be a good relationship for her, seemingly moving in the right direction, takes a cruel turn that sends Mary into a dark place once again.

A talented jazz singer, Michelle has her choice of roles these days and will soon take to the London stage in Les Liaisons Dangereux. In the meantime, she's planning her wedding to dishy Cork-born PR director John Dineen, her partner of two years.

Asked before she leaves, for her favourite moment from the whole series, she giggles: "It was no big deal when George Clooney rocked up for the Christmas charity skit. That's not a major memory at all.."

  • Downton Abbey returns to UTV on Sunday, 20 September

Countess Violet's most scathing one-liners

Maggie Smith as Countess Violet is the undisputed queen of the scathing one-liners in the Downton saga:

"Is this an instrument of communication or torture?"

"Things are different in America, they live in Wig Wams."

"I was right about my maid. She's leaving - to get married! How could she be so selfish?"

"First electricity, now telephones. Sometimes I feel as if I'm living in an H.G. Wells novel."

"Why does every day involve a fight with an American?"

"Alas, I am beyond impropriety."

"We'll have to take her abroad, in these moments you can usually find an Italian who's not too picky."

"Mary won't take Matthew Crawley, so we better get her settled before the bloom is quite gone off the rose."

Lady Mary: "I was only going to say that Sybil is entitled to her opinions."

Countess Violet: "No, she isn't, until she is married. And then her husband will tell her what her opinions are."

Cora Crawley: "Are we to be friends then?"

Countess Violet: "We are allies my dear which can be a good deal more effective."

"I don't dislike him, I just don't like him. Which is quite different."

Belfast Telegraph

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