Before we go any further, let us just assuage your doubts and confirm that there will be no spoilers of any kind in this article. We’d never dream of ruining the fun and besides, ITV have placed a big fat embargo on all plot details. We’ll be sharing a cell with Bates if we say anything so you’ll just have to wait until September..
Yet we are at liberty to confirm that the opening episode of the third series bears all the usual hallmarks of the show we have come to know and love. There’s intrigue, scandal, comedy, tears, a couple of new characters and some cracking new storylines to go with the established arcs. We never expected Fellowes and the cast to lose momentum, but when Carson branded someone a ‘hobbledihoy’ in the opening scenes it felt like we’d never been away.
It’s now Spring 1920 in Downton and Fellowes picks up old plot-lines immediately; Bates’ incarceration (actor Brendan Coyle said he spotted a ‘Free Bates’ t-shirt in LA recently), Mary and Matthew’s impending wedding and Sybil’s elopement with Branson, but there’s some new angles to enjoy here as well.
From fashion to politics, it’s clear that we are now in an era of change and as you might expect the Dowager Countess – played with the usual magnetism by Maggie Smith – increasingly finds herself blowing against the wind. Her verbal jousts with Cora’s American mother (played by Shirley MacLaine) are also a real treat.
“She comes from a different tradition,” said Fellowes of MacLaine’s character, Martha Levinson (Cora’s mother) the launch. “In the first two series, Mary would say ‘you don’t understand these things, you’re American’, but now that the world is changing. The fact that Cora has not been brought up think that this is the only way of life becomes more important and more pronounced. As such, a way of stating that at the beginning of the series was to remind the audience of Cora’s background is quite different to Robert’s.”
“We see that Violet thinks that things were better in the past and everything’s falling to bits,” he continues. “Whereas Martha is the opposite – she thinks that change is great and the future is terrific. And so you have these two almost exact contemporaries in real life facing back towards the 19th Century, and forwards to the 21st.”
So how did Shirley MacLaine adapt to filming in the English countryside, especially during one of the worst early summer’s in recent memory?
“She embraced it,” says one of the producers. “She struggled at first with the rhythm of the language, it was very alien to her, she really struggled remembering it. But I was so impressed by how she hated the thought that she was letting anyone down by not getting it. She wanted to get it, and she’d work really hard in the evenings to get it.”
In a busy feature-length opening episode, there’s also another issue which raises its head quickly; The Irish Question.
“The troubles and everything else are really a post-war phenomena, and we do go into that,” explains Fellowes. “We have an Irish character who is very political and committed to Irish freedom, so we certainly do exploit that. Funnily enough, at the time, the Irish issue was much bigger than women’s votes and all the other things that were happening.”
If the first episode is anything to go by, then Branson could be a massive part of the new series and like Cora’s mother, he’s a forward-thinking character designed to be a springboard, from which Fellowes’ themes of change jump from. As it turns out, the situation in Ireland was one in which Fellowes is relatively well-versed.
“The big thing on the front of every newspaper in Britain was Ireland, so it would of been quite wrong not to deal with it. I’m rather interested in Irish politics and history, and perhaps slightly unusually for someone like me, I was always brought up very firmly on the Home Rule and Irish freedom side. My great aunt was quite fierce about it. So it’s rather nice to exploit that a bit.”