The stars and producers of the unstoppable British hit Downton Abbey discuss what's in store for the third season

Few would have predicted that an Edwardian soap opera about a family of aristocrats and their servants would become PBS’s highest-rated program and rack up 16 Emmy nominations in its second season, winning for Outstanding Miniseries.

But Downton Abbey has become nothing less than a pop-culture phenomenon, spawning parodies, tie-in products and legions of rabid fans who are eagerly awaiting its return.

Now, a year since the special Christmas episode ended with a proposal, an imprisonment and a pregnancy, the third season premieres this Sunday on Masterpiece, with complications for everyone involved.

Season 3 of Downton Abbey

Set in spring 1920, “This season is about the recovery from the war,” says series creator Julian Fellowes. “Was the future going to be different? There are chills and spills for all the characters, some laughs and some tears.”

The plot picks up with Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Dan Stevens) preparing for their wedding; Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) in prison, convicted of killing his ex-wife; Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and her ex-chauffeur husband Tom Branson (Allen Leech) expecting a baby; and Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), discovering he lost his wife Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) fortune in a failed railway investment, which threatens the future of the Abbey.

“He made a very catastrophic decision that’s a great catalyst, as you’ll see in future episodes,” notes Bonneville. “His whole destiny is to hand on Downton to the next generation and if he fails in those duties, it will be a huge source of shame for him. Now he’s seeing himself as a failure. He’s brought this on himself and there seems to be no way out.” Enter Martha Levinson (Shirley MacLaine), Cora’s flashy American mother.

“She’s loaded and there is hope on the horizon that she will bail us out, the same way that Cora’s initial fortune bailed out the estate 20-something years ago,” Bonneville says. In any case, expect sparks to fly between Martha and the imperious Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith).

Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine Downton Abbey

Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine sparke onscreen in Downton Abbey (Image: PBS)

Despite onscreen animosity, the two acting legends, who first met 40 years ago backstage at the Academy Awards, “had a great rapport,” reports Bonneville. “You learn from the best, and they’re so proficient at their craft. They were a hoot together, really funny. It was a real privilege to be alongside them and watch them work.”

MacLaine, who heard about the series from her hairdresser, checked it out and became “just as addicted as everybody else,” had a “fabulous time” playing Martha, tight corsets notwithstanding. “It was an extraordinary experience for me also in stamina and in work ethic,” she says, “because we were shooting outside in the rain and in the wind with our formal gear on and nobody seemed to notice. So I quickly just stepped right in there and acted like I didn’t notice either.”

The introduction of Martha was a boon for Dockery. “I really didn’t know who Cora was until I met Shirley,” says Dockery, explaining that MacLaine imparted an “aura of great strength, humour, resilience and flexibility” in playing Martha, making her realize that Cora inherited the ability to “roll with the punches. She is strong in a quieter, more self-effacing way. She’s an incredibly complex character,” Dockery observes. “She has this kind of exterior that hides her vulnerability, and she’s very good at pretending everything’s OK when, inside, she’s going through turmoil. But in the third series, she’s certainly a lot happier.”

And as someone not born into the world of wealth and privilege, Cora is also far more forward-thinking than her husband. “Cora is less afraid of the future, much less afraid of change, than Robert is,” explains Fellowes. “If anyone understands the world that’s coming, it’s Cora.”
Conversely, Robert “is a bit of a dinosaur, with his feet firmly in 1912,” contrasts Bonneville. “He’d like to go back to the era before the war. Matthew and Branson, as you’ll see in later episodes, become the voice of modernity, dragging Robert and the entire estate into the 1920s.”

The Drama of Downton Abbey

As for the other Crawley sisters, there is tragedy ahead, but it may not be for the perpetually unlucky Edith (Laura Carmichael). “There is optimism for Edith in the new season,” assures executive producer Gareth Neame. “There are opportunities and she’s really a character that’s going to come into her own in the 1920s, with the whole emancipation of women.”

There’s just as much drama ahead for the downstairs denizens, because, as Neame points out, “Every part is equal in importance. It’s set in a very undemocratic world, but the show itself is completely democratic. Daisy [the cook’s assistant] is as much a leading character as Lord Robert is.”

One of Downton’s most popular storylines is the love story between housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and her imprisoned husband, Bates. “They’re not the glamorous couple of the show, but they have a real respect for each other and ultimate belief in each other that’s really endearing and quite romantic,” Froggatt observes.

Downton Abbey Season 3

The Downton Abbey household turns out in full force to welcome a new guest (Image: PBS)

Another downstairs pairing is just as compelling but far more volatile: the battle of wills between wily valet Thomas (Rob James-Collier) and lady’s maid O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran).

“They turn on each other because Thomas does something quite nasty to O’Brien’s nephew, a new footman, because he’s jealous of the attention he’s getting,” explains James-Collier. “It goes all the way through the series. The one-upmanship gets more and more sinister, especially towards the end, and one of the two will get completely destroyed.”

He relishes playing the series’ chief villain. “You can get out your frustrations and do stuff that you’d want to do to people in real life but would get arrested for, whereas on screen it’s perfectly legal. I don’t want to go to prison, but Thomas might.”

This season, Collier-James notes, will explore more about Thomas’s sexuality and shed light on the motivations, if not exactly draw sympathy, for his behaviour. “In Edwardian times, homosexuality was illegal and against God. It’s a tremendous burden and a secret to have on your shoulders. You can’t go on Google and find like-minded people. You want to tell someone how you feel, but if you did, you’d end up in prison. You have the state and your religion condemning you. That must have been horrible to live with and not have anyone to confide in.”

How a British Drama Found a Worldwide Audience

Eminently relatable characters — both good and evil — are just part of the draw of Downton, believes Neame. “It’s an expressly British series, but it’s very contemporary paced, so it mixes something familiar with something new. In these difficult times that we live in, to see people living this extraordinary life of luxury and an entire army of people that service that, is completely alien to the way we live now, and there is an element of escapism in that.”

The show’s past success does put the pressure on the creators, Neame admits, to keep up the creative standards and please the fans. “We make the show we think the audience will like, repeating those things that work and not those that don’t work out so well,” he says, looking forward to starting production on season four in February.

While the first two seasons covered multiple years, season three slows it down, taking place in 1920-21, and season four will span a similarly narrow timeframe, in anticipation of many more seasons to come.

It’s all quite ironic when you realize PBS originally passed on buying Downton Abbey, because the second season of Upstairs Downstairs was already scheduled and having two period shows about the British class divide seemed redundant. Fortunately, the network reconsidered, and the rest is television history.

Originally published in TVW. For daily programming updates and on-screen Entertainment news, subscribe to the free TVW e-newsletters, or purchase a subscription to the weekly magazine.