Downton is in mourning. Six months on from Matthew’s shock departure and the ripples of his death in a car accident (ruining many a turkey dinner on Christmas day when it was broadcast) are still affecting the household.
Not least Mary who, ghostly white in jet-black, is a monotone shadow of her former self and barely acknowledging poor baby George (a regal name, no less). And we know she wasn’t the warmest of characters at the best of times.
Even Downton Abbey itself looks grey and sombre as series four picks up from that memorable Christmas day episode.
It begins with the household in a stir at the news that the deceptive O’Brien, lady’s maid to Cora, has quit to take up a position in India. After which, well… we’ve been sworn to secrecy at the preview screening and had to sign away our worldly goods should we so much as hint at what’s to come for the characters.
Opera comes to Downton
What we can tell you is that, in episode three, New Zealand operatic soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa plays real-life Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, who was popular in the Victorian era. She’s the only real-life character to feature in the series so far.
The really enjoyable thing was the sight of tough electricians wiping tears from their eyes as they heard Dame Kiri sing."
Allen Leech, who plays former chauffeur Tom Branson, spoke of the cast, including Hugh Bonneville (Robert) and Elisabeth McGovern (Cora) rushing on set to hear Dame Kiri sing live in the Great Hall at Highclere Castle where Downton is filmed.
Executive producer Gareth Neame said: “The really enjoyable thing was the sight of tough electricians wiping tears from their eyes as they heard Dame Kiri sing.”
Dame Kiri herself admitted that Downton, which is now shown in 220 countries, is her favourite programme. So much so that she’s named her third dog ‘Abbey’ in honour of the show.
“It was the most wonderful experience,” said Dame Kiri of filming. “The story is very special. It’s very delicate, beautifully written with the most beautiful actors some of whom we haven’t seen before.”
Unlike other series, this season doesn’t span decades (it’s set in 1922), but the energy and rhythm are the same as other series, said Neame.
“Although it is very romantic and has laugh out loud moments, Downton is very much about the twists and turns, the surprises,” he continued. “So as shocking as Matthew’s death was, those big life and death moments will happen to any family from time to time. And in a drama that’s what we go for.”
There are many new faces in this series. In the first episode, look out for bossy Nanny West, charged with looking after the youngsters, who under-butler Thomas takes an instant dislike to. At the end of the first episode you’ll find out why.
Watch out too for the scary Geordie butler who intimidates Matthew’s poor former valet Molesley, as he looks for work following Matthew’s death.
“The intensity of the drama is definitely up this year,” revealed Leech. “Of course it’s sad when key characters move on but the story benefits from new characters and creates new energy.”
“You have to keep going, that’s showbiz!”
Leech is coy about whether Branson finds romance again in this series. “He crossed the class divide for Sybil so I think it will take some time to match that,” he said cryptically.
And what of the devastated Mary? Will the ice-queen ever find true love again when it took her three series to admit she loved Matthew?
“Rather like Branson, Mary is not open to moving on from Matthew but that doesn’t mean there isn’t interest in her from other men, even if she can’t see beyond Matthew,” divulged Neame.
In this series, Branson is now managing the estate with Robert, Earl of Grantham. Although he has a job it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s comfortable in his surroundings, said Leech. He’s still trying to find his place.
He also has an affinity with Mary as they’ve both lost their spouses, which is why Branson – and, indeed, Carson - tries to help her out of her grief in the first episode. You’ll have to tune in when the series starts again on ITV1 in the autumn to find out if that works.
Will you be tuning in to series four? Let us know below.