Karla Adam (c) 2015, The Washington Post. LONDON — When we were last in the aristocratic world of “Downton Abbey,” Lady Mary Crawley was raising a skeptical eyebrow to two possible suitors, storm clouds were (re)gathering over Anna and Bates, and Carson and Mrs. Hughes set pulses racing when they held hands at the seaside in the season finale.
“Downton Abbey” is a global phenomenon, airing in more than 200 countries or territories. The period drama set records for PBS last year and is one of the most popular TV shows in the world, with fans said to include Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Catching up with several cast members at a posh
London hotel in August (the season premiered in Britain four months ago), the group of actors gave hints as to what fans of aristocratic action can expect in Season 5, which has its U.S. premiere at 9 p.m. Sunday. (Fair warning: Plot points from the new season will be discussed from here on out.)
Season 5 is set in 1924, when Britain elected its first Labor Party prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, filling many of those living “upstairs” with a sense of dread about what might happen to their sprawling estates, and those “downstairs” with a whiff of optimism that they might live in a world that is not dictated by a dinner gong.
Politics is “there in the background with Robert’s conviction that MacDonald is going to smash down the gates and destroy Downton Abbey and everything it stands for,” said Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham), who sadly was not sporting a white tie and tails but still looked elegant in a dark jacket.
Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley, said that her character is moving on romantically with Lord Gillingham and Charles Blake still in pursuit. She said that fans approach her on the street to tell her they are “Team Gillingham” or “Team Blake.”
“It’s the new Mary,” said Dockery, who has perfect posture but is otherwise nothing like the ice queen she plays on TV. (Somewhat disappointingly, she didn’t raise a scornful eyebrow even once.) “She’s enjoying her single life. She knows she has to move on now and she’s not a dweller,” she said, telling us that Mary will be actively involved in the running of the Downton estate — and actively involved in some sexual encounters.
“I remember reading that in the script and thinking, God, that’s incredibly modern for the period that it’s set in,” Dockery said. “But of course it wasn’t at the time. These choices were becoming available for women, so she doesn’t feel incredibly modern. She’s just making those questions, she’s thinking, why can’t I make those decisions and be absolutely sure about a man before I decide to walk down the aisle with him?” Dockery said.
So, will there be any saucy scenes? “Well, it’s ‘Downton,’ not ‘Game of Thrones,’ ” she said with a hearty laugh.
Also revealed: There will be a major fuss over a device that is not a kitchen appliance; there will be daring new dresses (“I saw Michelle Dockery’s knees one day on set. I couldn’t believe it,” said Lily James, who plays Lady Rose MacClare); and that the hand-holding between Carson and Mrs. Hughes from last season may be as steamy as things get between them.
“Carson’s not a romantic,” said Jim Carter, who portrays Mr. Carson. “Things go slowly. I think everyone wants there to be a romance, but it’s glacial in its movement.”
Actress Maggie Smith, who plays Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, rarely gives interviews and was not at this event for the news media. Still, it was impressive how much she popped up in conversation.
Robert James-Collier, the gregarious actor who plays the scheming butler Thomas Barrow, said that Smith’s famous zingers — such as “What is a weekend?” — aren’t necessarily the best lines in the script, they just have the best delivery.
“She makes lines that aren’t funny, funny,” he said. Her on- and off-screen personas appear to share similarities, he added. James-Collier recalled the time he asked her if she would sign a script for charity. “And straight away she said, ‘Whose charity? Your sister?’ Exactly like Violet,” he said.
The friendship between Violet and Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, deepens over the season, but Isobel still often bears the brunt of the dowager’s sharp tongue. Wilton said those scenes are tough.
“They are quite fast play, and if they aren’t played fast they don’t work,” said Wilton, who added that there is no improvisation on the set because the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, “would not allow it. Every word that is said, Julian has written.”
The fifth season wrapped up in Britain on Christmas — the Internet is littered with spoilers — with generally positive reviews but a slight dip in the ratings.
It’s impossible to know how long the “Downton” juggernaut might last or for how long viewers will cherish the pure escapism of it all, but James-Collier suggested they keep the series rolling until the story lines reach the 1960s.
“I’ve always said we should stop after Beatlemania,” he said. “I’d like to see Mr. Carson handle the beatniks.”
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“Masterpiece: Downton Abbey” (75 minutes) returns Sunday at 8 p.m. on PBS stations, including KERA Ch. 13. .