DOWNTON ABBEY: An Evening Celebrating Its Success at TCA 2012

DOWNTON ABBEY, which currently filming its 3rd season and just nominated for 16 Emmys (including Best Drama Series, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actor), was celebrated at the recent PBS Summer 2012 Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills on July 21, 2012.

Attending from “across the pond” were cast members: Hugh Bonneville (“Robert Crawley”), Elizabeth McGovern (“Cora Crawley”), Michelle Dockery (“Mary Crawley”), Brendan Coyle (“John Bates”), Joanne Froggatt (“Anna Smith Bates”), Shirley MacLaine (“Martha Levinson”), along with Julian Fellowes (creator, writer and executive producer) and Gareth Neame (executive producer). Introduced and moderated by Rebecca Eaton (series executive producer of PBS MASTERPIECE), the evening’s panel was filled with hilarity and mutual joy – a rare feat for any show brought before the highly critical Television Critic’s Association.

To get the party started, there was a special screening of a highlight reel of TV shows that have parodied the series, followed by an exclusive sneak peek of scenes from the upcoming third season of DOWNTON ABBEY. If that was not enough to get everyone salivating at the prospect of learning more juicy tidbits about what the show has in store for its worldwide fans, as the cast was introduced, each seemed to exude such happy confidence that the entire room was immediately under their thrall. It was an unusual night of blissful contentment and unexpected comedy.

The following are a few of the fun things learned during the panel as the cast and producers could barely conceal their giddy-glee and the audience sat in rapt attention:

The Darker Storyline & Tone
Julian Fellowes quickly tried to allay everyone’s worries that this next season would be overshadowed by a gloomy atmosphere, with Bates in prison and the Crawleys on the verge of financial ruin, by explaining: “This season, in a way, is about the recovery from the war. The war brought a tremendous disruption to England and took many, many families of all sorts. And even though there were those few years when people were trying to decide: Was the world going to go back? Was it going to be the same as it was before? Had it changed completely? Was the future going to be completely different? And that’s really the kind of theme of the series. And you know, there are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters — some laughs and some tears.”

Reactions to Emmy Nominations
Each of the cast were incredibly thrilled that the show was showered with Emmy nominations, which Hugh Bonneville elaborated by sharing, “We have a word in England which is: gobsmacked. I don’t know if it translates. To say I was overwhelmed is an understatement. To have been ?? in my category — to hear my name in the same breath, so to speak, as Jon Hamm and Damian Lewis and the others, it’s a tremendous honor. It really is. And to have had the show embraced so wholeheartedly by America is very special to us.”

Michelle Dockery added, “[For me it was] much the same. Overwhelmed. I mean, it’s wonderful that the show has been recognized in so many categories. I think we have one less nomination than MAD MEN, which is wonderful. And people like John Lunn, our talented composer who was overlooked last year, it’s wonderful that he’s been recognized this year. It’s fantastic.”

Joanne Froggatt then shared the story of how she and her co-star Brendan Coyle found out about their nominations: “Brendan and I, we’d shot half of a scene and then it was our lunch break, which was when the Emmys were announced. And so I was in the post office on my lunch break and ran back to my dressing room to get changed back into my costume. I looked at my phone and had a text from Michelle saying ‘Congratulations,’ and then Mike, my manager, who called, like, three times. And I was like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ So I called Michelle. I was like, ‘Did we do really well in the nominations?’ She’s like, ‘You’re nominated and we’re all nominated. We got 16!’ So I was just screaming on the phone and jumping up and down with Michelle. Brendan and I didn’t see each other until we went back to finish the scene. So first half of the scene he’s quite normal and calm — and well, I have very red ears in the post?nominated scene because I was so flushed and kind of emotional. It will be interesting to see if people spot that scene.” That will be something to keep an eye out for if the show’s post-editors do not color-correct Joanne’s blushing ears!

Becoming a Pop-Culture Phenomenon
Given its astronomical success both in ratings and recognition, it really is an achievement, and taking a moment to comment on the pop-culture phenomenon, Hugh Bonneville said, “I don’t think none of us had any expectation of that at all. The first time it occurred to me or I realized that it was breaking the boundaries of the expected audience was when a lad in my son’s playground came up to me ?? he’s about 10 or 11 and said, ‘I don’t like that Thomas’ — and one becomes gradually aware that young people had bought into this show and invested. The emotional investment that a lot of people have made in these characters is extraordinary. One can see online and so on, and it’s wonderful. So then to be parodied in the way that we have been, I mean, they’re not going to do a parody if they think the audience isn’t going to know who the heck they’re on about. So it’s a form of flattery. So it’s great.”

Why The Show Is Such a Phenomenon
Jumping right in, Shirley MacLaine speculated, “To add to what Julian was saying, because I travel a lot, and seeing it a hit in Thailand, in Cambodia, in parts of the southeastern areas of the world, I thought, ‘Well, all these people are on the Internet and they’re used to an overabundance of information and how much they want to process.’ But what [Julian’s] done so brilliantly is make 15 characters or combinations with just the right amount of time on screen, which fits with the Internet tolerance for emotional knowledge.” Even as the laughter began to bubble, Julian quipped, “The program for attention deficit disorder!” causing even more laughter to erupt.

Shirley MacLaine’s Experience on the Show
Commenting on what it was like working on the English television series, Shirley ruefully admitted, “It definitely creeps into your pores. There is no doubt about it. And I am so happy to be with my family again. It was an extraordinary experience for me also in stamina and in work ethic, 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. But I had a fabulous time. I will never forget it.”

Shirley’s History With Maggie Smith
When asked if at any point in their long and varied careers their paths ever had occasion to cross, feeling a bit impish, Shirley saucily said, “Oh, God. Should I tell this story? Well, we were lovers in another life. [Laughter] No, [Maggie] told me that we had met 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars next to the catering table, and I was up for something, and there was this big chocolate cake on the catering table. And whatever I was up for, I lost, and somebody else won. And Maggie said, ‘You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said, ‘Fuck it. I don’t care if I’m thin ever again!’”

Discovering Exactly Who Cora Crawley Is
When it was noted that the character of Cora has been quite ambiguous from the beginning, Elizabeth McGovern noted, “It’s interesting that we’re talking about who Martha Levinson is because I felt that I really didn’t know who Cora was until I met Shirley. And suddenly it all came clear. I realized that for two years I was in a bit of a fog. But I think that there is a light that mothers hand on to their daughters, which I think Shirley gave Cora in her aura and everything and the story that she tells simply by being on the set, which is one of great strength and humor and resilience and flexibility. And it became very clear to me the journey that Cora had undertaken to go from Shirley to the countess of Downton Abbey — or Martha Levinson. And I think that she’s a kind of icon that has gone out of fashion in the decade of the ’90s because we started to fall in love with women who were towers of strength and in a very muscular sort of way, sort of like, ‘I’m a material girl,’ etc. And she’s a more old?fashioned idea of women’s strength, which is somebody who is extremely flexible and resilient and can roll with the punches and is strong in a quieter, more self?effacing way. And it’s nice to resurrect that idea of female strength, because I think that that has churned the wheels of history for many centuries, that quiet, strong woman that just sort of connects all the dots in the family. And that, to me, is Cora, I suppose.” But when asked what qualities she shared with Cora, Elizabeth readily admitted, “None. It’s all an act. I’m a raving lunatic!” As the laughter roared, it was fun to see that Shirley is not the only one who can bring down the house with ad-lib quips!

Then to help illustrate how pivotal the addition of Shirley as Cora’s mother and how that informs the characters, Julian explained, “One of the key elements that Shirley brings into the show is sort of, as Elizabeth said, to remind us that Cora’s upbringing was not the same as Robert’s. And during the years of the first years of her marriage, to a certain extent that’s all been suppressed, and she’s had to get on with it and do it the way they do it. But as things start to change and the kind of plates are shifting and we are reminded what Cora’s come from, Cora is less afraid of the future than Robert is. She’s much less afraid of change. And now you’ll start to see more and more of that because she’s less afraid of expressing that. We have had moments of dissidence in the first two years when she refuses to think ill of Matthew because he has a job. She doesn’t like him taking her money, but she’s not prepared to criticize him for having a job. And there are various other things. She’s dismissed when Mary says, ‘You’re American, Mother’ or ‘ Mama, you don’t understand these things’ and so on. Now that’s all changing because if anyone understands the world that’s coming, it’s Cora. And in a way the bringing in of Martha ushers in that new era by reminding us [that she] comes from a different past.”

About Mary’s Transformation
On going from the bitchy bad girl to a woman of substance, Michelle Dockery revealed, “I think Mary started out as a bit of a brat. I mean, she was certainly far colder in the beginning, and the way I see it is that the incident with Pamuk kind of softened Mary in way and that something actually happened to her which made her much more vulnerable. Then from then on ?? initially I thought she would be the kind of Kristin Scott Thomas type of character in ‘Gosford Park’ when I read those first few scripts — and then I realized that she actually becomes far more sympathetic and sensitive. And I’ve really enjoyed that journey that I wasn’t expecting.”

Julian also thoughtfully added, “The risk of scandal makes her vulnerable. She was invulnerable before that. And I think Mary is one of those people who does not want to give in to society and to have ?? she’s a very strong personality, but she’s not a rebel. She doesn’t want to live outside society. She wants to just about negotiate the rules so that she can stay inside, and that is, you know, Mary’s struggle, really, if you like — which I think Michelle has done very well –and the Pamuk incident, which she thought she would get away with, of course, haunts her. It has given her an Achilles Heel, and people know about it. And yes, to a certain extent, maybe she’ll get past it, and the world is changing, but she can never to herself feel the superiority of being perfect again.”

Then Gareth Neame chimed-in to add, “I think all of that was really well articulated through the story in the Iain Glen character in the second season, that you saw this woman whose life is already completely compromised, and there’s a chilling scene, I thought, where he was dissatisfied with the progress of their relationship, and he really almost pushes her up against the wall and says, ‘Don’t ever disobey me again.’ And I think the way you played that scene really stuck with me, the way that Mary sort of listened to. She’s effectively sort of assaulted by him, but she doesn’t respond because part of her knows that that’s her lot. She has to accept that. I found that a really pivotal moment.”

The Challenges of Writing a Modern TV Show as a Time Period Drama
When queried about how tricky it is to be currently writing a television show about the life and times of a family nearly 100 year ago, Julian was forthcoming in revealing, “There is a liberation in it being original, because you can go into areas of the period that a contemporary novel would not have done. I mean there are many subjects that we sort of range among with ?? I don’t know whether it’s women’s rights or homosexuality or whatever — which you wouldn’t find in a novel written in 1906 or whatever. So you have that freedom. But the discipline is to look at those subjects, but within the context of that period. So you must be careful to try and give people reasonable reactions and emotional responses that are right for their own time and not simply someone who’s been parachuted in from 2012. And that’s the other discipline, really. But I think, obviously, everyone always says: Why do you think it’s so popular? And the reason or answer is: You haven’t a clue. But I think that the decision to make it more like the modern American television series of THE WEST WING and ER and all those shows with lots of plots going on: big plots, little plots, funny plots, sad plots; so it’s all sort of plotted up together. Seems to be right for the energy of now. It seems to meet what the audience wants. And with DOWNTON the fun is that it sort of looks like a classical period drama from the ’20s and everyone’s in bustles and ringing for lunch, but the energy is much more modern. And I think that has worked for us.”

How Far Can the Show Go?
Thinking about the question carefully, Julian candidly admitted, “I don’t think we’ve really thought in that way, actually. Each series takes about two years sort of, and I think we will just continue to move forward at that pace because the great thing is you don’t have to have anybody doing wobbly stick acting with gray wigs. They can remain reasonably the same age, and the ’20s is a very interesting period to me. Once you get into the ’30s, then, you know, it’s the Nazi?dominated, ‘Europe prepares for the war’ period that I think we’ve all seen pretty often, actually, exploited in different films and so on. But the ’20 are a much more nebulous time. Here you vaguely got sort of prohibition and gangland in Chicago. We haven’t even really got that. We’ve just got a kind of transition between the old world and the ’30s and the Second World War and the modern war happening. And there’s this bit in the middle. And I think it’s rather fun to be journeying through that stuff. I mean, in the third series of you see the impact on this family of the Irish troubles, for instance, because that really started up after the end of the First World War, and actually, at the time, was much more the headline than the suffragettes or the other things. The Irish problem seemed to be a kind of yawning difficulty for the British Empire and everything. But again I don’t think a lot of people know about that. It’s rather nice to go into that. And we have different element. We always try in DOWNTON to make references to the Marconi Scandal or whatever it is, and a few people talk about it, and we never really explain it. And what we hope in our rather simple way is that people then go off to their Internet, you know, and put in the Marconi Scandal, and they get the whole thing, and they realize it was in that year and it did happen and everything valid or whatever we were saying about it was true. Obviously, most people who watch the show don’t bother to do that. There is this sort of vague sprinkling of events and references that, if you check them out, will work and are true. It seems to me rather good fun to be doing that in a much lesser?known period. So for all those reasons, I think we will be moving pretty slowly through the 1920s.”

Why Robert Crawley Is An Ideal Man
To the final question of the night on what makes his character Robert Crawley such an ideal man, Hugh Bonneville took up the challenge and candidly admitted, “’I’m not sure he is an ideal man. But, really, I think the fact is he was born into it. His destiny was predetermined. He was born to hand on this estate to the next generation. That’s been his sole driving force in his life. And let’s not forget that this marriage – when Cora and Robert were married — it was a business transaction. H needed the cash — the estate needed the cash, and her family was quite keen on having a British title. It then so happened that they fell in love and have had 20-plus years together. So I think his overall — really, what I really have to say…” And then he rips off his tie and opens his dress shirt to show off an underlying t-shirt which reads, ‘Free Bates.’ To which, Julian quipped, “A man of principle!”

On the last final high-note and as the laughter continued to rumble through the auditorium, the cast and producers of DOWNTON ABBEY stood for their ovation and descended to mingle with their adoring fans. (Hey, television critics can be fans too!)

DOWNTON ABBEY returns for its 3rd season on PBS in January 2013.

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