PBS held a preview screening of “Downton Abbey” in New York City on Dec. 10. Attendees got a chance to see the first 40 minutes of the first episode of the show’s fourth season ahead of its Jan. 5 American premiere.
While many fans would have been happy with seeing the majority of the episode ahead of time, PBS brought series creator and writer Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame and actors Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) to the Hudson Theatre for a panel discussion.
“Downton Abbey” is wrapping up its fourth season in the UK, with the Christmas special yet to air, and will premiere in the U.S. on Jan. 5. American fans have had to avoid plenty of spoilers prior to the new season but the wait is almost over. The third season of the hit drama featured the deaths of Lady Sybil and Matthew Crawley and the fourth season will explore these dramatic changes as well as the changing world around Downton.
During the discussion, moderated by Bill Carter, from the New York Times, Fellows discussed the sudden nature of Matthew’s death. According to the series creator, Dan Stevens’ decision to leave the series came at a later date than Jessica Brown Findlay, the actress that played Lady Sybil. Because of how the series was planned, Fellowes was able to create a story arc that could dwell on her death.
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For Matthew, Fellowes said he “did not want a drawn out episode on death.” At first he wanted to start the fourth season with Matthew’s death but Stevens objected and he decided Matthew’s death at the end of the Christmas special would instantly set up tension and conflict for the fourth season.
The first episode of the fourth season of “Downton Abbey” takes place six months after the death of Matthew and Lady Mary remains very much in mourning. Her father and others are concerned and attempt to get Mary involved in some of sort daily routine but she naturally rebuffs any and all efforts.
For Dockery, she reveled in playing Mary as the cold, distant character from the first season. The fourth season will focus on Mary’s character, her relationship with her family and her son, George, and even another attempt at finding a suitor. Fellowes described the season as the “reclamation of Mary.”
The other actors on hand joked around about the various hardships of love, Edith, as well as the scheming yet fan favorite Thomas. Carmichael said it was “never easy for Edith.” For James-Collier, Thomas’ character is very much a “product of society,” as homosexuality was illegal and being gay was “evil.”
Interestingly, Leech discussed the very “American” nature of Branson. If this was an American drama, Branson may have been the main character and the show focused on the transition from being just a chauffeur to becoming a part of the family.
Bonneville discussed the nuanced character of Grantham, crediting Fellowes for creating that depth. Fellowes said the Grantham character was inspired by his father. Much like Grantham, Fellowes’ father “Was very decent always tried to do right thing but never questioned his role in society.” Fellowes also revealed the inspiration behind the Grantham name as it was the name of the train stop where he was caught by police after skipping school with a friend.
As “Downton Abbey” ends in the UK and begins in the U.S., the show’s incredible popularity has guaranteed a fifth season for the drama. The actors and writers will begin filming in February, with a planned September premiere. Much like American fans, the cast agrees the delay in airing should be eliminated, with the U.S. and UK seasons premiering around the same time.