A regal return -- to a new world -- for 'Downton Abbey'

9:23 AM, Jan 3, 2013   |    comments
Cast of Downton Abbey, Season 3
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As millions of Americans spent much of the past few months preoccupied with the economy and politics, others posed questions of greater social significance: Will Lady Mary finally marry Matthew Crawley? Will Anna find a way to get her husband out of prison? (And will she ever stop calling him "Mr. Bates"?) Will Lady Sybil and her Irish chauffeur husband come back home to England?

In short, what in the world will happen next in the upstairs-downstairs - and now upside-down - post-WWI world of Downton Abbey when Season 3 opens on PBS' Masterpiece Sunday (9 ET/PT, times may vary)?

"The point of the third season is really dealing with a strange period for these people," says Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of the blockbuster British drama. "At first the world did not quite know what happened after the war. It wasn't clear what had survived of the old life, and what would go on as before."

In fact, much would not. Specifics of the new season are far from secret, thanks to the Web (these episodes and more have already aired in the U.K.). But Fellowes notes in broad strokes that the aristocratic family and its loyal if scheming servants will face financial troubles, women's changing roles and attitudes towards homosexuality in mid-1920s England.

Many wealthy families like the Crawleys lost grand estates after the war, says Fellowes. "Given that this was a period of crisis, it would have been wrong for Downton Abbey not to have a crisis of one sort. But of course we need to solve it, because you don't want them to leave Downton Abbey. So we plunge them into crisis and then pluck them out again."

That dramatic dance has proved as scrumptious as buttered scones to the American public. If you don't watch, you probably know someone who's telling you you should. Or maybe you've spotted someone sporting a "Free Mr. Bates" T-shirt. The global sensation has mesmerized 70 million viewers worldwide, and counts first lady Michelle Obama, Katy Perry, Tom Hanks and Sarah Jessica Parker among its fervent American fans.

Season 2, which aired in the USA early last year on PBS, averaged about 7 million viewers per episode, making it the most watched Masterpiece series on record.

What's the attraction to U.S. audiences? "I don't think I can answer entirely why it's become a phenomenon, but I think I can put my finger on the winning formula," says executive producer Gareth Neame. "Take a very recognizably British genre, this story of class and aristocracy and decorum, and combine it with a very modern approach to telling the story so it has the pace of narrative which is the equivalent of a U.S. network show."

Then there's the romance. Whether it be the sweet, abiding love of Anna and Mr. Bates or the smouldering passion between Lady Mary and Matthew, "Romance," says Neame, "may be a very important key to it all."

Peter Westmacott, British ambassador to the USA, who hosted Downton cast members at his residence in Washington in December, says Americans probably like the show for the same reason the British do: good acting, clever plotting and nostalgia for simpler times. "People love a bit of escapism," he says. "This is good television drama which you can go and enjoy, just as I actually adore watching Homeland. It's escapism from the daily job that we do."

Elizabeth McGovern, the only American in the cast (she plays Cora, the U.S.-born wife of Lord Grantham), says our fascination is a hunger for the sort of tradition lacking in modern life. "There's a sense of ritual to Downton Abbey. There's a ritual to viewing it, and there are so many rituals that play out in the show itself. And I think people get caught up in the stories and the intrigue, the way they would with any soap opera."

The addition of Shirley MacLaine as Cora's mother Martha in Season 3 is "like a breath of fresh air," says McGovern. "She is such a big personality. She brings a whole different way of doing things to the set, and that is a burst of energy for everybody. She's an absolutely brilliant and fascinating person and actress."

It's not just the promised witty banter between thoroughly modern Martha and the patrician, acerbic Violet (Maggie Smith), the show's family heirlooms. The younger cast members will continue to tantalize viewers as well. Fellowes "has brilliantly managed to tell a story about an upper-class family and he has populated it with these absolutely beautiful younger actors," says Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton. "They are beautiful to look at. Their clothes are beautiful and they're just fabulous actors."

But Downton's attraction, Eaton says, is "also about parents and children, it's about star-crossed lovers, it's about sibling rivalry. It has good guys and bad guys. If you take away the eye candy of the period, the castle, the costumes, the beautiful rooms, much of what people are talking about are these universal ideas."

Season 3 also takes a hard look at equal rights, for both women and gays. Women, says Fellowes, began winning the right to vote in 1919. And, thanks to the war, they were also working more outside the home, just as many of Downton's women helped convalescing soldiers during World War I.

"Afterwards, the government really wanted them all to go back to the boudoir and their Edwardian roles, but that didn't work," Fellowes says. "You can't get people to go backwards once they've moved on, even if they want to. The old way of life was gone. "

Two characters who will reflect the changing roles for women in this new season are Cora and her middle, unmarried daughter Edith. "In the old days, (Edith) would have just sat there until a man showed up, if one ever did. But she wants more of life outside Downton Abbey," Fellowes says. "She's a clear example of someone doing what she could not have done before the war changed things."

And MacLaine's Martha serves as a reminder that Cora comes from new American money, a Gilded Age fortune made from nothing. Neither of them is "drenched in old American traditions," Fellowes says, and in fact Martha is quite a free thinker. She "doesn't see the point of dragging on a way of life that has outlived its usefulness."

The story line around Thomas Barrow, the Earl of Grantham's valet, examines what it was like to be gay in early 20th-century England. "Male homosexuality was illegal into my school years, until I was 14," says Fellowes, 63. "One of the reasons I put (the plotline) in is that I felt a lot of young people or people under 40 are hardly aware of the fact that it was a criminal offense between two consenting male adults, and an imprisonable offense. It's so extraordinary for this generation, I felt it was a good thing to remind them of it and how far we've come in a comparatively short time."

Rob James-Collier, who portrays Thomas, the handsome but devious valet fans love to hate, says his character will be "in a world of pain'' as a result of how people respond to his homosexuality in Season 3.

Whatever their travails, there's no denying that fans are as smitten with the help as they are with the aristocrats. "The downstairs is just sexier," jokes James-Collier. "Most people, whether we're talking about England or America would, you would think, identify more with the downstairs because a large part of the population have to work for a living. A smaller percentage of people live these glamorous lifestyles."

Nonetheless, viewers would "probably love to be one of the upstairs people wearing one of those lovely dresses," says Sophie McShera, who portrays Daisy, the lowest person on the hierarchical ladder in the kitchen. She says people will always root for underdogs. "Daisy never gets the promotion, she never gets the guy, she never gets the new dress. You can go on Twitter and see people saying, 'I've not stopped today. I feel like Daisy from Downton Abbey.'"

The clothes are much nicer upstairs, says Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore, Downton's cook, "but I was at a party a few months ago with Irish Americans who said, 'We really relate to Mrs. Patmore because a lot of our grandparents and so on were in service. People can still remember the older people in their lives, people like her, who willingly and happily devoted their life to a family."

Nicoletta Gullace, who teaches British history at the University of New Hampshire, says our devotion to Downton "has to do with our own sort of disappointment with our rich today. We have the Kardashians and Paris and Nicky Hilton, and The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. They're all vulgar reality stars banking on their celebrity.

"What the Crawleys offer us is the idea of a wealthy class who are really people of quality, as they would have called themselves," she says. "They have pedigrees, they have manners, they have grace. They abhor the media and publicity, and they seem to be a very different sort of class."

Downton's creator says he remains incredibly grateful for the series' enduring appeal. "The third season seemed to go better than ever, and it's incredibly thrilling to all of us working on it. But as to why, I don't know," Fellowes says, laughing. People, especially Americans, just love watching a story about a long-gone era. "Thanks to the Lord," he adds. "I get a good deal of pleasure from Americans following what I do."

Contributing: Maria Puente

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