THE tension is palpable. The titled Granthams, led by the waspish dowager countess, fidget anxiously as they await their new house guest. The below-stairs staff, their uniforms starched and polished to perfection, enjoy a rare day in the sunshine as they stand expectantly in line on the gravel drive.
A grand car sweeps in, crunches to a halt. Out steps the redoubtable Martha Levinson, the wealthy American mother of Lady Cora. The scene is set: what could be more irresistible than the prospect of Dame Maggie Smith as Countess Violet, taking on Shirley MacLaine as no-nonsense Cincinnati millionairess Martha in Downton Abbey?
If the casting seems inspired, producer Gareth Neame insists the shortlist to play the part of Martha was not exactly expansive. The formidable Smith, of course, is a past mistress of the withering put-down. Dramatic tension demands a mother-in-law from across the Atlantic who can hold her corner.
“We were looking for an American actress who’d be a match for Maggie,” Neame says.
Certainly MacLaine didn’t hesitate long when an approach was made.
“I happened to mention at the hair-dressers that I’d been offered the role of Cora’s mother in Downton,” she says.
“Suddenly all the women there had theories about what she’d be like. I thought: ‘My God, the whole world’s obsessed with this show and this family.’
“Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and sensitive to what’s going on with her daughter’s children. Violet is a human being with complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands.
“In those days, American women with money were looking for titles and titled men were looking for American money.
“Martha fits the bill of the American matriarch who lands across the pond with plenty of money. And they expect her to finance whatever’s wrong with the Abbey.”
The central theme of the new series, with the horrors of World War I fading, is the end of the old certainties of Britain’s titled families. Downton Abbey must come to terms with money worries, the growing ascendancy of new money and the New World and the coming of the Roaring Twenties.
What is Martha like?
“She’s extremely outspoken,” says MacLaine. “Her basic role is to plead with the dowager countess to wrest herself away from tradition and to become more flexible.
“We do a little sparring, but it’s sophisticated and adult. My character is trying to explain to her that she must grow up and out of this addiction to tradition because this is what got them into the war.”
Remarkably, the two grandes dames of Downton Abbey had met just once before, backstage at the Oscars 40 years ago.
“Maggie remembers most but then she’s younger than me. Well, by a year,” says Academy Award-winning MacLaine, 78.
“I was up for something and there was this big chocolate cake in front of me. Whatever I was up for, I lost… Maggie said: ‘You know what you did, dear? You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said: ‘Blow it! [or words to that effect], I don’t care if I’m thin ever again.’’’
In her eighth decade, MacLaine doesn’t disappoint. Her eyes glitter with mischief. She is said to have been surprised at the hours spent filming. At first she struggled with the accent, but ever the professional, she worked hard to get it right.
Filming at Highclere was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, she says.
“I very much enjoyed the castle and grounds and the hauntings and the energy. I’m very much into all that stuff.
‘‘I went into the place wondering if it was haunted and wondering if I would have any past-life memories and what would happen when I was there. Some of the people who worked there told me pictures fell off the wall often.”
MacLaine has, famously, a long-held interest in spirituality and new age beliefs.
Her brother, Warren Beatty, doesn’t believe one word of it, she says. The two are now close after some rocky spells usually connected to MacLaine’s uncompromising views. “He thinks I’m crazy.”
But if she felt in her element in an English stately home, she was not comfortable in Edwardian costume.
“I’m a jogging pants and tennis shoes kind of a girl, so I found the costumes hard to wear. But I knew it was half of my character. It’s like the dialogue, you have to do it right. Much of Martha’s wardrobe was sourced from American originals in an antique costume house in the San Fernando Valley in California… They are the American clothes of the 1920s.”
What is clear is that the charismatic American made an instant impression on her co-stars. She knew all the characters and was obviously a big fan of the show.
The love flowed in both directions. Jim Carter, the beating heart of the servant’s quarter as Mr Carson, the unbending butler, clicked with her.
“Shirley was just great. She engaged with everybody, absolutely a part of the gang,” he says. “On one occasion, sitting down, I got her to sing If They Could See Me Now from Sweet Charity, complete with all the Bob Fosse moves. We were in the library at Highclere, all the upstairs side of the cast and me. It was a magical moment. She was just this young girl again.
“We got on very well, but then I’m a bit of an old flirt and so is she.”
Elizabeth McGovern, her screen daughter, Lady Cora, adds: “What impressed me was that she was so excited to be on the show. She gave everyone a boost of energy and she’s a great storyteller, very funny, very full of life.”
Hugh Bonneville, Downton’s Earl of Grantham, admitted: “I was in awe of Shirley, for her range and what you might call her back catalogue. She had stories about everyone from Laurence Olivier and Jack Lemmon to Peter Sellers, Billy Wilder and Frank Sinatra. It was a real joy to see her and Maggie sparking off each other, on camera and behind it.”
About her own relationships, MacLaine is characteristically frank. She has been married once, to the late producer-turned-impresario Steve Parker, the father of her only daughter, Sachi (‘‘happy child” in Japanese). Sachi is now in her mid-fifties and the mother of MacLaine’s grandson and granddaughter.
There were affairs along the way with Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye, Yves Montand and Australia’s foreign minister, Andrew Peacock. In her 2011 memoir, I’m All Over That, she revealed she had slept with three men in one day. “But then I’ve always been self-sufficient, which is why I had an open marriage and relationships with strong men,” she says.
For all that, she’s mellowed.
“I live on my own now on a ranch in New Mexico with my dozen dogs, or in my house in Santa Fe or at Malibu. I’ve grown to like my own company. I have a cushion with a message on it which says: ‘The more I know of men, the more I love my dog.’ That pretty much sums it up for me.”
l Downton Abbey shows on BBC Entertainment.