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The Bafta and Emmy award-winning series Downton Abbey has proved to be as much a goldmine for creator Julian Fellowes as it has |for the stellar cast. With the second instalment starting on Sunday, Debashine Thangevelo caught up with leading actors Maggie Smith and Dan Stevens to shed light on their roles in BBC Entertainment’s period masterpiece, where the Great War is as much a mainstay as the pervading deception, lust, romance and power struggles marked by numerous twists and scandals…
THERE’S something so hypnotic about being transported back to the Edwardian era. And that’s something creator and writer Julian Fellowes has harnessed with commendable dexterity in Downton Abbey, which has been given the green light for a third season.
Viewers have been left spellbound by the sets with their touches of regal opulence, the magnificent costumes and the brilliant lead cast who so convincingly portray their genteel characters.
Dame Maggie Smith draws on her 60 years of acting experience to produce a mesmerising characterisation of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Violet is a stickler for tradition, and her beliefs often clash with the liberal views of some of the women in the Crawley household. But she remains stoic nonetheless.
This revered actress, whose plaudits are too numerous to sum up adequately, was, interestingly enough, in India for the shooting of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, where she delivered another sublime performance with heavyweight actors Dame Judi Dench, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy, while the period drama was making waves.
She recalls: “We were in Jaipur, and it felt very remote, but it was wonderful to come back and hear Downton Abbey had been this huge success. I think it took everybody by surprise.
“Yes, I may have been in lots of successes, but I actually do very little television, so I’ve never been in anything that’s been this big before.”
No stranger to the genre, having done Gosford Park, A Room with a View, Othello and Travels with My Aunt, Smith credits the show’s success to the well-written script.
“Julian has written an incredible piece of television,” she says.
“There are so many stories there with so many characters involved that it is a truly ensemble piece. It’s not as though there are any individuals really – it’s a whole company piece. And I think that’s interesting.
“I think the viewers love to know what’s happening in (the butler) Carson’s life as much as what’s happening in (scullery maid) Daisy’s or Mary’s (the eldest daughter of Lord and Lady Grantham).
“There are so many different storylines that keep the plot rolling, and that is why I think audiences love it. People get completely involved in all these stories, and I think the way Julian’s managed to weave them all together is amazing.”
Smith says the cast are just as addicted to the plot, delighting in the arrival of scripts from Fellowes.
“You become absolutely obsessed and riveted by it. We don’t get all the scripts together in one batch because Julian is still writing them. But I will be reading the script, then be desperate for the next one, desperate to know what’s going to happen next.”
As for her character striking a chord with fans, the veteran actress smiles: “She’s been imperious from the age of two and I think she’s just about got the hang of it now. I also like to think she has this sort of façade and underneath she has a heart of pure custard. That’s my theory, anyway.”
Elaborating on Violet’s reaction to the war, she says: “Even when that war started, I don’t think anyone had any perception that it was going to go on for as long or be as hard as it was.
“Everybody thought it would be over quickly, done and dusted in no time at all. I think Violet was fearful of what was going to happen, but I don’t think they were prepared… for the horror of that. It’s inconceivable – the four years of total hell that it was, and the loss of golden youth. But Violet is older and wiser than the rest of them. Eventually, the war did change things. The huge losses made them change.”
While the Great War changes everyone, Violet’s sharp-tongued comments continue unabated.
Meanwhile, Smith admits to being rather flattered by the co-stars’ elation to be working with her.
An actor who also made an indelible impression in the first season is Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley, Lady Mary’s suitor – although she turned down his proposal and he left to serve on the front line of the war.
Of the start of the new season, he says: “At the end of series one, everyone was looking lovely. I was in a linen suit on the lawn and Lord Grantham announced that England was at war with Germany.
“At the beginning of series two, I am covered in mud in a big crater in the middle of France. So it’s very different indeed. We begin in 1916 at the top of the series, at quite an advanced stage in the Battle of the Somme, and things aren’t going well for the British. It’s pretty hellish.”
And Stevens was truly impressed with the authentic re-enactment of the war scenes.
“It was an amazing set-up,” he says. “Our wonderful military adviser dug a series of British and German trenches to authentic specifications. He dug fire trenches, support trenches and relief trenches. It was very real and muddy.”
About having to carry a man across the field, Stevens laughs: “He was a very large, heavy, enormous man – no, not really. They found the smallest stunt guy they could find, who was of legal age to be blown up. He was about five foot 11 inches, I think. Anyway, he was heavy and I have a really bad back. Matthew is maybe not the most obvious action hero, but he plays a very instrumental part in the battle, and he’s a very honourable, duty-bound guy who gets stuck in and is a bit of a hero, I suppose.”
Interestingly enough, Matthew has a new love interest – Lavinia Swire (Zoë Boyle).
Shedding light on his likeable character moving on from Mary, he says: “I think he had to, really. Yes, there’ll always be some feelings for her, but she was a bit of a tricky customer in the first series. Also, the pressure of the war very often speeded up things emotionally and young people were keen to marry or get engaged. So he’s come home on leave, has met this girl, Lavinia Swire, and fallen in love.”
Fellowes has had a lot on his shoulders to ensure the second season lives up to expectations, but, given Smith and Steven’s response, he can breathe a sigh of relief as it seems audiences will be caught up again in sweeping emotions.
• The second season of Downton Abbey starts on BBC Entertainment (DStv channel 120) this Sunday at 8.30pm.