Approaching its third season, the creators of PBS Masterpiece’s “Downton Abbey” had to confront several major issues: Two lead characters were set to depart, weddings were planned, and trespassing photographers were becoming a nuisance coming out of the bushes of real-life location Highclere Castle.
That meant constructing fake leaks and fake screens around location sets and releasing misleading photographs so that audiences wouldn’t be tipped off to some of the key moments: namely, how Matthew was departing (once it got out that Dan Stevens was not re-upping) or that Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) died in childbirth. Mary’s dress in her wedding to Matthew was also a top-secret priority, as was the fact that poor Edith was left at the altar. And the show was clever: Since Sybil didn’t die in childbirth but shortly after, producers could let out a photo of her holding her child to make her actual death in the episode that much more surprising.
“We had a bit of fun,” chuckles Neame.
But Neame admits it would have been good to have Stevens around for a few episodes in season four: “Exits like those give you real dramatic rocket fuel,” he says, “but we were hoping Dan would stay on the show. And when we couldn’t keep him in multiple seasons, we tried for extra episodes, but he didn’t want to do that.”
The show didn’t hit every high note: The much-touted appearance of Shirley MacLaine proved to be all too brief (though she’ll be back next season) and the odd financial insolvency of Downton, and deus ex machina “solution” of a sudden inheritance by Matthew, who was then oddly reluctant to use it to save Downton, felt strained. Bates left prison and wed Anna, but the prolonged separation arguably sapped some air from that romance.
Overall, however, “Downton” had all of the rocket fuel it could handle, and will now have to spend part of its next season dealing with the fallout of those foundation-rocking changes.
As for a possible Emmy win, Neame says they aren’t counting chickens, but it would certainly be a stamp of approval. “To be in the mainstream and considered by American audiences as their own, to be in that category as one of the top shows in what is probably the most competitive time in television history, is a really special feeling,” he says. “It would be amazing.”