The sun will soon set on the last season of “Downton Abbey,” creator Julian Fellowes’ sometimes satiric, sometimes romanticized and always perfectly stylized upstairs-downstairs period drama about the changing British aristocracy.
With its costumes, scenery, dialogue and shocking and (thanks to the spoilers that result from delayed viewing,) sometimes not-so-shocking life events, the series has been a hit both in its native U.K., where the final season has already aired, and given Americans another reason to fawn over this time period.
As “Downton Abbey” prepares for its final stateside premiere, executive producer Gareth Neame talks with Variety about the show’s views on feminism, its returning characters and finding ways to torture loyal employees/married couple Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna (Joanne Froggatt).
We know some of the former actors are returning this season. For example, Lily James, who played Lady Rose, is back for the Christmas episode after her character departed for America at the end of last season. Why did you decide to bring them back?
We brought Lily back because [her character] is a member of the family and probably would travel backward and forward. She’s obviously a popular character and Lily herself is a star now. We thought it would be popular for our fans to have a lot of the much-loved characters return over the course of the last season.
Lady Rose isn’t the only one who headed to America at the end of last season. Tom Branson (Allen Leech) did as well.
There was a lot of trans-Atlantic travel at that time. Britain was this old power and America was starting to become the dominant nation and, just as there is now, there was a lot of movement between London and New York.
It’s a logical place for those people to go. In Tom’s position, a lot of Irish people were crossing the Atlantic and he goes to Boston, which you can’t be more Irish than that.
The show is a U.K.-U.S. coproduction and it’s as big in America as it is here. We wanted it to feel relevant to American audiences and for them to feel like they’re a part of the story as well.
The show has famously found ways to make married couple Bates and Anna suffer. Is there any hope for them this season?
They’ve just been the ultimate star-crossed lovers on the show and I’ve got to say that we’re going to put them through a few more hurdles before we bring them into land in the series. They’ve got a few more obstacles to get around.
We saw them as this very interesting partnership that the fans gravitated toward. The optimistic, good-hearted center of the show is someone who falls in love with this melancholic character. Somehow they just work well together. However, they are star-crossed and there’s difficulty that they have to overcome that just makes them more compelling.
I think there’s also a view that particularly Julian holds — and this relates to Lady Edith [Laura Carmichael] as well — that most of us, we lead our lives with a combination of good luck and bad luck and in fairly equal measure we get a bit of good luck and a bit of bad luck. It’s like a pinball machine. That’s how you get through life.
I’m sure you know one of two people where everything goes right, but that’s not many of us … Some people have bad luck over and over again. I think Julian feels particularly strongly that that’s what happens to Edith and, to a lesser extent, what happens with Anna and Bates. I was going to say to a lesser extent, but I should say to a greater extent. While she was jilted at the altar, at least Edith wasn’t charged with murder.
I’m hoping the Christmas episode will give us some glimmer of hope for those two.
There are going to be twists and turns and shocks and surprises, but ultimately the overwhelming message of “Downton Abbey” is a positive one.
Speaking of Edith, you have done wonderful things representing the women’s movement, particularly when it comes to publishing.
It’s always been held up as a show that has positive female characters. Julian Fellowes writes female characters very well indeed. What I like about it is, we’re depicting a world that is very male-dominated. But from the beginning of the show to end, we show that under the surface it’s the women who are making everything tick.
I always tell the story of the Mr. Pamuk episode in season one. The women have dealt with the situation to save everyone’s reputation and yet, the next morning Robert [played by Hugh Bonneville] and Carson [played by Jim Carter] are oblivious to what’s going on. Robert says I hope those poor women are OK because they’re much more delicate than we are they won’t be able to handle something like this. And, of course, we’ve just seen a scene with them carrying a dead body down the stairs.
We’ve always shown that women are in the driving seat. The bad luck that Edith has had has pushed her off the rails in terms of the very conventional trajectory that she was expecting to have. The good thing that has come out of this is that, yes she didn’t end up with the life that she wanted or thought that she was going to have, but she has then had to embrace business and industry productivity in a way that she never envisioned she would have to do. I would say probably Edith has gone on the biggest journey of any of the characters [except] possibly Tom Branson.
Maggie Smith has two Emmy awards and two nominations for her role as Violet Crawley in “Downton Abbey.” But she recently told Graham Norton that she’s never seen the show. (See above video)
I don’t know whether she has or she hasn’t, truth be told. I’m not sure if she’s being economical with the truth.
”Downton Abbey” Season 6 premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 3 on Masterpiece on PBS.