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‘Downton Abbey’ Season Five Postmortem: Gareth Neame Talks the Carson and Hughes Wedding, Plans For Season Six

Another season of “Downton Abbey” has come to a close in grand romantic fashion — this time with Carson (Jim Carter) surprising Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) by proposing marriage. (Fortunately, she accepted.)

With season six already in production in the UK, Variety rang “Downton” executive producer Gareth Neame to discuss the season five finale and what’s ahead for the series.

Though rumors persist that season six could be the end of “Downton,” Neame re-confirms that no one is ready to announce such a thing just yet and renewals are made one season at a time. And while the ratings in the UK slipped a bit this past year, Neame asserts the series remains in “robust health” worldwide.

As for other questions raised by the finale — Is Allen Leech’s Tom Branson leaving the show? Is Matthew Goode’s Henry Talbot joining? Will Anna and Bates ever catch a break? — Neame exercises extreme caution with his answers.

I want to make sure we all keep the date open, so when should we pencil in the wedding of Carson and Mrs. Hughes?
Well… It looks like it’s probably going to happen but you never know with this show. All sorts of twists and turns and surprises happen, but let’s hope they get all the way to the altar.

Do you feel like the wedding is something the fans will demand to see?
One of the things with running a show like this that’s so popular globally you start to get a sense of what the fans respond to and relate to, and which pairings have really caught people’s imagination. There’s just something about this couple who have been almost like a married couple all the way through, they just don’t know it yet. They’ve both gotten to later years without having tied the knot. It’s the lovely thing where millions all over the world can see what the characters can’t see for themselves. Hopefully (the proposal) is very exciting and fulfilling for people. Let’s just hope one of those tricky “Downton” things doesn’t happen that thwarts them.

The finale also leaves open what will happen to Tom Branson. Do you want fans to believe Allen Leech is leaving the show or will it open a new direction for Tom moving forward?
He’s got to go out into the world and see what the alternatives are out there. (Tom) went from being someone who was going to bring disgrace on the family to someone who is deeply loved. It’s the way the humanity of the show comes through, when people’s prejudices are put aside.

Considering how important he is to the family should we expect to see less of Tom next season or maybe see him in a different capacity?
He’s definitely left at the end of this episode, so we’ll have to see.

Another surprise of the finale was the chemistry between Lady Mary and Henry Talbot. How did you decide to cast Matthew Goode in that role?
We really like Matthew and we’ve been interested in getting him into the show for awhile. We like the soft encounter that (Mary and Henry) have. He’s somebody who piques her interest. We think Matthew is a great actor. He’s a strong actor and Henry is a strong character. Mary has definitely shown a flicker of interest she hasn’t much shown before, so it will be interesting as to where that goes.

He’s currently a series regular on “The Good Wife” in the US. We don’t know what will happen with his character on either show, but can we assume we’ll see more of Henry on “Downton”?
I guess the way we’ve filmed their goodbye kind of suggests we haven’t seen the last of him. It’s interesting this time that we’re in, isn’t it? An actor can be in another show and these things are all dovetailing. Things are so unpredictable now.

It’s funny with drama series. We’ve many times before it wasn’t in our original plan that we would lose Dan Stevens and that character. When Dan decided he wanted to move on you have to rethink the story. I’m really delighted with how it’s turned out. I think it’s made for such an interesting show, and made Mary’s life incredibly complex. People root for her to end up with the right guy. I think a lot of people thought in season five it would be one of the two guys (Tom Cullen as Lord Gillingham and Julian Ovenden as Charles Blake), and she’s not that straightforward.

Was the plan always to keep Mary single or did you want to make sure you found exactly the right match?
It’s almost like we’re matchmaking for a fictional character, trying to work out who we think is the right one. It’s also a sense of timing. With Matthew having died at the end of season three, if we got her hitched again by the end of season four I think audiences would’ve felt it was too fast.

One of the standout stories of the season was Violet’s romantic past resurfacing. It’s rare enough to see older characters on TV, let alone in a romantic storyline. Was that a deliberate choice to do something different?
The starting point is when we’ve got Violet lecturing Mary on her sexual conduct and the way she behaves. We’ve very often shown how Mary is a chip off the old block, probably more like her grandmother than she is like her father. That’s one part of it. But also I think it’s absolutely to Julian’s credit to want for an older character to have a romantic storyline.

She had a devastating love affair that could’ve ended her marriage. I think it’s wonderfully positive, because it’s totally unrepresented on television. Vast numbers of people who are watching television are older people and yet any sense there’s anything going on is totally off the radar. As a show we’ve always been about romantic love — will they or won’t they? This stuff is so old-fashioned and deeply unsexy, and yet we’ve demonstrated people will lap that up because they love it.

I love the scene in the final episode where Violet tells Isobel the entire story, and Violet’s final line “I know this is the last time in my life I will receive any proposition from a man.” I also love the way Violet tries to put the kibosh on Isobel’s relationship. We think it’s because (Violet) doesn’t want (Isobel) to marry up and become senior to her, but the revelation is no, Violet just doesn’t want to lose her friend.

What was Maggie Smith’s reaction to the storyline?
She was very positive. She’s an 80-year-old actress and she wants to tell stories about someone who is still in the thrust of their life and not on the scrap heap. I think she enjoyed the storyline very much.

Bates and Anna seem to have the worst luck, as even Robert remarked this season. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel for them?
It is true. Some people seem to be charmed and everything they do turns good. Some people are very unfortunate. I hope eventually they do get a break. Audiences have loved seeing how genuine their relationship is and how frustrated it is by the things that go wrong for them. People enjoy that.

What can you say about the decision to kill poor Isis?
We have to be realistic about the passage of time. We started the show in 1912, and we’re now in the mid-’20s. That’s the thing about pets, we love them and yet they have short lives. We’ve watched this family go through a whole era together. Losing pets is one of those things that happens. It has a nice function in the season because Robert displays very typical emotions, and finds it much easier to grieve about his pet than many other things going on in his life.

But we won’t lose the dog from the opening credits will we?
We don’t plan to change the opening credits. We’ll still start with the dog’s bottom.

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