By David Hennessy
Since it hit screens in 2010, Downton Abbey has become one of the most widely watched television programmes in the world, available in an incredible 240 international territories.
Downton Abbey depicts life for both the aristocratic Crawley family and their staff in a fictional Yorkshire country estate and how they are effected by historical events such as the sinking of the Titanic and World War I.
The drama has been lauded with awards and nominations both in the UK and in America where it has gone down a storm and is now the most nominated non-American programme ever at the Emmy Awards.
Set to return for a fifth series, The Irish World was at the recent press launch to talk to Irish stars Allen Leech and Brendan Coyle, stars of Irish descent such as Michelle Dockery, Sophie McShera, Raquel Cassidy, Kevin Doyle and Rob James-Collier as well as stars like Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Joanne Froggatt, Lily James, Leslie Nicol, Penelope Wilton, Daisy Lewis, Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter.
The latest series makes an explosive start with a fire in one of the bedrooms causing alarm. Rushing from bedroom to bedroom, Hugh Bonneville’s Earl of Grantham makes a shocking discovery. We won’t ruin anything but just say someone is in a room they shouldn’t be.
There was speculation that Tom Branson, played by Allen Leech, and Michelle Dockery’s Lady Mary could find comfort on each other after both being widowed. Mary’s husband Matthew Crawley died in a car crash while Tom’s wide Sybil passed away during childbirth. The pair have grown close but it looks likely that they will find new love but not with each other.
New additions to the cast also include Richard E Grant as a charming art historian and Anna Chancellor, known for playing Duckface in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
This latest series of Downton is set in 1924 when Ireland is a Free State. The Irish character Tom, who started as a chauffeur, has been seen as a rebel in the past for daring to voice his Republican views and also refusing to fight for Britain in the Great War. However, now the Earl’s daughter Sybil’s widow, he lives with the family and although he often he is unsure of where he fits in, he is liked by the family.
Allen Leech who plays Tom said at last week’s launch: “I think he’s such a changed man, it would be impossible for him to go back to the man he was. I think he’s not as naïve as he was when he first arrived. He had a great line last year that said, ‘I don’t believe in types, I believe in people’.
He changed his outlook. He’s still very strongly politically minded but I don’t think he could possibly go back to the way he was, he was very radical and strong in his views. I think he’s more educated now.”
On the show’s phenomenal success around the world, Allen said: “I think [the world] is just fascinated with British culture. It allows you to be the voyeur of the whold world, upstairs and downstairs. It allows you to see the working of this household and as a viewer, as a voyeur, you get to see all the elements and also the fact the show is full of secrets and drama. It’s got 22 main characters, there’s a good chance you’ll find one to root for and one you hate.”
The actor also remembered being recognised in an unusual place at the time in the show when after getting into trouble with the Irish police, Tom had left his wife Sybil in Ireland to return to Downton alone: “The episode had just aired where I’d left Sybil pregnant in Dublin having burnt out the landed gentry and the man at passport control – an elderly man in his sixties – took my passport, looked at me, looked at my passport, looked at me again and said, ‘That’s a sh**ty thing you did to your wife”.
Joanne Froggatt, who plays lady’s maid Anna Bates spoke of the reaction she had received to last series’ rape storyline. Her character’s attack prompted more than 200 complaints to media watchdog Ofcom last year but the show, which was broadcast after the 9pm watershed, was cleared of breaching broadcasting regulations.
The actress said: “It’s all been positive in responses to the storyline. “I was very honoured to receive letters from women who’d gone through similar experiences and felt Anna was a character they could connect with.
“That was very touching for me… It was a moving experience.”
Downton Abbey returns in the autumn. See The Irish World in future for more chats with the many stars.