Culture

'Downton Abbey' Season Premiere: Sex and the Single Housekeeper

One of the lovely aspects of PBS’ costume drama “Downton Abbey”— which, now set in 1925, returns for its sixth and final season of nine episodes on Sunday, Jan. 3, on “Masterpiece”– is that romance is not confined to the youngest characters.

Instead, it’s spread around rather democratically … certainly more so than in American television.

There’s obviously real love between aristocratic Brit Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), Lord Grantham, and his American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern). Her pregnancy in an earlier season (which ended tragically) showed that there are more than just kind words in the relationship.

Also, Mrs. Isobel Crawley (Penelope Wilton) — whose son Matthew (Dan Stevens) was briefly wed to Lord Grantham’s daughter Mary (Michelle Dockery) before his untimely death — a woman in her late 60s or early 70s, was proposed to by Richard Grey (Douglas Reith), the Baron Merton (but so far, as his adult children object, she has refused).

Not to be outdone by Isobel, her friend and sometime rival, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith), Dowager Countess of Grantham, who’s in her mid-80s, was the recipient of an indecent proposition from a former lover, a Russian prince, last season. She turned it down, but not because she was entirely disinterested.

When season six opens, an issue crops up in the engagement of “Downton Abbey” housekeeper Mrs. Elsie Hughes to butler Mr. Charles Carson (Jim Carter). Describing herself as a woman in “late middle age,” Mrs. Hughes — who’s never actually been married — is concerned that Carson, who’s no spring chicken himself, will be disappointed on the wedding night.

We won’t reveal how it all comes out, but one thing is certain, America’s love affair with “Downton Abbey” is coming to a close. On that occasion, here are reflections from some of the show’s stars, offered up at a press conference about a month before the end of filming last summer.

Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) on what he’d like to take home with him:

I’d like to take one of the mustard pots from the dining room, because it’s where we stored our Wink Murder bits of paper. So that, between tapes, we’d hand bits of paper around, and one of them had a cross on it, and that meant you were the murderer, and you had to murder someone around the table. And at the end of the scene, after the cameras stopped rolling, then you then died. So that mustard pot there has a lot of memories.

Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) on what she liked about her sojourn into the past:

I miss the peace of it, the fact that in today’s world we’re so inundated with information all the time and with stuff we don’t really need to know. With so many choices we have to make, so much opportunity is seemingly at our fingertips. And I miss the peace of this world in which everybody more or less knew their place and more or less accepted it, and life seemed so quiet by comparison.  I think that’s part of the appeal of escape of this world.

In a way, in today’s world, we contend with more information than we can actually absorb and handle in our emotional development, and it produces a sort of low‑grade anxiety all the time. You always know every party that everyone’s ever gone to, and you know all this information about everybody before you even meet them, and it’s really more than we can really process. But in the world of “Downton Abbey,” we all only know the circle that is right in front of our face, and we know our job, and we know our place, and we know how to behave. And there are limits to that life, of course, but it’s peaceful.

Joanne Froggatt (who plays lady’s maid Anna Bates) takes the opposite view:

It’s certainly brought back home many times how lucky I am to be living in a free society as a woman in this era, and the lack of opportunity for women in that time unless you were born into the aristocracy, which so few were. So, that’s been something that’s certainly stuck with me, I think, my freedom.

Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) that less can be more:

[I learned] the worth of things; that’s something that you got very much. When you had a dress made, it was made for you. And even the maids would have their dresses. Or they would make them, but that was ‑‑ you had fewer things, and when it was made, it was tailor-made. And I never thought I’d say this, but I got to enjoy wearing those wonderful hats.

Michelle Dockery (Mary) recalls a moment during filming with Froggatt:

When we were filming in Scotland, Jo and I had one of the worst [moments], when you just cannot stop laughing. Because I had this line when Mary was pregnant at the time. They had had a picnic, and they just got in a carriage to go to the picnic. I said, “I was shaken about in that trap like dice in a cup.”  And it just became ‑‑ and I went to Jo, “It’s like a song,” so I was like (singing), “Shaken about, shaken about, shaken about in a trap.” And we just lost it to the point where she had to turn around during a take and her shoulders were going like this (demonstrating), crying, laughing.

Froggatt picks up the thread:

We had to actually re‑block the scene almost, didn’t we, because we couldn’t look at each other. At a certain point of the day, we get really tired, and something just sets you off.

I did it the other day as well, and some of the guys were going, “We’re going to call you call Little Jo Shoulders from now on,” because I’m literally like this (demonstrating), giggling away.

Executive producer Gareth Neame on saying goodbye:

I want you to love it for the rest of your life. I want you to dip in and out of it every few years and remember it. I don’t want people to go, “Oh, it was such a shame about the last season, because Hugh Bonneville asked for three times as much money, so he couldn’t come back” — and the whole thing just didn’t work, and that would be the worst thing.

So I love the fact that you don’t want it to end, and, enjoy the remaining episodes.