Downton Abbey series four: Ten things you need to know

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Downton Abbey has been screened in 220 territories to an estimated global audience of 120 million people in just three series.

So it's no wonder that some of us are clamouring to know more about what happens in series four of Julian Fellowes' period drama for ITV, set for broadcast on 22 September.

Without spoiling the plot, here’s a selection of important things that staunch Downtonites should know as they prepare for Autumnal evenings in front of the telly.

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Things have moved on rather

Series four finds Lady Mary at her “lowest ebb” six months after the death of her husband Matthew (Dan Stevens, who departed for America *Sob*) in that fateful car crash on the day their baby was born.

Fellowes says he thought carefully about whether or not to start the new series immediately after the accident. He says: “It seemed much more interesting to, if you like, jump forward to Mary beginning to reconstruct her life. And by leaving it six months, we could start with her at her lowest ebb, but at the beginning of the period when it sort of becomes time for you to start getting out and about again.”

And by “out and about” we take it Julian means get meeting the litany of suitors he has carefully lined up for her delectation.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa performs at The May Fair Hotel at the launch of Downton Abbey series 4. Dame Kiri Te Kanawa Get the sequins out, it's party time!

Things don’t stay gloomy for very long as the Crawleys stage their first mega house party. And with a guest appearance from Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, as the greatest opera star of the period, Dame Nellie Melba, the Twenties certainly start Roaring.

“These parties were built to impress and to entertain and it just struck me as being odd that we’d never had a house party,” Fellowes remarked. “I thought it was believable that the characters of Robert and Cora would want to help their daughter start again, and me, the author, thought it would be fun to see Downton going full pitch.” The party marks a general lightening of the spirits (and a donning of sequins) after the tragic deaths of Matthew and Lady Sybil.


There's no such thing as a happy ending

It is not all rosy for Anna and Mr Bates. After he was tried, and found not guilty, for the murder of his ex-wife (mostly thanks to Anna who did her best Miss Marple impression), in the last series, you might’ve thought Fellowes would provide some harmonious down-time for these two lovebirds in their new cottage on the estate. But no!

There is no sign of the longed-for baby Bates but nevertheless things start off well. Brendan Coyle, who plays Mr Bates, says: “Something happens that shakes their world and has serious consequences.” While Joanne Froggatt, who plays Anna, is equally cryptic, promising Fellowes has prepared a few“shocks and surprises” for them.

Marriage à la mode: Downton’s Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Marriage à la mode: Downton’s Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary  

Hip hip hooray Matthew's dead

Things are much better for the creators now Matthew is dead. Producer Gareth Neame, who along with Fellowes, stated publicly that he didn’t want Dan Stevens to leave the show, says things have turned out rather nicely, actually.

“In drama sometimes what seems like the absolute worst thing that could happen can be a great opportunity, if you spin it 180 degrees the other way. The predicament Mary Crawley is in for the fourth series is far more dramatically powerful and interesting than if Matthew were alive. It will engage audiences more than their relationship would have done.” Well he would say that wouldn't he? Poor Matthew…*Sniff*.

It's the living things...

Put the tissues away and leave the whisky in the bottle. There won’t be any more deaths at Downton for quite some time executive producer Liz Trubridge reassures us.

“We don’t want to have any more deaths at the moment, that’s for sure. At least not straight away. But let me put it this way, I think we’re very conscious of the effect that both Sybil and Matthew’s deaths had on the viewers…At the same time we don’t want to pendulum to go too far the other way and just to become froth.” Quite right. You'd almost think a series could go through the Great War without losing more than one main character, wouldn't you?

Lord of the Manor reins supreme (ish)

Robert gets back in the saddle as Downton’s fierce patriarch. His power had been being gradually eroded in the last series by Matthew, who owned 50 per cent of the estate, who along with Tom Branson (former driver and Lady Sibyl’s widower), was keen to modernise them out of a financial pickle.

Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, says he starts off series four facing “a double a calamity” -the breaking of Mary’s heart and the loss of his heir, plus potentially disastrous death duties looming large. The solution? To reimpose some good old Victorian values. “At the beginning of the third series we saw Robert’s own folly jeopardising the future of the estate…This time, the death of his heir and the burden of death duties – half the estate was owned by Matthew and punitive taxes are due to the revenue. What is he to do? How can he preserve Downton for his heir, the baby George?”

But could his efforts be interfered with by Mary herself? A girl running Downton? Somebody pass the Dowager the smelling salts.


Meddlesome maid soap opera

The lady’s maids are on the move: “Evil Edna” the below stairs vixen who was fired spectacularly during the Christmas special is back. MyAnna Buring, who plays her, says she couldn’t see how the character could return given the circumstances in which she left last time (after snogging Tom Branson).

But the departure in the night of scheming Sarah O’Brien (perhaps Lady Cora found out about the bar of soap?) opens up an opportunity for Edna who still has designs on Branson. “Edna is somebody who has dreams far above her station. She sees in Branson somebody who has realised those dreams and she hopes that one day she can realise her own,” Buring says. “When they met during the Christmas episode I think she definitely had this sort of romantic view of Branson. I think she’s much more pragmatic this time around, believing they can be allies and help each other. She fantasises about him in that way.”

The middle daughter dons the spangles

Lady Edith gets to take centre stage. The dowdiest of the three Crawley sisters is benefiting from not being jilted (in this series, anyway), widowed or dying in childbirth. She takes full advantage by having a rampant affair with the married editor of The Sketch, for which she writes a column.

“In episode one Edith and Michael Gregson (Charlie Edwards) are reunited after six months – they haven’t seen each other since Matthew’s death,” says Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith. “But things are going very strong between them…Gregson has this bohemian lifestyle and he opens Edith’s eyes to all that…you get to feel a bit of the rebellion she’s going through. The family don’t notice that she’s socialising a lot, which is great for her - everyone’s so concerned about Mary.” Edith’s clothes have changed too, becoming “risqué, beautiful and sexy” according to the actor, who nicknamed one such frock the “Beadith”. Oo er!

Trouble downstairs

The servants are revolting! Jim Carter, who plays Downton’s chief stickler for convention, Mr Carson, says: “People are no longer content with their role in life. That’s finished really, so one of the footmen wants to be a cook, a chef? Unheard of! The kitchen maids want to be assistant cooks? Please!”

Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas Barrow, says things are not going that smoothly for the multifaceted under butler who is still out to make trouble despite his improved status (and the fact that everyone seems to have forgotten about the Jimmy debacle). “We see the dawning of a new partnership between Barrow and Edna with plenty of opportunities for some new plotting…he’s a survivor and he needs an accomplice.”

But it isn’t just the scheming the servants have to worry about. As Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy Mason, says: “Lady Cora buys us an electric mixer which is like the devil incarnate to Mrs Patmore. She can’t bear it!”


What's love got to do with it?

The love lives of the parents are as messy as the children’s. Things might not be as bad between Lady Cora and Earl Grantham as they were following Lady Sybil’s untimely demise (which the former blamed partly on the latter's dithering and stupidity). But their long relationship has taken yet another shift, with Cora making more demands and displaying her irritation with Robert as the pair attempt to steer Mary out of her grief.

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays her, says: “Cora’s more willing to take another side of the argument to Robert…she’s much more impatient with his flaws…when he is being obstinate about moving on with the times and things like that.”

Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Crawley, is left bereft after her son Matthew and finds herself unable to engage in the charity work that once gave her purpose. Her only comfort? The attentions of Doctor Clarkson. But things don’t look likely to turn romantic for the pair. “Isobel has decided she’s not going to have that sort of life anymore. She likes independence, she’s much freer [without a husband].”

Downton Abbey is on ITV1 Sunday nights at 9pm from 22 September 2013

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