Shirley MacLaine gives Downton 'extra frisson'


Austerity, Irish republicanism and a formidable arrival from America in the form of Oscar-winner Shirley MacLaine will provide the latest challenge to the Crawley family when Downton Abbey returns in August.

Following the ITV drama's success in the US, the Hollywood star joins the cast as Martha Levinson, Lady Cora's mother, who clashes with Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, and brings a New York-cultivated impatience with Downton's fusty traditions.

The Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, faces financial ruin in the third series, which opens in 1920. Creator Julian Fellowes said: "The world is changing after the Great War. The Downton family have to work out if they've got a future or if they're going to the wall, because plenty of those families did."

The suffragette movement begins to inspire rebellion among the female household members and the Irish question looms large.

MacLaine's arrival caused a stir on set. Brian Percival, director, admitted: "I was terrified beforehand. She's a living legend, but she was so warm-hearted and witty."

MacLaine, 78, was taken aback by Downton's brisk shooting schedule. Liz Trubridge, producer, said: "She struggled at first with the rhythm (of the dialogue), but she worked really hard in the evenings to get it."

The Oscar-winner was even more confounded by the costumes.

MacLaine said: "The first day they were putting my costume on, the buttons were so small and located somewhere that I couldn't even reach. The corsets were so demanding. Did they make a class system out of the necessities of a wardrobe or the other way around?"

MacLaine said she had not been a fan of the show, but was persuaded to sign up when her hairdresser – who was – and who told her all about the character she would be playing.

Downton cast members are signed up for a further two series at least, with creator Julian Fellowes promising the Roaring Twenties and "madcap Charleston era" are still to come.