Downton Abbey will return to ITV1 in 2013 for a fourth series of the Emmy and Golden Globe award-winning drama.
Filming of eight new episodes for autumn 2013 plus an extended special episode for Christmas 2013 begins at Highclere Castle and Ealing Studios in February next year.
The opening and closing episodes will again be feature length with series four continuing the story of the Crawley family and their servants in the early 1920s.
Gareth Neame, Managing Director of Carnival Films, the show’s makers and Executive Producer of Downton Abbey said well-loved characters both above and below stairs will return along with the arrival of some new faces.
“Viewers can look forward to more drama, comedy, love, hatred, jealousy, rivalry, ambition, despair and romance.”
Laura Mackie, Director of Drama at ITV, said: “We’re thrilled to welcome back a drama series that has become a much anticipated part of all our lives every autumn and achieved success around the globe.
“Creator, writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes and the production team, led by Gareth and the producer Liz Trubridge, never rest on their laurels and have exciting plans for the fourth series.”
But first fans of the hit drama should prepare for both laughter and tears in a two-hour special to be screened on ITV1 at 9pm this Christmas Day.
“We hope the Downton family of viewers will gather together to watch this major TV event as a shared Christmas night experience,” said Laura.
“Last year’s special episode set the nation talking on Boxing Day and 2012's Christmas Day episode is no different. As ever, Downton will take its audience through a whole range of emotions. All of life's experiences will feature in this episode.
“This is one episode you will want to see live with millions of others - and best have the tissues ready.”
It sees Lord and Lady Grantham and family heading for a summer break in The Highlands of Scotland, leaving most of their servants back at home.
The annual visit to his Scottish cousins at Duneagle Castle, where the piper calls the tune for breakfast and dinner, is the highlight of Robert’s (Hugh Bonneville) year.
Duneagle is the home of young, headstrong Lady Rose (Lily James), who was sent home in the last episode of series three after her dalliance with a married man.
The castle is a grander step up from Downton, with deer stalking and fishing also on hand in the stunning surrounding Scottish countryside.
During the special episode Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) discovers that newspaper editor Michael Gregson (Charles Edwards) also happens to be on holiday in Scotland and may not be there just for the sketching and fishing.
While Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Mary (Michelle Dockery) disagree about Mr Gregson’s motives towards unlucky-in-love Edith.
Personal servants John Bates (Brendan Coyle), his wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt), Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) accompany the family on their trip north.
O’Brien discovers a kindred spirit below stairs in the form of her opposite number, Susan’s lady’s maid Wilkins (Simone Lahbib).
But who will be left reeling at the Gillies’ Ball?
The Scottish scenes were shot on location at Inveraray Castle, the ancestral home of the Duke of Argyll, Chief of the Clan Campbell.
Meanwhile back in Yorkshire, estate land agent Tom Branson (Allen Leech) has stayed behind at Downton with young daughter ‘Sybbie’.
In spite of the family’s attempts to integrate the former chauffeur into their world, he continues to live between the Crawleys and the servants below stairs. He’s still grieving for wife Sybil, the youngest daughter, who died after giving birth to their first child.
Butler Mr Carson (Jim Carter) faces the task of keeping the household servants concentrated on their work polishing the silverware and cleaning the rooms.
But with the family away, minds begin to wander to other things - including the forthcoming Thirsk Country Fair.
“While the cat’s away, the mice will play,” explained executive producer Gareth.
“The Grantham’s do not live at Downton Abbey 12 months of the year. They would go to London for the summer season and also go away on holidays like this.
“And when that happens the domestic staff of Downton would remain. What will they get up to while the family is away?”
In a not to be missed special episode, wise housekeeper Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) tells Mr Bates: “Life is full of surprises.”
And that is certainly true at the great house this Christmas Day.
Could there be romance in store for cook Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol)?
New housemaid Edna (MyAnna Buring) joins the restless servants around their big table as they look forward to the country fair.
Downton Abbey has become a worldwide phenomenon screened in over 200 countries.
The third series, just broadcast in the UK, premieres on Masterpiece on PBS in the USA on January 6.
“Downton has a whole life beyond the episodes themselves. It has leapt out of the television set and become part of both the national and global conversation,” explained Gareth.
“It is now part of culture and society and that’s a very different experience for all of us involved in making the show.”
Both Gareth and Laura praised the “genius” of astute observer and master storyteller Julian Fellowes, who writes all the episodes.
“Not only is he a superb craftsman, he also has an extraordinary work ethic. It is a mammoth undertaking to write all those episodes,” said Gareth.
“The main credit for the success of Downton is by far and away down to Julian. I’ve not had the fortune to work with anyone else who combines so many talents.”
It is no secret that Julian is a lifelong fan of the Rovers Return regulars.
“He has learned an awful lot as a viewer of Coronation Street and has an extraordinary sense of serial drama writing,” explained Gareth.
“Julian knows that you want a core group of characters who almost become an extension of your family. But you also need new blood coming in to shake things up a bit.”
Laura pointed to the seamless introduction of new characters in the last series, including scullery maid Ivy (Cara Theobold), as well as Alfred (Matt Milne) and Jimmy.
“That is one of the reasons why we always feel confident about the future of Downton Abbey,” she said.
With consolidated ratings averaging 11.9 million viewers for series three which equates to a 40% share of the available audience, Downton Abbey is undoubtedly the most popular drama in recent memory. The final episode of the last series also achieved over 12 million viewers, which was a fitting climax to such a globally successful series.
“We're always very pleased with the audience reaction to the series," said Laura. "From the very first series Julian created an ensemble of memorable characters. Of course there are some you may like more than others but they’re all incredibly well drawn.
“He knows them all so well and is able to quickly integrate new characters into the drama so you feel as if they have always been there. That’s a real gift.
“Julian, Gareth and the production team manage to keep the absolute essence of what people liked in the first place and yet they almost treat every series as though it’s a new drama.
“So each series feels fresh and yet it always delivers those things you love. As we move through the different eras there’s always more to enjoy.”
Added Laura: “Julian has also always had that ability to write a balance of the big story and the tiny little details. So in series three, for example, we saw a jazz club for the first time as part of Rose’s story - and also cocktails being served at Downton.”
With the announcement of a fourth series, Laura said there is plenty for the Downton audience to look forward to.
Gareth agreed: “Everyone who works to bring Downton Abbey to the screen is incredibly proud of the show and want to cherish it.
“We’re in rude health and have a long way still to go - starting with a not to be missed and truly memorable Christmas Day episode.”
Downton Abbey screens on ITV1 on Christmas Day at 9pm.