For Julian Fellowes, series four of Downton Abbey marks the end of the beginning.
The world in which Downton began has more or less ended and now they have to find a new way forward.
Immediately after the First World War there was a sort of dazed period where society – and I don’t just mean high society – was trying to gauge how much had changed. We’ve done the third series, when people were almost tentatively trying to decide how different the world had become.
The fourth is more about getting into the 20s: what young people wanted, the changes in music, the arrival of the movies, cars, transport and all of that stuff. But also the difficulties of the big estates, with so many of them packing up. And of course that was quite a worry for the authorities: where was food going to come from? Were they going to be farmed in the same way? All of that establishes the colour of the fourth series.
The new series begins six months after the death of Matthew Crawley that shocked viewers in last year’s Christmas episode. Fellowes thought carefully about whether or not to move forward in time, and then how far.
It seemed to be 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, starting to make things happen once more.
For Mary, does ‘getting out and about again’ mean we can expect her to receive attention from new admirers?
I don’t think in Mary’s case it is believable that no man would have been interested: she’s very good looking, she’s clever, she’s very well placed, she has a big estate; these women are pursued.
But will she even be interested, when she begins the series so dejected?
The only reason she wouldn’t be eventually courted successfully would be if she was determined to remain alone and I just don’t think that’s who she is. I think she’s one of those people who find it quite difficult to be generally genial and those people need a partner, because otherwise there’s no one they’re ever completely relaxed with.
We see a number of new faces joining the cast in series four of which two are Anthony Gillingham (Tom Cullen) and Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden).
Anthony Gillingham is very much someone from the Crawley world - and he’s been dealing with very similar problems. Charles Blake is a different kettle of fish: he is very much a modern thinker. He thinks the landed class, or indeed anyone else, are going to have to shape up if they want to get through. They’re both nice good men but they have a different kind of modus operandi.
Mary’s re-emergence on the social scene has allowed Fellowes to pen an opulent set piece he’s long wanted to write.
These houses were built to impress and to entertain and it just struck me as being odd that we’d never had a house party. I think it was two things, really: 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.
A house party needs some headline entertainment – Fellowes decided that the greatest opera star of the period, the Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba, might well put in an appearance. It was obvious who should play her.
We have another antipodean opera star who is, I think, within a year the same age as Nellie Melba. We all thought it would be great if Dame Kiri Te Kanawa would do it, and thank God she did! It was very exciting for the cast and the servants to be sitting there listening to Kiri Te Kanawa giving them their own personal concert.
It all marks a general lightening of the spirits in the big house, after two tragic deaths and a period in which, as Fellowes puts it:
We’d had lots of sadness and people in black dresses lying in bed and thinking ‘Oh God'.
That said, don’t think series four will be all sweetness and light. Just when Anna and Bates looked like they might be about to waltz off in to the sunset, Fellowes promises, more upset for downstairs Downton’s favourite couple. The key, says Fellowes is neither to be too grim nor too glib but somewhere in between.
The trick of Downton is that it’s quite funny but it makes you cry. You have to keep that in mind always - it mustn’t be so funny that it ceases to be real because then it won’t make you cry. But you mustn’t cry so much that you can’t then enjoy a scene in the kitchen with Mrs Patmore.