In late middle age, the leading above- and below-stairs couples of Downton Abbey are enjoying the prime of their screen lives and acting careers. Onscreen couples Hugh Bonneville, 52, and Elizabeth McGovern, 54, (who are married on the program) and Jim Carter, 67, and Phyllis Logan, 59, (who are engaged to be married) were recently in New York to promote the sixth and final season of the beloved PBS Masterpiece drama, which debuts in America this Sunday, Jan. 3.
At a cast panel at PBS Thirteen in New York, creator Julian Fellowes, 66, was straightforward about his fondness for late-in-life love stories. Though he has a Best Screenwriting Oscar for his collaboration with Robert Altman on Gosford Park, Fellowes’ worldwide acclaim came with Downton Abbey.
“I think it’s so important to show older people having romance and sex in their lives,” he said, noting that, as a rule it’s rare to see graying lovers on film. In Season 5, there was one over-60 romance plot involving Dowager Countess Maggie Smith and another revolving around Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley) — who’s had two elegant, over-65 suitors.
As Season 6 opens, the marriage is imminent — and Mrs. Hughes is having anxiety attacks about nudity and consummation.
Romance Below the Stairs
And because Fellowes has always given as much weight to the lives of the servants as the aristocrats, in the new season, set in 1925, the first episode features the impending wedding of devoted butler Charles Carson (Carter) and no-nonsense head housekeeper Elsie Hughes (Logan). It is a first marriage for both of the Crawleys’ head servants, who are portrayed as being in their late 60s.
Although the chaste romance evolved for five years at what Carter termed the “speed of a glacier,” as Season 6 opens, the marriage is imminent — and Mrs. Hughes (the “Mrs.” was a traditional title for servants then) is having anxiety attacks about nudity and consummation.
She procrastinates in setting the wedding date until knowing what her intended “expects.” But too mortified to broach the subject herself, she has the also embarrassed cook, Mrs. Patmore, (Lesley Nicol) ask her groom if he expects a “full” marriage.
“Mrs. Patmore hilariously trying to negotiate the terms of the marriage with Mr. Carson captures all that is good about the series,” Fellowes said.
The Scottish Logan, sparkly and effervescent in New York, looks much younger and is decidedly more glamorous than Mrs. Hughes, rather a plain brown wren in sensible shoes. But she loves playing the character, whom Fellowes has characterized as the moral center of the program. Though the relationship exemplifies Fellowes’s fondness for developing relationships as a slow burn, Logan said she believes Carson fell in love with Mrs. Hughes first. “Though I suppose for both of them it took a lot of guts and big hearts for them to embark upon something like this in late middle age,” Logan said.
Still a Surprise
Even after six years, the cast still seems astonished at the acclaim for Downton Abbey. With English understatement, Bonneville said “the affection and demographics of the show far exceeded expectations. It’s been an amazing signpost in our careers, no doubt.”
He said was stunned when, in the early days of Downton, after only four episodes, a classmate of his 10- year-son Felix accosted him in the school parking lot. “He said ‘I don’t like that evil butler Thomas,’” Bonneville said. “I was amazed at the reach of the demographic.”
McGovern, who has played his lordship’s onscreen wife three times, says she’ll most miss the Granthams’ PG-rated bedroom scenes, a literary device used often by Fellowes for summary.
“I’m going to miss regularly reiterating the plot with Hugh Bonneville in bed every night,” McGovern said to an auditorium full of laughter. “And never, by the way, having any sex.” “Unlike the Carsons,” chimed in Logan.
In the United States, where the cast is mobbed wherever they appear, “it’s rather a different famous,” Fellowes said. “When Americans love something, it’s not by half-measure. English fans don’t express themselves in quite the same way.”
The stars were also joined by Michelle Dockery, 34, the beautiful actress who plays Lady Mary; Irish actor Allen Leech, who is Tom Branson, 34 (her chauffeur-turned- estate-manager brother-in-law); Kevin Doyle, 55, the hapless and hilarious manservant Molesley and executive producer Gareth Neame, 48.
No Detail Overlooked
All seven cast members seemed aware that it’s unlikely they’ll ever again be a part of such a global phenomenon; Downton Abbey is the highest rated drama in PBS history and has spawned an industry unto itself that includes more than 20 books, music, mugs, tea, towels, wine, trading cards, puzzles, table runners, night lights, jewelry, jelly, hair barrettes, baskets, clothes, Christmas ornaments, lamps, light-up villages and a board game.
What makes a job on the adored program different, Bonneville said, is the extraordinary due diligence accorded everything, starting with the magnificence of Highclere Castle (as the abbey) to the glorious fox-and- hounds hunting scenes to the superlative writing, costumes, cinematography, set decoration and accuracy of every detail.
Bonneville said the authentic post-Edwardian period food is really cooked (again and again) for the excruciatingly correct dining room scenes — which take days to film — in which Carson, ever the military-postured butler, must always stand. (“People have said they don’t recognize me when I’m sitting down,’” Carter joked.)
“When I open a letter in a scene, it is handwritten on beautiful paper, in calligraphy, and the prose is relatable to the scene I’m acting,” said Bonneville, who confessed to having snitched one. “Whereas in other filming I’ve done, the words ‘blah blah blah’ are written on the page of the letter.”The cast was nostalgic — and more than a little sad — about having heard the final “cut” last summer on the extraordinary Masterpiece series that made them famous around the world. For Carter, watching the burly crew members dissolve into tears just did him in. He said: “I was a soggy mess. Took me completely by surprise.”
For his part, Fellowes said he stopped by the set on the last day of filming in August, intending to stay for 10 minutes but ending up for the duration, a long goodbye that was tear-stained and emotional for him, as well.“What a lachrymose lot we are,” Fellowes joked. “When life, essentially, is really a matter of saying goodbyes.”Said Dockery: “I was rather sick leading up to the last take.”
But it was the words of Laura Carmichael (her screen sister, Lady Edith) that most calmed and resonated with Dockery. Though the siblings catfight constantly in the series, in life they are so close that Dockery moved in London to be near Carmichael (who was a receptionist in a doctor’s office before being cast as Lady Edith).
Carmichael’s message to Dockery was gratitude. “Laura and I walked through the house together and sat in all the rooms and cried,” Dockery said. “And she summed up the experience by saying to me, ‘Just cherish all the joy we’ve had doing this the last six years.’ She said that some people don’t experience this much joy in a lifetime. And that has still stayed with me.”
Since its premiere in 2010, the costume drama that is Downton Abbey has been the most watched and nominated show in British history. The series thus far has amassed, among other awards, three Golden Globes, three Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Producers Guild Award, three BAFTAs and three National Television Awards for Best Drama. The sixth and final season of Downton Abbey premieres on Masterpiece on PBS, Sunday, Jan. 3, at 9 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.