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Wednesday, April 23, 2014, 8:38 a.m.
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Matthew is dead, but Downton has never been more alive

By SARAH LYALL THE NEW YORK TIMES

This article was published January 9, 2014 at 2:43 a.m.

NEWBURY, England - We have raged against fate and come through our stages of grief. We have accepted that no matter how much we miss him - his limpid blue eyes, his good sense in marrying Lady Mary after his tiresome fiancee finally succumbed to the flu - Matthew Crawley is never coming back.

He is dead, having been hit by a truck while driving inattentively in the waning moments of Season 3 on Downton Abbey.

The surviving characters have been coming to grips with that jarring development, too, a process that has taken place off screen, thankfully, as sustained mourning is not much fun to watch. The fourth Downton season opened Sunday on the PBS series Masterpiece six months after the crash. Except for Lady Mary, the household - Lord and Lady Grantham, their other daughter, Edith, and the servants below stairs - had gone on with the business of living.

“If there’s a theme to the fourth season, it’s how Mary will rebuild her life,” said Gareth Neame, a Downton executive producer. It was April, and Neame was sitting, somewhat incongruously, in a modern-day office at Highclere Castle, the real Hampshire estate that stands in for the fictional Downton Abbey for some scenes (others, including bedroom and kitchen scenes, are filmed at Ealing Studios in West London).

The house was littered with props and film equipment. Actors flitted around in period attire.

Virtually no one (except Dan Stevens himself) wanted Dan Stevens, the English actor who played the popular Matthew, to leave the cast. But his decision to seek his acting fortune elsewhere meant he had to be killed off, and the show runners decided to turn the problem - Lady Mary’s sudden widowhood - into a dramatic opportunity.

In truth, it may have happened at a good time, providing a chance to breathe new life into a show that has increased its audience size at a surprising rate even as critics and some viewers grouse that its narrative lines are not as exciting as they once were.

Also, happily married is a boring state to depict on screen, especially when the love scenes involve a 1920s husband who wears pajamas in the bedroom.

“Once a young couple get married, there tends to be a dramatic lull,” Neame said. “The idea of numerous suitors arriving, interested in Lady Mary, is very exciting.”

There will be other plot developments, too. Among a handful of new characters are the show’s first black character, a jazz singer played by Gary Carr. The redoubtable Shirley MacLaine will return at the end of the season, playing Lady Grantham’s feisty American mother, and will be joined this time by her feisty American son, played by Paul Giamatti.

Lady Edith, who was jilted at the altar last season by her weedy beau, will have some interesting escapades, as she branches out in unconventional ways, personally and professionally.

Meanwhile, Lord Grantham will have to adjust to the changing times while finding a way to pay the crippling death duties brought on by Matthew’s demise; Branson, the chauffeur who married into the family and has been promoted to estate manager, will continue negotiating his uneasy transition from downstairs to upstairs; a beloved below-stairs cast member will be the victim of a shocking crime that will be followed by an incident that may not be murder but will be suspenseful.

And Carson, the butler, will go on being Carson.

STEADY HAND

“Poor old Carson,” said the actor who plays him, Jim Carter, speaking in his trailer - one of dozens parked down the hill from the castle - during the day’s lunch break.

“He’s worn the same clothes, and poured the same wine, for four years.” As the butler, his job, he said, is to provide a bulwark of stability for the household, no matter what.

“He’s not allowed to have much of a social life. The nation demands!” said Carter, whose hair looked unruly and un-Carsonesque. (“I come in looking like a haystack, and they put something on it to make it go quite solid,” he said.)

Back in the house, the cast was rehearsing a scene featuring a discussion of the whereabouts of Lady Edith, who was apparently at an unknown location in London. Any conversation with Maggie Smith, as Lord Grantham’s mother, is bound to feature some waspish remarks, and in this one, the actress - in civilian attire with short hair and bluejeans - was reciting a line in which her character dismisses the notion that Edith might have some exciting things going on: “Edith’s about as mysterious as a bucket.”

GENUINE SETTING

A few rooms over, the dining room was set up for a formal dinner. The furnishings all belong to the real-life owners of Highclere, Lord and Lady Carnarvon, who decamp while the series is being shot. The walls were thick with seriously impressive paintings, including two Van Dycks.

The table was set for 16 people. Each setting featured Spode china and four elaborate glasses; its own salt, pepper and mustard containers; silverware including three forks and three knives; and individual menus written in French by a handwriting expert using a fountain pen. Laid out on a sideboard, the wine - supposedly Chateau Haut-Brion, 1899 - came in genuine period bottles with labels reproduced from the originals.

Such details are overseen by Downton’s historical adviser, Alastair Bruce, who provides counseling on form, propriety and custom. He can’t have everything he wants - for instance, he said, a house like Downton Abbey would have had at least nine footmen, too many for the show - but said that he pushes as far as he can.

He had that day already supplied many corrections and suggestions, he said, pointing out, for instance, that characters should not kiss each other on both cheeks in greeting (“In those days, people hardly touched each other at all”) and arguing successfully for the presence of a footman making final dinner-table checks during a scene in which Carson and Lord Grantham discuss the wine.

“People enjoy historical drama more if they’re legitimately transported into the time,” Bruce said. “My role is to operate at a subconscious level. So by getting the details right, we allow the conscious to enjoy the entertainment more.”

POOR LADY

In her own trailer, Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, said that she would be dressed in full mourning garb for just the first episode, after which she would switch to half-mourning, which allows for better outfits.

Sitting outside, Elizabeth McGovern, the American actress who has re-energized her career by playing Cora, aka Lady Grantham, was wearing a huge green hairnet over an elaborate hairdo, and a fluffy pink bathrobe over a set of elaborate undergarments. (“The dress will come after lunch,” she said.)

“Cora is slightly more independent thinking, I’m pleased to report,” said McGovern, who is quite independent-thinking in real life. When she is not acting, she is the front woman for a band called Sadie and the Hotheads.

“She’s more inclined to react differently to her husband in some things, and is more impatient with his being stuck in the past.”

Hugh Bonneville, as Lord Grantham, was there, too, looking less well fed than he does on screen. “I play it fatter,” he explained.

He said one of the odder phenomena of the whole enterprise is how seriously Americans take it. People seem to believe he is an actual earl, he said, and Barbara Walters found it necessary to chastise him on The View after his character had a brief extramarital dalliance with a servant back in Season 2.

ONE WRITER

As it has been from the beginning, the series is written by one person, Julian Fellowes, with after-script consultation provided by Neame. Fellowes said he is constantly asked why the show is so successful - apart from the obvious fact that people love to watch English aristocrats in the last golden days of the aristocracy - and that “the real answer is that you don’t know.”

Fellowes continued: “When we try to fake up an answer. We say that we have got the zeitgeist of the moment right.

“In the 1950s, the servants would have been funny, and the family would have been charming and gracious. In the ’90s the servants would have been suffering and gallant and the family would have been vile and mendacious - those were the prejudices of the time.

“Now, as a general rule, people don’t need to think in those terms, so we don’t need to say that these people are this, and those people are that. To say that all the upper class are unkind is like saying that all the working class are clever with numbers, which I don’t believe in.”

Stevens’ unexpected decision to leave the show presented Fellowes with a problem. Having already figured out how to kill off the youngest Grantham daughter, Lady Sybil, in Season 3 - childbirth - when the actress playing her wanted to leave, he did not want to get rid of Matthew via illness. Nor did he want Matthew to abandon Lady Mary, for instance, in some caddish, fleeing-the-country maneuver.

“I didn’t want to undo the happiness of their love affair and marriage,” Fellowes said. “And the only way I could not undo it was to kill him.”

The death had to be quick. “There was always the potential of being electrocuted, but there’s a comic element to that,” Fellowes said. “A car crash is at the top of the list.”

AVOID GOOGLE

Matthew’s absence did not hurt ratings in Britain, where the fourth season has already come and gone. (Americans who hate having their television plots spoiled have had to resist the temptation to find out what happened by, say, typing Downton Abbey into their search engines.) Given the Downton viewing trends, even the loss of this important character seems unlikely to hurt ratings in the United States.

For those people worried in advance about what will happen at the end of this season, never fear. Season 5 has already been commissioned.

“The show is far too popular for it to end anytime soon,” Neame said.

Weekend, Pages 33 on 01/09/2014

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