PREVIEW: Downton Abbey and Q&A with Penelope Wilton and Laura Carmichael

WHERE: BFI

WHEN: 17/9

We are about to watch the opening episode in the 6th and final season of Downton Abbey when ITV director of television Peter Fincham leaps on stage unexpectedly to tell us this is the beginning rather than the end.

He’s referring to the nine episodes still to be seen (eight on consecutive Sundays from 20/9 and a Christmas day special) but he’s also doing nothing to dispel speculation about a film or origins series.

Before the preview we are shown what is referred to as a ‘sizzle reel’ which includes clips from the show’s six-year past as well as revealing it averages an 11 million audience for ITV and has won 11 Emmys (a total it may increase on 20/9), 3 Golden Globes and 3 BAFTAs.

Asked how the nation will be feeling when the Christmas day finale airs, producer Chris Croucher says: ‘Ask my wife. She was watching it with me as I was crying my eyes out.’ But the Q&A panel is quick to point out that a single episode can provoke joy and laughter – as well as tears.

Like it was written as a police series

Penelope Wilton plays Isobel described here as the show’s ‘social conscience’ and Wilton gives some insight about what attracted here to the show and what challenges her about it. ‘I was impressed there were all these story lines going on in one episode. It was like it was written as a police series, it worked as quickly as that, except it was made as a costume drama.’

Croucher explains that scenes averaged two or three pages in series 2 (about two or three minutes long) but now they are more likely to be one page (60 seconds). Wilton adds: ‘You’re just getting into a scene and you leave it. You have to be very well aware of the storyline as you approach each scene especially also as we film out of sequence.’

Wicked sense of humour

It’s clear that working so closely together has helped the cast forge enduring friendships. Carmichael (who plays Lady Edith) speaks fondly of ‘Dockers’ (Michelle Dockery who plays Lady Mary) and time spent in the US ‘both in ripped jeans and leather jackets’ encountering series fans who ‘wet themselves’ as a result.

Wilton’s battle of wills with Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham (played by Dame Maggie Smith) is clearly enhanced by the close relationship between the two. Wilton says of her co-star: ‘She has a wicked sense of humour. Although I don’t dare give you any examples.’

The scenes may generally be short but the set piece shots around the dining table have been known to take up to two days to shoot. Wilton reveals that to pass the time the cast play wink murder around the table with notes passed around in a mustard pot to reveal who is the ‘murderer’ who has to wink at their victim.

My first television job

Carmichael is asked what she will miss about the series and she explains: ‘The people. Being around this gang and learning from very brilliant and generous professionals.’ Earlier she reveals Downton was her first television job. After the immediate rapturous reception it received cast member Hugh Bonneville warned her it wouldn’t always be like this.

Croucher is asked to explain the secret of the show’s success: ‘Everyone loves period dramas and Britain does them well but quite often they are adaptations and nobody knows what’s going to happen next in our show. People come back because they literally have no idea. It also allows us to have story lines which you don’t see in classic novels which allows us to keep things fresh and new.’

We are asked to keep spoilers to a minimum after the series six episode one preview but it will be safe to say that there are major developments – one, in particular, both funny and touching – for several of the show’s main couples. There’s no loss in quality and almost immediately the viewer is returned to 1925 with the plot’s pace (mentioned above) quickly in overdrive. It will leave a gigantic hole in the schedules should it not return in some form after that 52nd and final episode on Christmas day.

  • The BFI regularly screens previews and stages cast Q&As. Details.

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