‘Downton Abbey’: Series 3 press launch report

CultBox is willing to bet that, this time next week, travelling across London will be something of an Olympic ordeal. So we were very grateful that it was today that the London launch of Downton Abbey’s third series was held.

Not that the summer of Jubilee, sport and drizzle was entirely absent from proceedings. Secrecy surrounding the opening episode, according to executive producer Gareth Neame, is tighter than that surrounding the Olympic opening ceremony, and we’re under strict orders not to divulge the plot.

However, we can reveal that, even for the characters of Downton, there are certain resonances from the summer past. In one scene, there is enough in the way of flags and bunting to recall the Diamond Jubilee – while a central character fears becoming known for having ‘dropped the torch and let the flame go out’. So far, so contemporary.

Still, if this was also the fear of writer Julian Fellowes, returning to scriptwriting duties for a third run, the production never showed it. From the evidence we saw, Series 3 represents a return to form for a programme that, many felt, was getting a little flabby last time out to bat. In this respect, it helps that there is, as yet, no major world event being given the period chocolate box treatment.

The year is 1920 – before the Twenties started roaring, and when attitudes and identities were rippling in the aftermath of the Great War. It’s a great starting point for Downton’s characteristic exploration of the subtleties and nuances of social mores, and one that, more than ever, allows it to present a clash between the Old World and the New. Idealism versus nostalgia; tradition versus modernity – the themes of the first episode are at the heart of what Downton is about.

And from the Q&A session that followed the screening, we can be certain that this is unlikely to change. A cheeky enquiry about whether Julian Fellowes intended to sex up the show was met with a response worthy of the Dowager Countess of Grantham herself: ‘We grew up in the cinematic tradition of the train disappearing into the tunnel.’ In the Downton world, there may be shades of grey, but not so many as fifty – and not when the likes of Violet Grantham are holding on to their black and white certainties.

But while sex may not be on the agenda, the Irish Question is – the dominant issue on the front of every British newspaper of the time, according to Fellowes, and one that gets decent coverage in the series opener.

It’s not hard to see why the topic should be of such appeal, paralleling, as it does, the spirit of self-government that the wilful Crawley sisters seek out for themselves in the private sphere. In the world of Downton, power and authority may lie with the men, but, when their stiff upper lips wibble, it’s the women who stand for resilience and common sense. Anna Bates fighting to clear her husband’s name, Cora the quiet strength at the heart of the Grantham family…

And this time round, we have been gifted a new matriarch too – Martha Levinson, as played by Shirley MacLaine, who breezes into the production with all the sassy assurance of one who has counted Frank and Dean as personal friends. In the knowing twinkle in her eye alone, the series announces that it has upped its game – and Dame Maggie has a second sparring partner, alongside the always excellent Penelope Wilton, against whom to measure herself.

Here, possibly, is a boxing match of the Titans. Whether it’s sufficient to crown Fellowes our Playwright Laureate remains to be seen. But it’s good to see, from this evidence at least, that Downton Abbey is refusing to rest on its laurels.

Series 3 will begin in the UK on ITV1 in September and in the US in January 2013.

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