"Downton Abbey," a four-part, six-hour miniseries premiering Sunday, Jan. 9, on PBS' "Masterpiece Classic" (check local listings), is a fascinating hybrid, an instantly addictive, don't-bogart-the-popcorn soap opera draped in all the deluxe trappings of an English period drama.
Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for writing Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," crafted the intricately plotted screenplay, which opens in 1912. The Titanic has just gone to its watery grave, and with it, the hopes of Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, "Iris"), who is entrusted with sustaining the titular estate. Unfortunately, Robert and his American-born wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern, "Ragtime"), have been blessed with three daughters, no male heirs to inherit Downton Abbey -- and the two cousins who were his designated heirs were on board that doomed ocean liner.
Robert's nearest surviving relative is a distant bachelor cousin named Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), a lowly Manchester attorney who duly arrives with his mother (Penelope Wilton) in tow to learn the ropes of managing the vast estate. Unfortunately, any hopes that Matthew might solve a pressing problem by marrying eldest daughter Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) appear to be dashed when the two take an almost instant dislike to each other. Worse, Robert's class-conscious mother (Maggie Smith) is appalled that both Matthew and his mother intend to continue pursuing (shudder!) jobs.
That's the setup, but as the miniseries unfolds, there's everything from premarital canoodling that leads to a mysterious death in the night to one sister's devastating betrayal of another to a shy romance that blossoms between Robert's valet (Brendan Coyle) and one of the maids (Joanne Froggatt).
"What is so much fun about 'Downton Abbey' is that on one hand, it's something of a guilty pleasure, because you get completely sucked into the soap opera aspects of the story," McGovern says, "but on the other hand, you really are learning some things about the way things used to be and a life that no longer exists, so you can feel a little bit smug after you've watched this, because you've gotten a little history under your belt, too. I loved that aspect of it, and I felt that I learned something while working on this show."
The actress, who moved to England 20 years ago to marry British producer Simon Curtis, says she instinctively felt a connection to her character, Cora, one of the so-called "buccaneers," wealthy American women who brought their fortunes to England in search of cash-strapped aristocrats. While their marriage initially was motivated by commerce, however, Cora and Robert soon genuinely fell in love with each other, and their heartfelt marriage gives "Downton Abbey" much of its heart.
"I had a lot of natural empathy for Cora, because I myself know what an adjustment this is," McGovern says. "In some ways we are parallel countries because obviously we speak the same language and have quite a bit of shared history, but in many other ways there is this huge gulf that separates us. For those women like Cora who came over and had to embrace this culture the way they did took a lot of courage and flexibility, and it was so much more extreme for them because they didn't have the easygoing back and forth that we have now (with) the telephone, let alone the Internet.
"For her to have embraced what must have been a very chilly reception from a lot of people in England, and the literal cold of those castles with their poor plumbing and heating, and dealing with the rigidity of how things were done took a lot of strength. She was able to improvise on her feet a lot of the time, so this was a character for whom I have a lot of admiration, having taken a similar journey myself."
"The estate was crumbling (financially), so Robert really had no choice," Bonneville says of his character's initial motivation to marry Cora. "You had these American heiresses, who came over with that thing that one should never talk about -- cash -- and in exchange for a title, many of these estates were saved, and that's something Julian (Fellowes) was very keen to latch onto. It was something that Maggie Smith's character, Violet, absolutely cannot abide, the notion of money changing hands. Robert was born into a world in which the functioning of the estate was the be-all and end-all. He even describes it as 'my third parent and my fourth child.' He can't escape it. That's his destiny, and he must save it at all costs, so he married Cora.
"As it happened, happily, they fell in love within the first year, and I think it's been a very happy marriage. She clearly is the brighter, sparkling side of life that often that kind of aristocratic marriage didn't have. She came from this brave new world where everything was possible, and I think he found that very invigorating."
In addition to examining the kind of still-passionate upper-class relationship that one rarely sees in these period dramas, Fellowes says he also wanted to explore a period in history that he calls "almost febrile" with imminent change.
"We deliberately chose a period that was seemingly part of the old world, with everyone knowing what he was doing and so on, but in fact the modern world, the new world, was right beneath the surface, so we have cars and railways and telephones and electricity, and the public can see that women's rights and trade unions are just about to happen," Fellowes says. "A lot of characters, both above and below stairs, are aware that change is coming, that some things may be possible, that they could have a different kind of life, whether it's the daughters of the house or the housemaid who wants to become a secretary. Not everyone is prepared to accept that the last 100 years is going to be the same as the next 100 years. They're rebelling against that notion, and that was a theme of the show from the very beginning."