The war is over but there’s still plenty of drama taking place at Downton Abbey, which returns for a third series on STV on Sunday.
For all its plush interiors and splendid acres of land, Downton Abbey has always been a troubled estate. Its future has hung in the balance due to Lord and Lady Grantham’s lack of male heirs (series one), and its daily routine has been severely disrupted when it became a makeshift hospital during the First World War (series two).
Now, with the war over and Lady Mary betrothed to her father’s closest male relative, Matthew Crawley, one might expect each resident – from sharp-tongued Dowager Countess Violet Grantham to sulky kitchen maid Daisy – to be happy for once, not least because there’s a wedding to look forward to.
But, as we find out as soon as the third series kicks off, it’s not to be. Viewers will learn that Lord Grantham (played by Hugh Bonneville) has jeopardised the fate of the estate by gambling nearly all of his wife’s fortune on ill-advised investments.
“The possibility they might have to downsize becomes a reality very quickly,” says Bonneville.
“That’s why he’s so emotional – it’s been his life’s work, to hand on the estate to the next generation.”
To compound matters, the social order of the house is threatened by the return of Lady Sybil and her husband, Downton’s former chauffeur Branson.
Over from Branson’s native Ireland for Mary’s wedding, the pair are expecting a child and pose a dilemma to Downton’s servants, who now have to serve someone they used to work alongside.
Also appearing at Downton for Matthew and Mary’s wedding is Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother, brought to screen by Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine.
Her arrival is felt keenly by many of Downton’s residents, as Bonneville explains: “The words ‘the mother-in-law is coming to stay’ have a certain reaction from men all over the world, and Robert is no exception.”
Being American, Martha hopes she can shake things up, and this leads to some classic confrontations between Martha and Violet.
“She is extremely outspoken,” says Oscar-winning actress MacLaine. “Her basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition.”
The first meeting between Dame Maggie and MacLaine was a momentous event, reveals Bonneville. “It was like Stanley meeting Livingstone,” he says. “It was extraordinary. Shirley lifted Maggie off the ground and said, ‘My God! My God! Maggie!’”
One person pleased to see Martha is Lady Edith, who is also thirsty for change after experiencing some freedom during the war.
Actress Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith, says: “The young girls can’t go back to how it was before. They’ve experienced a job and some independence, so going back to dinners and riding is not going to be enough.”
Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, agrees. “The new series shows the fall-out from the war. The war has been the cataclysm and now we’re seeing the ripple effect and how it impacts all the characters. They’re being thrust into this new world.”
For Lady Edith, this means being even more forthright with matters of the heart, and she is even hotter in her pursuit of Sir Anthony.
“She’s more confident, and she doesn’t bat an eyelid that people think she’s batting out of her league. I think that’s lovely to watch,” says Carmichael.
Of course, the first episode sees the culmination of the ‘will they/won’t they?’ storyline between Matthew and Mary, and Dan Stevens, who plays dashing Matthew, is happy to report the wedding does go ahead.
“We would have been hard pushed to stretch the storyline any longer,” he says, laughing.
“I think we would have been testing the patience of the nation, dare I say the globe, if we had carried on with that. But there’s still the issue of will they or won’t they be happy? Will they or won’t they have children, and so on...”
Another relationship at the heart of Downton Abbey is that between valet Bates and head housemaid Anna. The pair married against all odds, but the third series sees the biggest challenge to their relationship yet, with Bates locked up in a grim Victorian prison.
Even kitchen maid Daisy is not happy.
The first episode sees her having the most monumental sulk, as actress Sophie McShera reveals. “They bring in a new scullery maid and Daisy is livid she’s been replaced with a younger, more beautiful model.
“So she’s flouncing round the kitchen, and slamming stuff down. Channelling her boss, Mrs Patmore!”
• Downton Abbey, STV, Sunday, 9pm