Having patiently endured the knowledge that UK television audiences were enjoying Downton Abbey Series 4 back in September - and doing our best to avoid any spoilers - American fans of this phenomenally popular series are keenly anticipating the premiere of the latest series on Sunday January 5.
No secrets have been given away in the pre-publicity, but what we do know is that there’ll be plenty of drama, both upstairs and down. Everyone at Downton Abbey is having to come to terms with the way in which the world is changing since the Great War, and the reality that their way of life - which they thought would probably last for another 1000 years - is ending.
Series 4 opens about six months after the death of Lady Mary’s husband, Matthew. Lady Mary has barely left the house since the tragedy, and is finding it difficult to establish a relationship with her baby son because he reminds her so much of Matthew. There are question marks hovering over how she’ll cope, because she has obviously not recovered, says writer Julian Fellowes, but she’s starting to get into gear, pull her weight and move forward. “This,” he explains “is really the dynamic that drives the beginning of the show.”
Lady Mary is beautiful, rich and widowed, so there are also questions about whether she’ll find love again. We’re told that there's more than one potential suitor who’ll be vying for her affections - eligible young men such as Lord Gillingham, played by Tom Cullen, an old family friend of the Crawleys who attends a house party at Downton Abbey, and the aristocrat, Charles Blake, played by Julian Ovenden.
Then there’s Lady Edith who’s struggled to find her place - in the family, in the world and in love. She does, however, have in her favor her drive and her confidence which keep her going. She’s not a victim, says Fellowes, and the knocks she’s taken have only served to make her even more resilient. Her career as a writer is taking off and - having been jilted at the altar in the last series - she now finds a new suitor, albeit one who’s married to a woman he can’t divorce. This doesn’t deter Lady Edith, and although he’s not available, she recognises an opportunity to have some fun.
Everybody will be waiting for what are known here as Lady Violet’s ‘zingers’ - those truly classic one-liners delivered in true Dame Maggie style! The Dowager Countess of Grantham is universally recognised as “the glue that holds Downton Abbey together”, and she’s reached an age and stage in her life where she doesn’t actually care what she says, so she says it, glorying in her unshakeable belief that “I’m never wrong”.
Lady Mary isn’t the only member of the family suffering as a result of Matthew’s death. Robert, Lord Grantham, is having problems coming to terms with the fact that the old, stable order that held things together for so long, is starting to crumble. He’s trying hard to keep the estate going in the best way he knows, but it’s obvious that he doesn’t have the business skills required to do so - a sad but true example of many of his kind who used to be at the pinnacle of their position in life, but are now being left behind.
Branson, the former chauffeur, not only has to deal with the reversal of his role from an employee to a member of the family, but also faces the challenge of raising his daughter as a single parent following the death of Lady Sybil. As far as his position at Downton is concerned, we wait to see whether he’s going to continue play a part in the management of the estate.
Series 4 sees Cora, Lady Grantham, becoming stronger and more dominant in her role as Robert's wife, realising that her American set of values - which she’s managed to tailor to the English mold after 20 years of marriage - are very much in tune with the world that’s emerging in the 1920s. She’s typical of the women whose strength seems to be the backbone of the estate, and she uses this quality to quietly but firmly guide Robert into acceptance of the new way of life.
Her mother, Martha Levinson, makes no bones about the fact that America is now leading the way, and doesn’t hesitate to give Robert the benefit of her views either! The world is getting better, she tells him firmly - “and you’re not helping by clinging on to a system that’s not going to work for much longer”.
Cousin Rose - to whom we were introduced in the last series and who represents the new generation of women - continues to make waves with her outrageous behavior, shaking the Abbey and its inhabitants to the foundations. We can apparently look forward to her kicking over the traces, with no care for whom she might be offending, and doing so with enormous panache.
Downstairs, the winds of change which are affecting the lives of the aristocrats are also blowing through the ranks of the staff, and once again, it’s the women who are demonstrating their fortitude.
The formidable O’Brien appears to have made a sudden departure, but Thomas is still keeping a shrewd watch on what goes on below stairs. Dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist, Mr Carson, and the lovable Mrs Hughes maintain their firm hand on staff discipline, with Mrs Hughes quietly steering Carson through potential minefields which could result in his authority being dented. She’s also happy to embrace the new technology designed to make life easier - going as far as purchasing an electric toaster! Poor Carson is left bewildered by the ease with which his ally and confidante has taken to the new world order!
We’ve not been told much about what’s likely to happen to steadfast, resilient, Anna - ladies’ maid to the Crawley daughters - and her stoic and utterly dependable husband, John Bates, but we can be pretty sure that they won’t escape the succession of dramatic events that seem to characterise life at Downton Abbey.
Mrs Patmore continues to handle Daisy with tough love, underpinned by a genuine kindness and warmth, in a fascinating tussle of wills involving two very strong women.
Series 4 also introduces some new faces to the cast. Paul Giamatti plays Lady Cora’s maverick playboy brother, Harold; Dame Harriet Walter appears as Lady Shackleton, an old friend of the Dowager; Joanna David guests as the Duchess of Yeovil; and Nigel Harman appears as Green, a valet. We’re told that there’ll be lots of music and plenty of parties - Dame Kiri Te Kanawa makes a cameo appearance as a singer who visits the Abbey, and Gary Carr plays a jazz singer named Jack Ross.
From what we know, this is going to be what Julian Fellowes describes as another typical Downton saga, with three different stories going on simultaneously, a host of differing opinions about what should be going on, everyone getting hot under the collar - and we, finding ourselves sympathising with all of them.
Downton Abbey Series 4 is broadcast on Sundays from January 5 to February 23, on MASTERPIECE on PBS.
There’s an added treat for Downton fans in the Bay Area. KQED invites you to join them on Saturday, January 4 for an exclusive one-hour preview of Downton Abbey, Season 4, Episode 1 - to be screened at 1.00pm and 6.30 pm. These free screenings, at the Castro Theatre, will each be followed by a classic Maggie Smith film - Gosford Park at 2.45 pm and A Room with a View at 8.15 pm.