Having just completed its run in the U.K. — where it was Britain’s highest-rated television drama in 2013 — Downton Abbey Season 4 now makes its way across the pond starting Jan. 5 on PBS and airing eight weeks.
Fans know that Season 3 ended with Matthew Crawley lying dead on a country road next to his overturned roadster, leaving behind his wife, Mary (Michelle Dockery), and their newborn baby boy. On top of this, the family still grieves over the death in childbirth of Sybil, Mary’s youngest sister, who also left a baby behind. Season 4 begins six months later, with the Crawleys trying to pick themselves up over the course of 1922.
Still mourning Sybil most of all is her widower, Tom Branson (Allen Leech, pictured above), who is also struggling in his new role, having moved from the staff “downstairs” to become a member of the family and an aide to Robert (Hugh Bonneville) in running Downton Abbey.
“Matthew and [Tom] had plans that they were trying to effect in relation to keeping Downton alive and running,” Leech tells me. “Now that he’s lost Matthew, Robert’s quite adamant that they return to the old ways, and Branson knows that’s not the right way to go. So he struggles to put a stamp on his authority within the house, because he is a man with a job, but he has no status within the family.
“It was so strange to go from the world that I knew,” Leech continues, about the acting challenge of playing Branson in his new world, “which is all of the downstairs set and those characters and how I interacted with them, to suddenly sitting at table with Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine eating dinner. It was very different, and it is a challenge. But what’s lovely is the opportunity to play a character like that who’s so lost in this situation, so you can have a lot of fun with that. The man would never be used to having more than one fork in front of him, and suddenly he’s got like 14. We actually put that in through Alastair Bruce, who is the historical advisor, and he would advise everyone on the etiquette and how to act at dinner and that. And he purposely didn’t give me as much information because it was better that I made mistakes because Tom would have. So that was great to play, as well, because at the end of the day this guy will be completely out of his depth and he will be a fish out of water. So trying to get him to assimilate into this world that he’s fought against for so long was a real challenge.”
As estate manager, Tom finds it easier to pass back and forth between his new world and his old one downstairs, and this season he occasionally finds his way back to sympathetic head housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) for support.
“He definitely turns to Mrs. Hughes a number of times in Season 4 for help and understanding,” says Leech. “And I think Mrs. Hughes definitely has a soft spot for Branson.”
“[She’s] a bit of a motherly figure to him, perhaps,” Logan agrees. “I think she appreciates his situation more than most. … She’s on hand for him again this year.”
Also on hand for Tom is Mary, as the two characters become closer, bonding over their similar circumstances, with both now single parents mourning their deceased spouses.
“Tom is the only one who knows exactly what Mary is going through,” Leech says. “So he becomes a confidant for her, and a friend, and he really tries to help her come out of the slump. … He realizes that maybe the main way to do that is to get her to have an interest within the estate, and that’s what he tries to do. He tries to get her more involved in the running of the operation of Downton Abbey.”
Mary’s potential new role in what probably was a traditional male function seems to be part of how the series is reflecting the changes that were taking place in society as the Roaring ’20s went on. Also reflecting those changes is the addition of the series’ first black character, American jazz singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr).
“In a small way,” says Logan, “in the microcosm that is Downton Abbey, I think it does highlight these changes. There’s only so far it can go in that respect.”
But even the insular world of Downton Abbey can’t be immune to certain societal shifts. Leech points out that the increased freedom of women to interact with men (for example, two people just going to dinner regardless of if they are married or not) is seen in the series, particularly through the character of Lady Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael).
“[Edith] goes down to London a lot,” Leech says. “So you get to see the Jazz Age develop in London, which is really exciting and a world away from Downton Abbey.”
Whatever small shifts make their way into Downton Abbey, many things remain the same, including the class structure. I asked Logan and Leech about the costuming for their characters, which is a product of their different stations. I wondered whether Logan, playing a “downstairs” member, is ever envious of the cast members who wear upscale finery, and if Leech likes the fact that he is now dressing as a member of “upstairs” versus his character’s former station and manner of dress.
“There are plusses and minuses to everything in life if you look hard enough,” says Logan. “Sometimes I do, like, say to Penelope Wilton or someone of my sort of age who are wearing gorgeous clothes, or Elizabeth McGovern, she has lovely things to wear, too. And I’ll say, ‘Oh, God, that looks really nice.’ And we’ll all ask how it was made and everything. So there are times you say it would be lovely to wear that, but quite frankly, they have constant costume fittings throughout the season, because there’s always some big thing coming up, and they’re saying, ‘Oh, we can’t wheel out that same dress.’ They’re ALWAYS having to go and be fitted for endless other outfits. Whereas I know I’ve got one for the day, and one for the evening, and if I have to go out to the village, and I’ve got a coat and a hat. And that’s about it. So it’s easy, in that sense. I don’t have to go and get fitted every other week. Once I’ve got me two outfits I’m done, really. So I’ll look at the scripts the next day and think it’s all taking place in the daytime, okay, that’s No. 1 outfit. It makes it a bit easier, but, yes, I do sometimes think, ‘Oh, those dresses are lovely [and I’d like to] be in one of those.’ But, unless I marry into the aristocracy, I don’t think I’ll be getting one. [laughs]”
Logan also says that fans often will be astonished by what she looks like in real life compared with her dressed-down character.
“They’ll say things like, ‘God, you look 20 years younger!’ [laughs] And I’m thinking, ‘My God, I must look like Methuselah when I’m in the show, then!’ But yes, it’s amazing what a bit of mascara can do. [laughs]”
From Leech’s costuming perspective, he explains, “I don’t mind the costume changes, actually, because the ’20s outfits are pretty cool. Getting to go from 1920s black tie to white tie and then into my own costumes as Branson working on the estate, I really enjoy that.”
But while Branson may be acclimating to his new station, and Leech as an actor is enjoying the new costuming, Leech also said that in the recently announced Season 5, which starts production in February, he hopes Branson remembers some of his old ways.
“I’d love to see Tom get his old political spark back, his fire for change,” Leech says. “I think that Season 4 is very much about him finding his seat, about who he is and finding his identity now without his wife and with this young baby. And I think by the end of Season 4 he’s in a good place to start reconnecting with his political side. So I’d like to see that happen.”
Downton Abbey Season 4 makes its U.S. debut with a two-hour premiere Jan. 5 at 9pm ET on PBS (check local listings).
Downton Abbey Season 4 images: © Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE