PBS had the spotlight on Day 1 of the Summer 2012 Television Critics Association (TCA) Press Tour at the Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills, and while the day offered plenty of fascinating glimpses of upcoming programming offerings — from the new British acquisition Call the Midwife to the return of Kenneth Branagh’s Wallander — the final panel of the day, as expected, proved to be, as the Brits might say, the real “cracker.”
It was the session for the upcoming American premiere on PBS of Season 3 of the smash hit Downton Abbey, which premieres in the States on Jan. 6, 2013, and it was the most buzzed-about panel I can remember covering in my 13 years of reporting from the TCA tours. Even during the panel beforehand, Wallander, some critics couldn’t contain their excitement on Twitter and wondered when that session would hurry up and be done so they could get to the Downton panel and meet the cast. PBS’ reporter Gwen Ifill, at the tour to appear at a Day 2 session on the network’s election coverage, tweeted at one point, “I just saw Mr. Bates in the lobby. That is all.” (She later followed with another tweet, “Yes his name is not Mr. Bates. It is Brendan Coyle. He was lovely. I kind of embarrassed myself.”)
Such reactions among even normally staid and, regarding the TV critics, somewhat cynical, professionals, says much about just how Downton has exploded into a pop-culture force. At an earlier Day 1 executive panel, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger was asked to speculate on just why the series has taken off in such a way. Among the fact that it is brilliantly created and acted, she also put out the importance of social media to its success.
“I think what happened that really caused it to really explode was social media and the opportunity that created,” she said. “I remember when I watched Brideshead [Revisited], a lot of people organized viewing parties and it became sort of a cultural phenomenon. People talk about it and so forth, and that was at an era when, you know, those kind of events happened from time to time. I think Downton, though, through social media, was really sort of a throwback to that Brideshead experience, where people came together, they identified with the series. … And then for me, what I think has been one of the really fun things to watch is how people have really identified with characters. You know, you talk to people and they feel that they’re all Lady Mary, particularly the women. And the people that have developed Twitter handles around some of the character names. And she now tweets to me occasionally, but my favorite is ‘Lady Mary’s Eyebrows.’ I just think that it’s fun.”
Plenty of that tweeting was on hand as the Downton Abbey TCA panel got ready to begin Saturday evening. Things kicked off with a buffet dinner, and several critics tweeted their anxiety at wanting the session to start. Finally, it did, and the standing-room-only crowd was first treated to a hilarious montage of various parodies that have already been done of Downton, a sure sign that you have made it (as star Hugh Bonneville would say later in the panel, “they’re not going to do a parody if they think the audience isn’t going to know who the heck they’re on about.”)
After that, Masterpiece executive producer Rebecca Eaton did a brief recap of Downton‘s recent 16 Emmy nominations, before quickly (“I have never in my life felt the need to get out of the way quicker than I do tonight,” she quipped) moving on to business.
“There’s much to tell you,” she said. “But I’m not going to tell you any of it now. I think I’m just going to introduce you to a very hot piece of footage. This is a trailer for Season –”
(At this point the audience wooed and started laughing excitedly.)
“– Season 3 of Downton Abbey. Nobody in this country has seen it except a select group of us who have signed in blood, and you will be required to sign in blood when you leave. [laughter] This is a trailer which will give you a little hint of what is coming up, and then there are a few people I know you are eager to meet. So watch this.”
And watch we did. And when it was over, there was more wooing and laughing, much applause, and even a few standing-Os. The trailer certainly hinted at much drama in store, including possible financial trouble for the Crawleys, Anna visiting Bates in prison, Mary and Matthew possibly experiencing some friction in their relationship, and the eagerly awaited arrival of Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson, Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern) mother from America. Eagerly awaited by fans, I should say; certainly not eagerly awaited by Lady Violet (Maggie Smith). The trailer showed some delicious sparks between Martha and Violet which should make for some fun viewing (in addition to some more priceless solo Lady Violet moments).
So it sounds like possible changes this season, and according to creator, writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes, Season 3 is, “in a way, about the recovery from the war. The war brought a tremendous disruption to England and took many, many families of all sorts. And even though there were those few years when people were trying to decide was the world going to go back, was it going to be the same as it was before, had it changed completely, was the future going to be completely different? And that’s really the kind of theme of the series. And, you know, there are chills and spills involved in that for all the characters, some laughs and some tears.”
There were plenty of laughs at the panel as Shirley MacLaine told the story of how she got involved with Downton Abbey. When asked if she had originally been a fan of the series, she answered, “Oh. Actually, no. I, uh, I walked into my hairdresser lady in Malibu and they were talking about this. And I don’t know. ‘What do they mean? I better go look.’ I did. And then soon after that, Rebecca and some other folks in my life called.”
“Well, then I saw it. Oh, man, I ran three months of it and I was just as addicted as everybody else, making me wonder about my attention deficit syndrome. But then, when it was announced I was going to do Martha Levinson, I didn’t know anything about her. I don’t even know if you do. But my hairdresser does. All the ladies in my hairdressing place said, ‘Oh, she’s Jewish and she’s from Long Island and she has a lot of money and she’s looking for a tight, old man.’
“I thought that might be that might be worthwhile investigating. Along with the great acting and fantastic show, that’s basically why I did it. To see if my hairdresser lady is right.”
MacLaine really brought down the house when asked if she and Maggie Smith had met before.
“Well, we were lovers in another life,” the New Agey MacLaine deadpanned, to riotous laughter and applause.
MacLaine’s commanding presence is clearly felt on set. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Martha’s daughter Cora, explained that “I felt I really didn’t know who Cora was until I met Shirley. And suddenly it all came clear, and I realized that for two years I was in a bit of a fog. But I think that there is a light that mothers hand on to their daughters, which I think Shirley gave Cora in her aura and everything and the story that she tells simply by being on the set, which is one of great strength and humor and resilience and flexibility. And it became very clear to me the journey that Cora had undertaken to go from Shirley to the countess of Downton Abbey — or Martha Levinson. And I think that she’s a kind of icon that has gone out of fashion in the decade of the ’90s because we started to fall in love with women who were towers of strength and in a very muscular sort of way, sort of like, you know, ‘I’m a material girl,’ etc. And she’s a more old-fashioned idea of women’s strength, which is somebody who is extremely flexible and resilient and can roll with the punches and is strong in a quieter, more self-effacing way. And it’s nice to resurrect that idea of female strength, because I think I think that that has churned the wheels of history for many centuries, that quiet, strong woman that just sort of connects all the dots in the family. And that, to me, is Cora, I suppose.”
Fellowes added, “One of the key elements that Shirley brings into the show is sort of, as Elizabeth said, to remind us that Cora’s upbringing was not the same as Robert’s.”
When asked what qualities she shares with MacLaine, McGovern quickly quipped, “None. It’s all an act. I’m a raving lunatic.”
“She’s right,” added MacLaine, to much laughter.
Laughter was the theme of the panel, and it was remarkable and refreshing to see the comfort and ease with which the cast got along with each other and seemed to genuinely enjoy each other’s company — the mark of a great ensemble. It’s no surprise that audiences and the Emmys have fallen in love with them.
When asked how they felt about their recent 16 Emmy nominations, Hugh Bonneville said, “We have a word in England, which is ‘gobsmacked.’ I don’t know if it translates. … It’s a tremendous honor. It really is. And to have the show embraced so wholeheartedly by America is very special to us.”
Joanne Froggatt, hair down and looking very unlike her character, and Brendan Coyle recounted how they were filming a scene as Anna and Mr. Bates when the Emmy announcements were made.
“Brendan and I, we’d shot half of a scene and then it was our lunch break,” said Froggatt. “I was in the post office on my lunch break and ran back to my dressing room to get changed back into my costume. I looked at my phone and had a text from [costar] Michelle [Dockery] saying, ‘Congratulations,’ and then Mike, my manager, who called, like three times. And I was like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ I called Michelle. I was like, ‘Did we do really well in the nominations?’ She’s like, ‘You’re nominated and we’re all nominated. We got 16.’ And so I was just screaming on the phone and jumping up and down with Michelle. And then — so Brendan and I didn’t see each other until we went back to finish the scene. So first half of the scene he’s quite normal and calm.”
“Pre-nominated,” Coyle added.
“Pre-nominated,” Froggatt affirmed.
Coyle then said, “Second half, post-nominated, I want to see the rushes, see if there’s any kind of glow.”
“Well, I have very red ears in the post-nominated scene because I was so flushed and kind of emotional,” said Froggatt. “It will be interesting to see if people spot that scene.”
Coyle and Froggatt were also asked about their reactions to Mr. Bates being found guilty last season.
“Well,” said Coyle, ” just getting a script is a bit of an event in itself. We’re the last ones to receive the script. So when we get the scripts, it really is a case of phones off, kettle on, sit it’s an event. And I read it as a fan of the show as well. But to answer your question, no, I did not know what was going to happen. And so when he was found guilty, there was a real thud in my chest. Not just because I was going to lose the part, but it was a very dramatic event in the script. And I thought, ‘Are they going to kill me?’ So it was a fascinating read.”
“The same with me,” added Froggatt. “When I read the bit where Mr. Bates gets sentenced to murder, I literally gasped. And we’re reading the script, and I was like, ‘No, no.’ It was just like you keep going, ‘What happens to us? What happens to us?’ So it’s just as much of a surprise to us, I think. And that’s great.”
And Hugh Bonneville summed up what many fans of Anna and Mr. Bates may be thinking — and wrapped up an exceedingly fun session and first day of press tour — when he stood up with something to say.
He then unbuttoned his coat, and his shirt, to reveal a T-shirt underneath reading: “FREE BATES.”
“That’s what I’m talking about,” he said. “Free Mr. Bates.”
“The trouble is, it’s not even official merchandise,” sighed executive producer Gareth Naeme.
Season 3 of Downton Abbey begins in America Sunday, Jan. 6, 2013, on PBS.
Photo credits: Rahoul Ghose/PBS