Change is in the air at 'Downton Abbey'

'Downton Abbey' returns to “Masterpiece” for its fifth-season premiere Sunday on PBS

The Canadians were not very calm, and they were carrying on quite a bit.

But when you've driven more than an hour through the narrow roads of the English countryside on a blustery late summer's day, a brush with Mr. Bates of "Downton Abbey" fame can lead to forgivable violations of this island nation's ubiquitous wartime maxim.

"I got his picture," Tom Thorner of Vancouver excitedly told his wife, Val, about her favorite character, the show's bulldog of a butler played by Brendan Coyle. "He gave me a wink!"

"He did?" replied Val, grabbing her husband's arm for the photographic evidence. "Let me see."

"I gave him a thumbs up," said Tom, celebrating a 41st wedding anniversary a bowler hat's toss away from the set of the wildly popular drama seen by more than 150 million viewers around the globe.

"Downton Abbey," which returns to "Masterpiece" for its fifth-season premiere Sunday on PBS, shoots in three main places in the United Kingdom: the now-famous Highclere Castle in Newbury; Ealing Studios in London for interior shots; and this small, picturesque town about 20 miles west of Oxford, which doubles as the fictional village of Downton.

Unlike the first two locations, where sets are closed, Bampton's weathered streets, 12th century parish church and quiet, green walkways are largely open to the public during the eight to 10 days a year when the "Downton" production comes to town.

An ancient market village once home to Roman settlements, the area is now — thanks to the series — on the English map, part of a bustling mini-industry of "Downton" tours that whisk wide-eyed fans to the show's major points of interest. In Bampton that means, among others, the Crawley family residence (known as Churchgate House), the Downton Hospital (actually a local library), and St. Mary's Church, where Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley were wed.

On a rainy, windy morning in mid-August, three busloads of American tourists were shuttled in and discovered it was indeed their lucky day. Much of the cast, and scores of uniformed World War I extras, were gathered near the church to shoot a host of scenes — frequently interrupted and delayed by wet weather — that will air in America toward the end of this season.

Gawking tourists blurting out, "Look! There's Mr. Carson!" and armed with smartphones begging for selfies poses its challenges for the show's cast, who are battling to stay in the mind of their century-old characters. While onlookers are kept back by the crew when actual filming starts, the moments in town are a rare opportunity for the "Downton" faithful to witness a scene unfold before them.

"It all can be a distraction, especially when they are right there," said Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, the closest thing the ensemble series may have to a single, main star. "You just have to pretend they aren't there."

It might be possible to block out well-wishers standing feet away, but it's impossible to ignore the show's startling global appeal. Now in more than 200 countries and territories, the period drama about the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants has been a hit almost everywhere it has traveled. That list includes Denmark, South Africa, Israel, Greece and even the world's largest Communist country.

"They are lapping it up in China," said Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, still in his officer's uniform after filming. The show's producers estimate that some 50 million viewers watch the program in a country of 1.4 billion people, where accurate ratings are still hard to obtain. "It has yet to flop anywhere, and it's astonishing, really, because the show is quite parochial and idiosyncratically British."

The latest season, which is poised to air in America, has just concluded in the United Kingdom, where it still commands an enviable audience despite seeing its ratings dip modestly. The series remains a smash in the United States as well and is the highest-rated drama in PBS history. Last year it drew an audience of 13.2 million per episode, a number that exceeds those for all but a handful of prime-time scripted programs on the major networks.

The cast and producers of the show, a co-production of Carnival Films and "Masterpiece," are especially fond of their American viewers, whose wild enthusiasm they find refreshing compared with that of their countrymen. Bonneville quotes fellow cast member Robert James-Collier, who plays the scheming servant Thomas, who observed: In America, people cross the street to tell you how much they love the show — in Britain, they cross the street to tell you they don't watch it.

The series, which is showered with Emmy nominations each season — last year, it received 12, including for outstanding drama series, is often praised for top-notch writing that masterfully mixes high drama, tragedy and broad comedy. In recent seasons, though, it has taken its critical knocks for its many soap operatic turns — long-lost heirs, being stood up at the altar, convenient fatal car crashes and babies born out of wedlock.

Still, it continues to be a phenomenon of global television, and even the show's executives don't fully understand its success. Julian Fellowes, the show's creator and executive producer, believes one thing the series got right is structure.

"It looks like an old, traditional, period British drama," said Fellowes, who writes all the episodes. "But in fact it's much closer to American television. The multi-story — there's the big story, the small story, the funny story, the sad story, all happening at once. That's really 'ER,' 'West Wing' and 'Mad Men.'"

Another key to its mass appeal, added Fellowes during a recent phone interview, is: "We are very unjudgmental. These are people, and they are all getting on with their lives. We don't take the side of the family or the servants. We just try to present them all as being on their own journey."

Much of this season's journey takes place in 1924. It's another year of profound shifts in British history, most notably with the election of the country's first Labor Party prime minister. And that, without giving away any spoilers, explain the show's executive producers, is what this season is all about: change.

In addition to addressing the hanging questions created by last season, class, religion, women's rights, sexual morality and rapid advancements in technology will be examined through the "Downton" prism this season.

"What we really set out to do was not to show how different the world was, but how similar it was," said executive producer Gareth Neame, tucked away in a church corner between scenes. "When Mrs. Patmore is told she's getting a refrigerator and she feels threatened by it, it is exactly as a person in an office or factory today sees a new piece of technology — am I going to lose my job or how is my job going to change?"

As in past seasons with Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti, the "Downton" tradition of guests stars marches on. Richard E. Grant, most recently seen by most on HBO's "Girls," visits the grand estate and plays an art historian who develops an interest in more than just what's hanging on the walls. Also, Harriet Walter returns as Lady Shackleton, and Peter Egan once again portrays Lord Flintshire.

Another story line this season focuses on how best to remember World War I and the immense sacrifice paid by Great Britain, which saw about 890,000 of its soldiers killed. As a scene was shot in Bampton relating to such a commemoration, the country had marked the war's centenary several days earlier.

"World War I is such a unifying event for the British people," said Neame. "Every town and village in the land honored their dead. It's by coincidence, really, but it's very fitting we're doing this now, so close to the anniversary of the outbreak of the war."

No season of "Downton" could air without the whirl of romance. Leading the charge is Lady Mary, who seems ready to move on after famously losing her Matthew in a car accident a couple of seasons ago.

"She wants to find love again," said Dockery. "Whether she's there or not at this stage, I don't know. Mary is tough, but deep down, she wants love again, I think."

And will this season bring together the venerable Mr. Carson and his downstairs match, Mrs. Hughes? Neither will betray what's ahead, but they enjoy the attention, especially at their age.

"It's nice that people still see middle- to late-aged couples that way, that's it's not just the domain of the youngsters," said Phyllis Logan, who plays housekeeper Mrs. Hughes. "But I always say I think if they got together, it would ruin their relationship."

There's plenty of time for a friendship to deepen or a romance to bloom — in November, it was announced that "Downton Abbey" will return for a sixth season. But producers know an end will have to come, though they won't say when they would like that to be.

With the continuing novelization of television, audiences have begun to expect fitting narrative conclusions to their favorite shows, and "Downton's" producers realize they will have to deliver. Just what still remains a mystery, but they have some ideas.

"If there's a way to show that history is something you live with, that it's part of you, not a foreign world, I want to do that," said Neame. "Houses like Downton Abbey are all over the country, and everybody lives within a few miles of one of those places. Everyone's ancestors either lived there or were servants there. My grandmother, who died 15 years ago, was born in 1903; that was her world. It's not that far away."


'Downton Abbey'

Where: KOCE

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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