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A behind-the-scenes peek at ‘Downton Abbey’

BERKSHIRE, England — It’s a midsummer afternoon in the English countryside, and a parade of aristocrats is gliding up a grassy hill toward Downton Abbey. There is Lord Grantham, in his crisp dinner suit, followed by his daughters Lady Edith and Lady Mary. And here comes Lady Cora a few paces behind, talking on her... iPhone.

The fantasy is further shattered on closer inspection: Mary’s and Edith’s beaded gowns peek out from beneath white puffy coats that are distinctly 21st century. And grande dame Maggie Smith is swaddled in a robe — something the formidable Lady Violet would never countenance.

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This is Highclere Castle, where the cast and crew are midway through shooting the third season of “Downton Abbey,” which premieres Sunday on PBS.

PHOTOS: Meet the ‘Downton Abbey’ cast

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Since its U.S. debut in January 2011, the English country house drama has waltzed its way into American Anglophiles’ hearts and thrust PBS, which will air the series over seven Sundays this winter, into the pop cultural conversation. Affectionately spoofed by everyone from “Saturday Night Live” to Jimmy Fallon, “Downton” was nominated for 16 Emmys in 2012 (winning three) and became the most watched “Masterpiece” series on record — its Season 2 finale drew 5.4 million viewers in February 2012, the biggest in the show’s history.

The series — written by Julian Fellowes and centered on the family and servants of Lord and Lady Grantham — appeals to high and lowbrows alike with its mix of doomed romance, class struggle and dry wit. The fine actors, gorgeous costumes and dazzling mansion don’t hurt either.

In fact, the “Downton” spectacle is so absorbing that it’s a shock to see cast members dressed as, well, themselves.

Standing outside the cluster of trailers assigned to cast and crew is Allen Leech, who plays Branson, the rebellious Irish chauffeur who lured Lady Sybil away from her family in Season 2. Wearing a gray T-shirt and jeans, Leech is full of roguish energy as he bear-hugs Michelle Dockery. She’s dressed in skinny jeans and a blazer — even slimmer and paler in reality than as her blue-blooded character, Lady Mary.

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PHOTOS: Behind-the-scenes of ‘Downton Abbey’

Next to arrive is Dan Stevens, otherwise known as Matthew Crawley, “Downton” heir and Mary’s fiance. After explaining that he’s sleep deprived (his wife gave birth to their second child just two weeks before), he disappears into his trailer for a nap.

On top of producing a newborn, Stevens is also producing a movie with old friends, editing a literary magazine (thejunket.org) and planning a move to New York (he’s starring in “The Heiress” on Broadway). He’d also agreed to be a judge for a prestigious literary award, the Man Booker Prize, which meant reading scores of books while running lines for the TV series.

He insists that he’s not usually someone who takes on too much: “It’s just a freaky year where it’s all come to a head. I said yes to a few too many things. Next year will be the year of saying no.” (Indeed — spoiler alert — in Britain, where the series airs months earlier than in America, viewers just learned from the Season 3 ending Christmas special that his Crawley character would not be returning for Season 4.)

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Although Matthew sometimes seems bashful and understated, he serves as the linchpin of the show, which is also wildly popular in the United Kingdom. Matthew is the closest thing to a stand-in for the audience: a middle-class lawyer thrown into the lush lap of the aristocracy.

Season 3 opens in 1920. In the aftermath of World War I, the ground is shifting beneath everyone’s feet. This was the era when grand families were losing their ancestral homes, unable to afford the upkeep and way of life. As the gentry’s fortunes decline, Matthew’s sensible work ethic becomes more crucial than ever.

Stevens looks terribly earnest in front of the cameras as he shoots a tense scene with Hugh Bonneville (Lord Grantham) in the dining room. But as soon as the director cuts, Stevens and Bonneville break into smiles and chatter.

PHOTOS: Highclere Castle: The real Downton Abbey

Between scenes, Stevens bolts out of the house and plants a chair in the grass, still dressed in his formal dinner jacket. He laughs about some of the more unexpected twists and turns of the previous season. First there was the fiancee who died, leaving Matthew free to wed Lady Mary. Then there was Matthew’s war injury: He was paralyzed from the waist down and then miraculously unparalyzed.

“One of the delights of the show is that you take what’s thrown at you, really,” he says. “Oh, he’s getting out of the wheelchair? Great!”

Stevens says he was relieved that “certain references to aspects of his injury” relating to his manhood had been removed. “I’ll leave it to your imagination! Because it was like, do we really need to talk about that?”

But fans did talk about it — Stevens was amazed to find that the return of sensation to Matthew’s nether regions became a topic for public discussion.

“I think ‘The tingling’ at one point was trending on Twitter!,” he says with a grin. “There’s not so much tingling in this season. He’s absolutely fine now.”

A soapy Season 2

“Downton” has become a worldwide phenomenon, but by Season 2, many critics were complaining that the show had lost its way, with its messy tangle of melodramatic story lines. Along with Matthew’s paralysis and dead fiancee there was a pregnant housemaid, the imprisonment of honorable valet Bates after he was convicted of murdering his ex-wife (with a poison pie) and the sudden appearance of an amnesiac, badly burned soldier who claimed to be Patrick Crawley, the rightful heir to Downton.

“You always know when you’re walking a tightrope,” producer Liz Trubridge says. “I think if you’re creating drama, you’ve got to be a bit bold. And sometimes you think, ‘That didn’t work so well, so we won’t do that again!’”

The idea had always been to start with “the deliciousness of that late Edwardian summer” in Season 1 and show it dismantled by war in Season 2. Trubridge says the third season returns “to the original idea of it being about the people who live in this house.” That includes the newly engaged Matthew and Mary, and Bates and Anna, married but separated by prison bars. The new season also carries intimations of huge social shifts.

PHOTOS: Maggie Smith through the years

“The world has changed so much after the war,” says Laura Carmichael. The actress who plays the sharp-tongued Lady Edith is sitting in her trailer, hair fashioned into a 1920s marcelle wave. “As the young, we’re embracing the change. Lord Grantham wants everything to go back to how it was before — and you know it won’t.”

It is Lady Cora, Lord Grantham’s wife — played by Elizabeth McGovern — who seems most adaptable, thanks to her all-American flexibility.

“We felt a clear way of stating that would be to remind the audience that Cora comes from a totally different tradition,” says Fellowes, who writes and executive produces the series. How to do that? Bring in Shirley MacLaine to play Cora’s irrepressibly American mother — the perfect foil to the high-traditionalism of Smith’s Lady Violet.

“Violet is essentially nostalgic for the past, when people knew how to behave,” Fellowes points out. Whereas MacLaine’s character “is totally uncowed by the splendor and titles. That seems like a useful color to put into the show, because all of it’s being questioned.”

McGovern says that having MacLaine on set was “a breath of fresh air. She shook everyone up because she makes every room she walks into her own in a way that was really delightful.”

“Her stories in between takes were what amazed me,” says Leech. “She’d be going, ‘When I opened for Frank in New York — oh, you know, Frank Sinatra....”

PHOTOS: Behind-the-scenes of ‘Downton Abbey’

Leech says that one day he and Jim Carter (Carson the butler) begged her to sing. When she declined, they began quietly humming “If My Friends Could See Me Now” from “Sweet Charity.”

“She just started singing it!” he says. “She couldn’t help herself.”

Realities of life

Carter looks utterly contemporary standing in his trailer in street clothes, talking about cricket. But that mellifluous voice is unmistakably Carson’s.

“It would’ve been hell, wouldn’t it?” he says of his character’s life. “I think one of the reasons people like ‘Downton’ is it’s a time, the way we portray it, when people were more secure in their worlds. But the reality of a butler and a housekeeper never getting married and being reliant on the generosity of their employers to look after them in their old age with no welfare state — it’s pretty grim.”

Although the fantasy element has deep appeal for American “Downton” fans, it has different layers for class-fixated Brits. Fellowes (Lord Fellowes of West Stafford to you) is posh himself and suggests his own fascination with class emerged from his childhood.

“I was a crossbreed, essentially,” he says — meaning that his mother’s family was middle class, whereas “my father came from landed gentry, and they pretty well all behaved badly to my mother, who they disapproved of.” That gave him a sense, he continues, “that I was on both sides. And in ‘Downton,’ I think I am on both sides. I don’t think any group on the show is any worse morally or philosophically than any other group.”

Many of the series’ characters are testing class boundaries, like Branson. Now that he has married Sybil, Leech says, “Branson is caught between two worlds.” The Grantham clan looks down on him, and the servants no longer know how to relate to him.

PHOTOS: Meet the ‘Downton Abbey’ cast

“It’s even strange as an actor because now I’m acting with people I never would have acted with,” he says. “You find yourself thinking, ‘I know exactly how the character feels.’ Sitting at the table, you’re going, ‘Maggie’s right there — I used to drive you!’ The only time we ever met was when I’d open a door, which was exactly the same as the character.”

But he says Smith warmly welcomed him to the aristocracy: “The first thing she said was, ‘I’m so glad you’re back.’ Which was lovely.”

Production surprises

Here’s one thing you don’t expect to see at “Downton Abbey”: ladies and footmen stuffed into a red double-decker bus eating lunch in full costume. That’s “Downton’s” version of a cafeteria, with actors and production crew sitting in rows tucking into hearty meat and potatoes.

Another surprise is how much smaller the castle’s rooms seem in person. Maybe it’s just that there are so many people buzzing around the video monitors or maneuvering heavy machinery perilously close to intricately carved furniture.

“The thing that scares me is the Vermeer painting,” says producer Trubridge. Presumably, the production has insurance? “Yes,” she replies, “but not that good!”

Almost all the shooting for “upstairs” scenes is done in a handful of public rooms here: hall, library, drawing room. The bedrooms and servants quarters have been reconstructed at Ealing Studios in London. Even a facsimile of the castle’s back door has been built at the studio.

Dockery is a busy woman on the set. The patron of a charity for people with disfigurements, she is showing around a young boy from the organization in between takes, watching his face light up as she introduces him to her castmates.

After shooting a drawing room scene, Dockery walks outside in a black gown, pulling her white puffy coat around her. She’s every bit as poised as Mary, but Dockery herself is working class; she remembers that when she was 9, she lost out on a role in “The Sound of Music” because of her strong Essex accent.

PHOTOS: Behind-the-scenes of ‘Downton Abbey’

Training at a classical drama conservatory and a stint at the National Theatre ironed that out, but she found the “Downton” part a stretch: “She was this very cold, arrogant, young aristocrat, and I hadn’t touched on a character like that before. I loved how her character evolved in the first series and became a lot more vulnerable after the incident” — that is, when a Turkish diplomat died in her bed.

The once-reckless Mary has evolved so much that she’s beginning to value tradition. Says Dockery, “In the first series, she said, ‘Why would I want to end up here? I’m really bored.’ And that’s all changed. She feels a huge amount of responsibility now to the legacy of Downton.”

Season 4 in works

“Downton” has been greenlighted for a fourth season. Gareth Neame, the series’ executive producer and managing director of Carnival Films who originally conceived the series, says they will start shooting again in February. He can’t predict how long “Downton” will go on, noting, “I want it to be around long enough that it becomes something people cherish, but I don’t want them to tire of it.”

Neame says he never expected this booming success: “I assumed because we were on PBS we’d get a small, older-skewing Anglophile audience. I did not anticipate it would be the biggest show in ‘Masterpiece’s’ history, and bigger than most network shows.”

Will the series last long enough for Lady Edith to find a purpose or for the villainous Thomas to find a nice man and settle down? Fellowes insists there is no giant board in his office to keep track of the myriad of characters and their labyrinthine plots.

“I don’t have any of that!” he says vehemently. “I’d like to say that, like J.K. Rowling, I imagined six seasons in advance — but I completely hadn’t!”

One secret of “Downton,” Fellowes says, is that both PBS and the British network ITV leave the show alone creatively. Rebecca Eaton, executive producer of “Masterpiece,” clearly believes in Fellowes’ vision: “Julian is writing this all himself. He’s the ink-stained wretch with the eyeshade and the candlelight. In this country, there would be a writers room and he’d be lying back having big ideas and a team of writers would have to make it work. But he does it all. He is Maggie Smith some days, and then he’s Bates, and then he’s Isis the dog.”

Fellowes is so attached to his “Downton” characters that he wants to write a prequel novel.

“I feel the story of Robert’s courtship would be rather a nice basis of a novel — and a little bit maybe about what Bates really did do in the Boer War and so on,” he says cheekily. “That’s my plan, anyway.”

joy.press@latimes.com

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