Soon after the conclusion of another record-breaking season of Downton Abbey in the U.K., executive producer Gareth Neame, who has worked on the international phenomenon with series creator Julian Fellowes since its birth, sat down with TV Guide Magazine to share some scoop. The much-anticipated series about the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants returns to PBS's Masterpiece this Sunday.
TV Guide Magazine: So many fans said they hated the Downton producers for killing Matthew (Dan Stevens) off in last season's finale. Seems they got over it, didn't they?
Gareth Neame: The thing is that episode ran on Christmas Day in England, and unlike over here, that is the biggest TV day of the year because the tradition is that we stay at home with the family and watch. So it was a big shock and in a way we did ruin a few Christmases. But those twists and turns and shocks are part of the energy of the show. It's the soap opera of it all that is what hundreds of millions of people around the world are watching. I think as much as people hated the loss of such a loved character, it's what's going to happen next that keeps people engaged. We did get comments from China saying, "We want you to bring his character back from the dead!"
TV Guide Magazine: You had to change a lot of your plans for the story's direction when Stevens said he was leaving. Did it work out well creatively in the end?
Neame: When he first announced he was leaving, we were all shocked, but I very quickly realized that it was going to work to the benefit of the show, and the fourth season has been incredibly well received. We're a show about romantic love and the moment they were together, I was not sure if Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew were as interesting as they had been when they were [in that "will they, won't they" stage]. So to have her start life over in Season 4 gave us a lot of new ground to cover.
TV Guide Magazine: Where are we when the season starts? How is Mary doing?
Neame: We are about six months after his death when we return. Mary is a living death, she's completely given up. We filmed the first episode in February so it was very wintery, and everything seemed dead. Mary's family and servants will slowly start to bring her back to the fact that she has a child and has to live. That's really what the first episode is about. It's a complicated situation, because there's so much pain associated with that child.
TV Guide Magazine: As you say, Downton all about love in the end. What's happening on that front?
Neame: It's a great season for Edith [Laura Carmichael]. There's lots of romance there. She is seeing her [married] boss at the newspaper. And young cousin Rose [Lily James] has got a lot of romance going on. She's takes us into the world of jazz clubs. [Note: She daringly dates black musician Jack Ross, played by Gary Carr.] A lot of American black people came to Europe in that period because of racism.
TV Guide Magazine: Will various men come sniffing around after the widowed Mary?
Neame: It's very important that Mary's not about to jump back in the saddle. Millions loved Matthew and they want to know she is as bereaved as they are. But that doesn't alter the fact that's she's a beautiful eligible young widow and there are men around who start to show an interest. They are very attracted to her and some actually fall in love. There's something intriguing about her coldness.
TV Guide Magazine: Sounds like she lost her heart along with Matthew.
Neame: That's right. And she knows that. She says, "I was a better person with him."
TV Guide Magazine: How is Downton's other widowed parent Tom Branson [Allen Leach] coping?
Neame: Branson is the agent running the family business, the estate. He's quite ambitious. He fell in a love with person from the wrong tribe. Now she's gone, he's trapped behind enemy lines. He does love his in-laws, but the conflict will continue.
TV Guide Magazine: What about that long suffering couple, Anna [Joanne Froggatt] and Bates [Brendan Coyle]? More pain undoubtedly.
Neame: Yes, of course. They don't have an easy journey at all. Their love is full of roadblocks.
TV Guide Magazine: When does Shirley MacLaine return as Cora's mother Martha? We hear she brings Cora's brother Harold (Paul Giamatti) with her. What's he like?
Neame: They arrive for the season finale. Harold is very interesting. He's the kind of American who never wanted to visit Europe but he starts to see the appeal once he's there and tries to fit in.
TV Guide Magazine: Is the Dowager Countess Violet [Maggie Smith] deliciously withering once again to Martha?
Gareth Neame: Oh yes. You can see some of that in the online trailer. Violet also has some lovely moments with Isabelle [Penelope Wilton]. She was supportive to Isabelle for a while after Matthew's death, but then they start to bicker and have different opinions again, I love that relationship.
TV Guide Magazine: What else is happening downstairs?
Neame: There are a couple of new maids. And Molesley [Kevin Doyle] needs a new position because he was Matthew's valet. He'll go through a couple of trials. There's also Green [Nigel Harman], a valet. He's at Downton with a friend of the family who is interested in Mary.
TV Guide Magazine: Can Downton, like many soaps, go on forever?
Neame: It won't go on forever, because we will eventually run out of things to say. I think the actors will want to move on and in a show about a family, you can't really change the characters as in a show set in a workplace. The other thing is that the cast in a show like Modern Family is paid so much money that everyone stays. We don't have that economic model.
TV Guide Magazine: Do you and Julian Fellowes have an idea when you want to end the show?
Neame: We're starting to shoot Season 5 in a few weeks. There won't be a 10th season, so it will be somewhere in between. We will try to manage the way we bring the show to an end in hopefully as good of a way as we gave birth to it so we feel complete. It can't go as far as 1930 because the actors would be very much the wrong ages.