Downton Abbey Season 4, much loved around the world, moving into the modern age

Downton Abbey cast (from left) Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Elizabeth McGovern, Rob James-Collier

Downton Abbey cast (from left) Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Elizabeth McGovern, Rob James-Collier (photo by Margie Barron)

The eagerly awaited Season 4 of Downton Abbey has turned into a ratings blockbuster for PBS’ Sunday schedule.

 The popular Masterpiece Classic series is like watching a fancy soap opera, which is what Downton Abbey really is with all the intrigue, romance, jealousy, tragedy, ambition, and rivalry woven into the stories. But this classy show is something special. It has captivated audiences around the world. Can you imagine the Chinese following the British aristocrats and servants of Downton Abbey, and Dame Maggie Smith’s tart replies translated into Mandarin?  Yet the great storytelling and likable characters seem to transcend boarders and backgrounds.

The first three seasons have shown us bygone days and a fascinating post-Edwardian way of life. The stories have taken us on a journey from the sinking of the Titanic, through World War I, the financial problems of running a grand estate, and family tragedies. And thanks to the great characters created by producer-writer Julian Fellowes (Oscar-winner for Gosford Park), we have enjoyed the happy times and sympathized with the sadness in the lives of the people living upstairs and downstairs at Downton.

Last season’s shocking finale, the death of Downton’s heir Matthew, was just the start for the major changes coming in season four as three generations of the Crawley family have conflicting interests on the estate. The returning cast includes Maggie Smith (Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham), Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Allen Leech (Tom Branson), Jim Carter (Carson the butler), Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates), Brendan Coyle (Mr. Bates), Rob James-Collier (Thomas), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), and Sophie McShera (Daisy).

Shirley MacLaine is back later this season playing Cora’s mother and Paul Giamatti guest stars as Cora’s brother. And upcoming is Gary Carr playing a black jazz singer who gets involved with ditzy cousin Rose.

Executive producer Gareth Neame reported that the Roaring Twenties and social change add excitement to the new season. And Julian Fellowes also wanted to explore some important questions, such as: How will Lady Mary (Dockery) cope now that Matthew is gone? Will she find love again? How will ditzy Rose affect the social order at the majestic English country estate?  What’s in store for Anna and Bates after a horrific incident? How does Branson adjust to his new role as agent of the estate? And how nasty can Thomas get?

Neame said this season ventures into an era “when these grand houses started to disappear and old things are being cast aside. That’s our journey. The very first line that Julian wrote when he sent me the first page fleshing out the idea of the show was, ‘A wonderful house, a stately home in this beautiful park land. It looks as though it will stand for a thousand years.  It won’t.’ And that is what we are going to increasingly see, that this world is coming to an end.”

Change isn’t coming, it’s begun, he explained, “because all of the characters are headed into this modern age. Ultimately, the heart of the show is the story of these 20 to 25 characters that are much loved around the world and how they all try to get by and get on, and how they interact and how they make each other laugh, and how they hate each other and have disputes and rivalries. That has been the fuel for all of the previous seasons.” Meanwhile, Season Five is being planned. #


Frank Barron is the former editor of The Hollywood Reporter, having served twice in that capacity. In between, he was West Coast news director for Billboard Publications, supervising their five magazines. Barron also created the western TV series “The Man From Blackhawk” for the ABC network. For more than three decades he and writer-wife Margie Barron have covered Hollywood for Production Update magazine, and they currently contribute to numerous publications. Frank started in showbiz as publicity director for the KHJ radio and television station. Before moving to California, he was a sports editor in New Jersey.

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