Stars Dan Stevens, Brendan Coyle, Laura Carmichael and Phyllis Logan recently attended a screening of the Christmas episode along with producer Liz Trubridge and director Brian Percival, and chatted to reporters about being in the show. Read on to find out what they had to say!
Obviously, everything that happens in the series and this Christmas special is kept top secret. Do you find it hard to keep everything under wraps?
Dan: "Yes! I generally threaten people, saying, 'I could tell you but then I'd have to eat you, kill you, all the rest of it'. No, it is quite easy. It's part of the fun of the show, as far as I'm concerned. [Matthew's storyline with Mary], that 'will they won't they?' element is one of the enjoyable things of being part of Downton, really - the game you play outside of it. Keeping the scripts from my wife is the biggest challenge!"
How do you feel about being the highlight of ITV's Christmas schedule? Is it an honour?
Brendan: "Christmas television has become such a part of Christmas culture, so to be a part of it is really gratifying. It's indicative of the success of the show, it seems to be what people want. I think we delivered - we're very proud of this episode. I think collectively we're starting to feel it's our best, so we're very happy with it."
The series is doing really well abroad - are you aware of the international appeal?
Dan: "Mainly via Twitter. I'm amazed by just constantly - there's not a week that goes past where there's not someone in Ulan Bator or Rio De Janeiro suddenly says, 'Ooh, Downton started this week'. You completely forget it's staggered across the world. I think the second series started going out in Italy this week and I've had a few tweets from the Netherlands recently. It's amazing. And just the happy friendly vibes from all over the planet about our show is extraordinary."
Why do you think it works so well abroad?
Liz: "I asked a Spanish journalist that question, actually, and she said, 'Beautiful people, lovely costumes, gossip, love, why not?' So that's the best answer I can give you. I think good storylines are universal."
What do you all think could happen to your characters next season?
Brendan: "I'm hoping for a spinoff - Mr Bates Investigates! I don't know - we're all optioned through three series and we're very happy the option's been taken up. I just know that it will be very different from series two which was very different from series one. We know we'll get something fresh, it won't be dull, but we have no indication of what's going to happen."
Phyllis: "As for Mrs Hughes, I keep finding out things about her where I go, 'I wouldn't have expected that from Mrs Hughes!' But then [Julian Fellowes] always comes up trumps and gives me something I can identify with. So maybe some skeletons in cupboards, or aspects of her character that lead us in a certain path. Who knows? I can't wait to find out."
Dan: "I think Matthew and Mary could reprise their musical duo - get into jazz and tour Paris or Berlin! That might be an interesting direction!"
Laura: "I don't know! More heartache? The possibility of finding love? I don't know. Maybe I'll take up flying now that I can drive."
You mentioned you're optioned for three series - what happens after that?
Rebecca: "The recommission doesn't really happen until after we've done it - it happens at the end of the series. It's further down the line. And if there's still the will to make it and there's still an appetite for it, I'm sure people would be very happy to be back."
There's a bit of dancing in this episode - did you have to take lessons?
Phyllis: "All of us! We were rubbish! You notice you never saw any feet during that scene. I was dreadful. We sweated up a storm, didn't we, that day?"
Laura: "It was a very small, hot room - it was hilarious."
Phyllis: "It was the summer."
Laura: "And we were all learning a waltz, which was very hard."
Phyllis: "I don't think we'll be vying for a place in Strictly!"
We hear in the show that times are changing and the next series will be set in the '20s - could things get a bit more salacious?
Dan: "I don't think there is going to be a massive jump from this series. It's coming pretty hard on the heels of this one. I don't know if it's the next week or next month, but it's not going to be a two-year leap again so they haven't got that raunchy, I imagine!"
Liz: "I don't think it's quite... it's not Julian's style to get too salacious. It'll certainly move on. Each series should be distinctive, and this is moving into the '20s."
Brendan: "There are specialist channels for it, you know..."
The acting in Downton Abbey is always very buttoned-down and subtle - is that ever frustrating?
Laura: "I find that quite satisfying to play. I think it's more interesting. I think as nice as the idea of, say, Edith being very happy is, it's far more interesting to play those moments as they are in life, where you don't get what you want. And the added element of the performance and how you have to play different characters from today and keeping a lid on it, again it's a challenge and I think brings something extra to the stories. It's not all running around screaming and smiling or crying, it's that level, which is a challenge but I enjoy it."
Dan: "I don't think people get to play big emotions really in life, actually, particularly in this country. I think the kind of, 'Get out!' or 'Leave this family!' school, that's actually our modern melodrama in a way. That's far less realistic than what we engage in. And actually there are moments of quite high emotion. The structure of how we shoot the show, it serves that quite well. We see two scripts at a time, so in terms of where your storyline is going, you have to keep the arc in such a place that you're not committed to, 'Well, Matthew clearly hates Mary and this is never going to work' or the opposite. So actually the ball is kept in the air for us and we have to play with that."
Phyllis: "It's almost strangely liberating to have those constraints on you where you're not screaming or gesturing like an eejit all over the place. It's quite challenging as well to feel that you've got to get a certain emotion across but in a more subtle way than giving it full welly."
Brendan: "It was a different time. Now we're all encouraged to say what we think and what we feel, to express ourselves. Not so much then, especially amongst the lower classes, and I think that restraint is part of the appeal of the show - the way people communicate. That doesn't necessarily mean that we don't convey high emotion, which I think we see in the Christmas special. The stakes are very, very high for almost all the characters. It's interesting, the social mores of the time, the stoicism and the restraint - I think that's part of the appeal of the show."
Brian: "I think it's also more interesting for the audience because it allows them to work a little bit harder. Not everything's there - it invites you to think a little bit more about the characters and the stories and what they're about. I think that is part of the appeal - it's not all given to you, so in that way hopefully the audience is more involved."
How competitive are you - is it important for you to beat EastEnders?
Brian: "Not at all, really. We just set out to make the best show we can. I started off at the very beginning of Downton. We didn't expect the success that we've had - we just wanted to make a show we were proud of and we all felt involved in and that we all sort of worked together as a team to achieve that goal. We didn't set out to beat anyone - I think if you make television to do that it's the kiss of death."
Brendan: "As a viewer, if you want to watch just one or another or both you will, regardless of how they're scheduled, pretty much."
The Downton Abbey Christmas special airs on Sunday (Christmas Day) at 9pm on ITV1.