By TOM LEONARD
PUBLISHED: 17:00 EST, 26 December 2013 | UPDATED: 17:00 EST, 26 December 2013
This time last year, we were still reeling with shock at the unexpected demise of Downton Abbey’s handsome Matthew Crawley, the man who was to be the saviour of the Grantham earldom.
Millions of viewers watched in disbelief when Matthew died in the wreck of his car after crashing on the way back to Downton after seeing his beloved Lady Mary and their newborn son in hospital.
The savage twist had been a well-kept secret, which gave added impact to the element of surprise.
The series has had its ups and downs since then — some of which have been blamed on the plot upset of Matthew’s brutal end and the departure of Dan Stevens, who played him.
Stevens had blown a huge hole in the most beloved TV drama of recent times after deciding he was leaving the Granthams and their stuffy Edwardian manners to move to New York and try to advance his acting career in the New World.
There were whispers that the rest of the cast were less than pleased, particularly when, as it turned out, this year’s fourth series suffered a dip in ratings without Matthew the pin-up boy.
Julian Fellowes had toyed with the idea of writing a plot line that involved Matthew moving to New York on business, leaving Downton’s huge oak door slightly ajar so that he could return for the odd episode when his other commitments allowed, but Stevens didn’t want to come back, so that was that.
Stevens himself is unapologetic. ‘I made my decision for myself, but I didn’t make it alone,’ he has explained.
‘It felt the right thing to do. Also, it excited me to follow my instinct which said this is the right time. It’s just a nice feeling to have when you can trust yourself.
‘I’d had a great three years in Downton. Fond memories, lovely cast, but it was just time. We didn’t expect it to be such a success and when we came together for the second series, we were all a bit shell-shocked. And by series three, it almost seemed ridiculous how big the show had become.
‘I gave them plenty of warning — it wasn’t like I slammed the door and walked out. It was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to face. On paper, it looked mad to walk away, but it felt like the right time. I’ve got an appetite to learn new things. There was no rancour. Julian was very gracious about it’.
In spite of Matthew Crawley’s demise, Downton remains immensely successful on both sides of the Atlantic.
Whether the same can be said of 31-year-old Stevens is another matter.
For young British actors, the lure of the U.S. is hard to resist, especially if they have already been love-bombed by fans.
And for some it works out wonderfully. Benedict Cumberbatch, for instance, first came to the attention of American audiences as the star of the BBC drama series Sherlock.
Suddenly, he seems to be everywhere: the villain in the latest Star Trek film, in the Edwardian TV drama Parade’s End — a U.S.-UK collaboration — and even as the voice of Smaug the dragon in the new Hobbit film.
The dreadful film The Fifth Estate, in which Cumberbatch played Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, was a rare flop on his recent CV. But for Stevens — who appeared in it as a Guardian journalist — it was probably the acting highlight of his year.
His other recent release, Summer In February, was another Edwardian period piece, this time about a Cornish artists’ colony. As with The Fifth Estate, it was drubbed by the critics and withered at the box office. Even supportive tweets from famous friends of Stevens such as Gordon Brown’s wife Sarah and Stephen Fry couldn’t save it.
The public school-educated actor originally moved to New York for only six months to make his Broadway debut alongside Hollywood star Jessica Chastain in the Victorian period play The Heiress.
Many reviewers were enthusiastic, but the all-powerful New York Times critic Ben Brantley damned Stevens with faint praise, saying his performance was ‘shiny, well spoken and lacking in discernible undercurrents’.
Instead of moving back to Britain at the end of the run, Stevens stayed — with his wife, South African singer Susie Hariet, and their children, Willow, four, and Aubrey, one. They now live in a fashionable part of Brooklyn, with the Manhattan skyline looming across the East River.
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