By Chloe Fox9:15AM BST 13 Sep 2014
In her temporary tent outside Highclere Castle in Berkshire, Lisa Heathcote, the home economics adviser on Downton Abbey, is peeling countless quail eggs to be served at the cocktail party – a reception being thrown by Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville), the Lord Lieutenant of Yorkshire – that is being filmed inside the house.
Things are going well. The sun is out. Everyone is happy. And then there is a problem. The ice in the cocktail glasses is making too much noise. Is there perhaps any rubber ice that they could use instead?
Inside the Victorian castle the atmosphere is hushed. Candlelight, shimmering beads and elegant grandeur are the order of the day. Above the murmur of polite, cocktail-party conversation, a familiar booming voice announces the arrival of each new guest.
Jim Carter, aka Mr Carson the butler, is the physical embodiment of everything that its estimated global audience of 150 million viewers (100 million of them in China alone) has come to love about Downton Abbey: dignified, reassuring, and not quite knowable.
Downton Abbey is a phenomenon. Not since Brideshead Revisited more than three decades ago has a televised foray into the lives of an aristocratic English family held such sway over its audiences.
When it first aired on ITV, on a Sunday night in September 2010, Downton Abbey – written by Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Robert Altman's Gosford Park – had a consolidated figure of 9.2 million viewers, instantly making it the most successful new drama on any channel.
Here was something that had all the magic ingredients that Sunday night audiences wanted: period escapism, an original storyline – and Dame Maggie Smith.
‘We knew that we had very good scripts and a top-calibre cast,’ the producer Liz Trowbridge says. ‘But we never in our wildest dreams thought that it would be as successful as it has been. Our dream, when we first set out, was to make three series – before, during and after the First World War – to explore the social history of a house and the people who lived in it.
That was all.’
Three series came and went. Ratings remained high. Devotees hung on every plot twist. Would Lady Mary Crawley (Lord Grantham’s eldest daughter, played by Michelle Dockery) end up with her cousin Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens)? Would Lord Grantham kiss the housemaid?
Did Bates, Lord Grantham’s loyal valet (Brendan Coyle), murder his wife? And what possessed O’Brien (Lady Cora, Lord Grantham’s wife’s maid, played by Siobhan Finneran) to leave that bar of soap where she did? With the reassuring feel of an adaptation but the content of a soap opera, Downton Abbey was television gold.
So, what can we expect from season five? From spending one day on set, it is frustratingly difficult to glean anything at all (except, perhaps, that there seems to be some tension simmering between Lord and Lady Grantham). Cast and crew, briefed to within an inch of their lives, are tight-lipped.
‘My friends just know not to ask me any more,’ Brendan Coyle says with a smile. ‘If I told you, I’d have to kill you,’ says Lily James, who plays the mischievous, fun-loving cousin of the Crawleys, Lady Rose Maclaire.
READ MORE HERE: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/tvandradio/downton-abbey/11090761/Downton-Abbey-Behind-the-scenes-of-series-5.html