BY DAVID HINCKLEY
Sunday, January 4, 2015, 2:00 AM
The magic touch that “Downton Abbey” has wielded from its opening scene is the kind of gift that, like a lavish British country estate, you have to be born with.
From the moment the Titanic went down right up to the show’s fifth season, which launches on PBS at 9 p.m. Sunday, that touch has not diminished.
Take it from Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas Barrow, better known to fans of “Downton Abbey” as Evil Thomas, the downstairs servant whose own nefarious touch routinely turns gold into sawdust.
James-Collier earned two university degrees and spent several years in marketing before deciding at age 28 to become an actor.
“I discovered I hated marketing,” he says. So he took some acting classes and the kind of small roles aspiring actors always take before landing Barrow.
“Now I love what I do,” he says. But sure, he allows, all that marketing experience can at times still hover about.
Like it did this summer, when “Downton Abbey” was rocked by plastic water bottle scandal.
Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) posed for a Season 5 publicity picture in front of a stately mantelpiece on which was nestled a plastic water bottle.
Plastic water bottles had so not been invented in 1925.
The scandal abated when the cast quickly shot a followup picture acknowledging and joking about their grievous error.
But scandal it was, and James-Collier says it was nothing short of brilliant.
“I have no idea if it was accidental or deliberate,” he says. “But my immediate reaction, from my marketing training, is that this did everything a good marketing campaign is supposed to do.
“It got that picture onto front pages all over the world. It got people talking about the show when it wasn’t even on the air.
“If I were running the campaign, it’s exactly what I would have done.”
Wherever The Case of the Mysterious Water Bottle originated, it’s hardly the only time “Downton” has emerged shining, or scored in a way that PBS shows just don’t score.
Over the last week and a half, more than a millions viewers have watched a nine-minute video in which George Clooney joins the “Downton” cast to promote Britain’s Text Santa charity.
Best of all, for PBS, “Downton” has become the most popular drama in PBS history. The fourth season U.S. premiere drew 10.2 million viewers, more than most commercial broadcast network shows, and while the fifth season audience dropped a bit when it ran this past fall in the U.K., it was still at the top of the pack.
It was primarily “Downton,” PBS officials will happily admit, that lifted PBS from being the 13th most-watched TV network a couple of years ago to the fifth most-watched last year.
So PBS itself, like the show’s fans, wish it could run forever.
That doesn’t happen, though, and executive producer Gareth Naeme remains coy about just how long it will actually run.
“It will end somewhere between Season 5 and Season 10,” he said in early December.
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