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Shirley MacLaine and Brendan Coyle talk about series 3 of Downton Abbey
12:00am Monday 24th September 2012 in Leisure
IN the next of our Downton Abbey - filmed locally at Highclere Castle - interviews, we find out about the future of the imprisoned Bates and hear from the new star in the series 3 cast, legendary actress Shirley MacLaine.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE is Martha Levinson
WHEN Shirley MacLaine got the call asking if she would like to play Cora’s American mother in Downton Abbey, she did what any right-thinking woman would do. She went to the hairdressers.
“I happened to mention it to somebody - as you do in a hairdressing place - and suddenly all the women there had these theories about what Elizabeth McGovern’s mother would be like. I thought, ‘My god, the whole world’s obsessed with this show and this family.’ And that’s how it started.”
MacLaine gives some historical background to how she pictures Martha Levinson: “In those days the American women who had money were looking for titles, and the titled men were looking for American money. So Martha fits the bill of the American matriarch who lands across the pond with money. And they expect her to finance whatever’s wrong with Downton Abbey.”
Naturally, it’s not quite as simple as that. “She is extremely outspoken. Martha’s basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition. Because that’s what caused the war in the first place. And to become more flexible in relating to change.”
It raises the prospect of MacLaine and Maggie Smith, two of the modern film and stage greats, locking horns, yet MacLaine says their interaction is a little more subtle than just sneering and brickbats. She says: “The gunfight at the OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments but it’s more sophisticated than that.
"Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and to a large extent sensitive as to what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha. The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands - and to some extent addresses herself to.”
For MacLaine, her time spent filming in the UK earlier this year was a treat. “Because they like me to be bawdy. And they know that I naturally am so it’s not a put on.” She particularly enjoyed Highclere Castle: “Now that’s a once in a lifetime experience, to shoot in such a hallowed place. I enjoyed very, very much that castle and the grounds and the past and the hauntings and the energy. I'm very much in to that stuff.”
But as a ‘jogging pants and tennis shoes’ type of girl, she says that the costumes she had to wear were less to her liking. “I hated to put that stuff on. I'm not one for wardrobe. But Caroline (McCall, Costume Designer) was brilliant. I knew that it was half of my character so I had to do it – it’s like dialogue, you have to do it right.”
Much of Martha’s wardrobe was sourced from American originals kept in an antique costume house in the San Fernando Valley in California. “We did most of the fittings there,” MacLaine explains, “So my clothes originated in America because I was American, and I was wearing wardrobe - dresses and tops and hats and shoes - from the 20s that had been stored in this place ever since. It could not have been more authentic. The wig maker came out from London and we did all the clothes there, so what you’re seeing is not the English version of the American clothes of the 20s - they were the American clothes of the 20s. And I have to say, you will not recognise me.”
BRENDAN COYLE is Mr Bates
YOU know your character has made an impact when you start seeing your face on T-shirts.
“A friend in LA was working on a film recently and he sent me a photograph of one of the crew wearing a Free Bates T-shirt. I don’t have one but maybe that’s my Christmas presents sorted
According to Coyle, an entire Free Bates campaign is being waged round the world, after the stoic valet was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife. “On Twitter there’s a Legal Bates team and there was a Free Bates rally in San Francisco recently. Free Bates car stickers are quite a thing over there. In fact fans have started making a whole load of Free Bates merchandise. Licensing? Now you’re talking…”
Despite the public clamour (and the T-shirts) series three begins with Bates no closer to freedom than when we left him. “He’s in prison,” says Coyle. “And he’s finding it a bit tedious to be honest - he’s very much in isolation from everyone else. And he’s getting bullied a bit. He’s pushed and provoked by people in prison who have taken against him.”
There is always a sense with Bates that beneath a calm veneer there is anger just waiting to be vented. How far can a man be taunted before he snaps? “When anyone’s provoked you might see a response that you don’t expect. We know that he’s had a bit of a dark past. He’s a fighting man, he’s probably killed in his past so that sort of temper, that dark side comes to the fore in extreme circumstances.”
While Anna tries to find proof of Bates’ innocence, the valet himself has to contemplate a life behind bars. “He’s profoundly depressed most of the time. He does find some hope when he realises that Anna has not given up on him. But his mental state is one of extreme depression – as you’d expect from someone who’s been in a Victorian prison.”
Coyle knows of what he speaks – some of Bates’ prison scenes were filmed at Lincoln Castle, in a three-tiered preserved Victorian prison set within the castle walls. “It’s a museum really and they allowed us to go and activate that,” says Coyle. “That gives it a sense of scale and scope and textual feel, a grandness. You really got the sense of somewhere very imposing as opposed to just being in a dark cell.”
His conclusions? “Victorian prisons were really grim. There are no windows, no heating, it’s just stone walls. It would have been really cold, a harsh climate, poor diet and a punishing regime as well. I read up about stuff like that – it was a very, very miserable existence. There was a high suicide rate too, unsurprisingly. A lot of hanging.”
These, then are not happy times for Bates. His legions of fans will be asking if he will ever find contentment. Brendan Coyle says he asked himself the same question, while stuck out filming away from the rest of the cast. “I can’t possibly tell you if domestic bliss will ever come. What I do know is that the house and Anna never lose faith. My own guess? Who knows – I like to play with options.”
If the so-called ‘Cult of Bates’ has done little to help the valet himself, the popularity of the character has had some happier outcomes for Brendan Coyle. “There was a flurry of activity last year, lots of scripts and I settled on Starlings.” The comedy, in which Coyle stars as a down to earth electrician, has been picked up for a second series already. He says doing comedy as a counterpoint to filming Downton Abbey gives him an opportunity to flex a different muscle.
He says: “You’re always looking to change gear quite drastically once you’ve done something quite intense and that’s what Starlings offered. It was a really happy thing to do and I’m looking
forward to doing that again. But it’s an extraordinary cast on Downton and everyone’s done a great job so I think people deserve to do well out of it.”
He cites the attention to detail he’s seen in the gaol sets and some of the city scenes. “What our art department have done recreating some of the workhouse scenes is extraordinary. There’s no cutting corners – I mean you can’t really on Downton Abbey. People have high expectations and you have to try and meet them at every single point.”
One notable omission at the beginning of this series however, will be Mr Bates’ trusty stick. “It would have been taken off him in prison so I had to recalibrate: over time the limp’s become a reflex, something I can dip in and out of, but the stick was like a prompt to get me in to it. Without it we had to decide again what this injury was.” And it is... “We decided it is the kind of thing that flares up every now and again, like a war wound, something like arthritis. It comes and goes. That may sound convenient for me to play in case I forget the limp, but I also think that’s the way it would have been.”
Downton Abbey is currently running on ITV1 on Sunday evenings.