FANS of Downton Abbey do not have much longer to wait.
The all-conquering costume drama, which was inspired by – and is partially filmed at - Highclere Castle, returns to television screens in September.
Last year’s run launched with the show’s highest-ever viewing figures, reaching an audience of 12 million people, a figure which consolidated to 11.9 million across the run.
Downton Abbey also hit a record high in America, where season four achieved an average of 15 million viewers on PBS’ Masterpiece channel.
It has also recently been nominated for 12 Emmys, cementing its position as the most nominated British television drama in Emmy history with a total of 52 nominations.
Series five was recently launched in central London, where the key production staff and some of the stars of the show gathered to tease what’s coming up in the eight episodes of the season.
Carson and Mrs Hughes
There will also be the usual feature-length episode at Christmas 2014. New stars joining the cast for individual episodes or longer story arcs include Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker, Sue Johnston as Gladys Denker, Anna Chancellor as Lady Anstruther and Dame Harriet Walter as Lady Shackleton.
Although much of what is in store must remain a secret, executive producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge, joined by stars Allen Leech (Branson) and Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates) were able to drop some hints about what’s coming up.
Why did you decide to set series five in 1924?
Gareth: Every single year of the twentieth century, something happened of interest. The show has always been about the dying of the light, the end of this era, the aristocracy, the country house. It was inevitable we would use the first ever socialist government – it is a direct threat to this way of life.
But we’ve always wanted to show that these characters are more like us than they are different; the experiences they go through are very similar.
How did you decide which big names would join the cast?
Liz: Gareth, Julian (Fellowes, the show’s creator and writer) and I are involved with the casting process all the way through. We have lots of actors who say ‘I’d love to be in Downton’ but we won’t be led by that. It’s got to be organic in the story. We’ve created a very well-established world. We have rules and regulations within that. Anyone new coming in, our historical advisor Alistair Bruce advises them.
[Richard E Grant, pictured below with Elizabeth McGovern as Lady Cora] plays Simon Bricker, an art historian and we know that Downton Abbey has some beautiful paintings in it. He stays for a few episodes.
We are very lucky. We can attract incredible actors to come and play guest roles. Julian has a great skill in economy of writing. He writes very exciting stories in a short time.
Gareth: As a show about a family, the more you get to know them, the more you are compelled by them. I think series 4 was one of the best of the show but in no show do you get everything perfect. If you could go back, you’d always change something. But there’s nothing that we have presented that I would change fundamentally.
What’s in store for former chauffeur - and former rebel - Branson?
Allen: Other circumstances have placed him this situation and you constantly see the blurring of the lines. For the first time, Branson is getting his footing and getting to see change from the inside out. He has to decide what kind of man he wants to be and what kind of father he wants to be for his daughter. I think he’s such a changed man, it would be impossible for him to go back.
He’s changed his outlook. He was a bit of a firebrand but he’s now more educated than he was.
Anna had a very dramatic season four, most notably the shocking rape storyline. Are happier times ahead for Anna and Bates?
Joanne: The reaction from people on the street was all positive. It was all in support of the storyline and everyone’s work. I felt very honoured to receive letters from women who’d been through similar experiences. That was very touching, that these women felt able to be candid with me. It was a very moving experience for me.
I don’t think that Anna thinks that Bates is a serial killer! I’d like a little mix; there are moments of happiness and positivity but it’s not going to be an easy journey.
You want your character to be as believable as they can be. [Lady Mary and Anna] have become real confidantes and look after each other. That’s a relationship which crosses those boundaries and that’s what makes it an interesting friendship.
Are there any big shocks in store?
Gareth: We always try to have one of those right angle moments you don’t see coming, so we certainly hope so.
Episode one of series five ends with a very dramatic fire at Downton Abbey. How was that achieved without causing damage to Highclere?
Liz: You can’t have smoke because of the very nature of a stately home. Our designer rebuilt the galleries on the stages at the studio and we built a room we could burn at Ealing. We had to do it sequentially.
How did Allen manage with his new co-star, little Fifi Hart, who plays his daughter Miss Sybil Branson and the twins Oliver and Zac Barker, who play Master George Crawley?
Allen: I became known as the whisperer, the dragon man and fire starter. If they were really good in takes, to entertain them we'd go in search of the dragons, because there are lots of dragon effigies around the grounds.
All of the fires we have on set are controlled by our special effects team so they would make them very high and very low, and I would pretend to control them with my hand. So basically, I turned them into fantasy-loving pyromaniacs.
Are fans assured of a sixth series?
Gareth: We think season 5 is a really fantastic season. We hope to be back next year but we work one year to the next. We’ll see!
Downton Abbey returns to ITV1 in September.