Downton Abbey’s final season premieres Jan. 3 in the U.S., but some of the cast joined executive producer Gareth Neame for a sneak peek in NYC Monday night. Following the screening, they took part in a lively Q&A moderated by The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff. Here are the Top 12 moments. (No show spoilers.)
1. About 18 minutes into the chat, when Itzkoff asked if the cast hangs out on set according to position — downstairs with downstairs, and upstairs with upstairs — Michelle Dockery (Mary) deadpanned, “I never talk to Daisy” while Elizabeth McGovern (Cora) concurred: “There is a line to be drawn.” Dockery then reached across Hugh Bonneville (Robert) to grab McGovern’s hand and quipped, “We stick together don’t we, mummy.” Jim Carter (Carson), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes), and Kevin Doyle (Molesley) then got up from their seats and left the stage. When they returned, Carter was carrying a bottle of wine to replenish Bonneville’s glass. “We live to serve,” he cracked. The audience roared.
In truth, there is some segregation, simply because the downstairs scenes are filmed at a studio 90 miles from the castle that stands in for Downton, Carter said. Also, he added, “There’s an immense amount of frock envy downstairs. Daisy and Anna the maid envy Lady Edith and Lady Mary’s dresses enormously. So a lot of bitterness goes on, in a very understated English way.” (Logan, whose Mrs. Hughes had one frock for day and one frock for night — “And you looked gorgeous in them both,” Carter interjected — was not, for the record, envious of the five costume changes Dockery would do in a day of shooting.)
Note: If you’re wondering about the prop Allen Leech (Tom) employed on stage, he visited Yahoo TV a few hours before the screening to play our “Branson or B.S.” trivia game and asked to take his paddle with him. Look for that video leading up to the show’s return.
2. Asked to name something specific that they’d miss from the show (as opposed to the cast and crew at large), McGovern said, “I’m gonna miss regularly reiterating the plot with Hugh Bonneville in the bed every night. And never, by the way, having any sex, as far as I can tell.” (”Unlike the Carsons,” Logan joked.) Dockery said she’ll miss someone we haven’t met yet, their style consultant on the show, Jacques. Cue Leech saying, “Heeey” in a deep voice that sounded like the French cousin of South Park’s Big Gay Al. It’s tough to get a perfect transcript of his monologue over the audience laughter, but here’s our best attempt: “Hi, I’m Jacques. I mainly turn up on the days when the ladies have new costumes. I sit and give a little bit of a dissection of why they’re wearing them. Such as Mary, tonight, you know what this says? It says, ‘Hey, I lost my husband. Boo hoo.’ … You have a little bit of a slit for the cleavage. It says, ‘Heeey.’ And the rest of it speaks for itself.” (Watch a clip here.)
“Barrow’s very fond of him,” Dockery added. Doyle said he couldn’t follow that and that he’d never seen Leech do that character before. “Oh, he’s commented on you,” Leech replied.
3. Maggie Smith was not at the screening, but that didn’t keep the cast from telling stories about her. In short, she’s as full of one-liners as the Dowager Countess. Dockery recalled Smith hitching her skirt up a bit, as all the ladies must do when the sound guy needs to put their mic pack on their leg, and telling him, “[Coughs] Control yourself.” McGovern remembered Smith hating uncomfortable costumes. She acted out Smith wearing one with a high French collar, tugging at it and groaning, “Now I know why they invented the guillotine.” Carter said Smith treated Dockery and Laura Carmichael (Edith) like real granddaughters. “They just showed her mucky things on YouTube all the time. Cats doing disgusting things. She was in stitches about that,” he said. He also recalled a moment on set when Shirley MacLaine (Cora’s mother, Martha) spotted a piano in a corner and said, “Perhaps it would be nice if I could sing.” You could see the cogs spinning in Smith’s mind, he said. “So Maggie decided, ‘Of course, I’m going to fall asleep.’ So Maggie falls asleep. So Shirley spots that and thinks, ‘I’m gonna go sing to Maggie.’ So Maggie wakes up and does the funniest triple take you’ve ever seen. It was an act-off between two great Dames.”
4. The cast shared their casting stories. Among the highlights: Carter knew he was right for the role immediately. “There was one line in the script, it was a stage direction — ‘Carson sits there in his magnificence’ — and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” he said. “You want an actor to sit in magnificence, I’m sorry, I’m your boy. And I’d have been mightily pissed off if they’d given it to anyone else.” Dockery fell in love with Lady Mary immediately but thought they’d give the part to someone else. Leaving her audition, she ran into Dan Stevens, who was there waiting to read for the role of Matthew. “We’d just worked together on an adaptation of Turn of the Screw for the BBC. I said, ‘Dan!’ And he said, ‘Are you going out for Mary?’ I said, ‘Yeah. Matthew?’ I remember walking away thinking, ‘Oh, that could work,’” she said, laughing.
Just as Mrs. Hughes was supposed to have a Yorkshire accent until producers heard Logan’s Scottish brogue, Branson — then listed as John instead of Tom — was also supposed to be English. “I walked in all prepared, having worked weeks on the Yorkshire accent. They sat there and went, ‘Actually, interesting, why don’t you play it Irish?’ And I went, ‘Nooo,’ ‘cause I’d done this for weeks. But they convinced me there and then to play it Irish. I thought then I had a less of a chance of getting the part, because I didn’t know if they wanted an Irish guy at all,” he said. “[Creator Julian Fellowes] jumped on that, and then he had another angle to go with [Tom’s] background.” Leech was originally hired for just three episodes, as was Doyle. “To be honest with you, the audition was a bit of a nuisance because I was opening a play,” Doyle said, to much laughter. “It was my first night at the National Theatre, and I could have done without the audition, to be honest with you.”
5. Asked when they first knew the show was catching on, Bonneville told one of his favorite stories: About four weeks into Season 1′s run, he was at the playground picking his son up from school when a 10-year-old boy came over to him and said, “I don’t like that Thomas.” “A, I thought, ‘What are you doing up at nine o’clock on a Sunday?’ And B, ‘Wow, we never expected that demographic,’” Bonneville said. The most common reaction Carter gets from fans: “I can’t sit in a restaurant without someone saying, ‘Oh, it’s funny to see you sitting down.’” Leech finds fans more vocal when the show is in-season: “If people have seen it on a Sunday night, and then you get on the Tube in London the next morning, I’ve had the experience where someone turns and goes, ‘Oh, hey! How are you?’ And I go, ‘Not too bad. How are you?’ And [realization sets in] he goes, ‘I don’t know you at all!’” Doyle topped that: “Someone thought I’d done their central heating for them.”
6. Without spoiling anything, the Season 6 premiere is an especially great episode for Carter and Logan (and Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore). Asked if they could feel a relationship between Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes coming, here was the exchange:
Carter: “We felt it was approaching at the speed of a glacier.”
Logan: “A snail frozen.”
Carter: “We didn’t rush it, did we?”
7. When the subject came to Stevens’s decision to leave the show and Matthew’s death, Dockery said, “At first, obviously I was sad about it. But I think it was a real turning point for the show. And those decisions along the way, like with Jessica [Brown Findlay], who played Sybil, it really changed the show. As much as I missed Dan when he went, I then went on to have such a fabulous storyline,” she said with a chuckle. “And I was nominated for awards.” (When the audience’s laughter subsided, Doyle called her “cold and ruthless” and started it again.)
8. Dockery did the clapper board on the very last shot of the series, but the most emotional goodbye came from the cast member least expected to cry, Bonneville said — setting up Carter to tell his story. “Everybody had been saying, ‘Oh god, it’s the last day. Oh dear.’ I said, ‘Look, come on. It’s the rhythm of our lives: you do a job, you make friendships, you work closely together, and you move on. That’s the natural way of things,’” Carter said. Cut to the servants filming their final scene in the servants’ hall. “People were getting emotional, quivering, and I thought, ‘Oh, honestly,’” Carter continued. After producers thanked the cast, Carter thought he should represent the downstairs actors and thank the incredibly loyal, hardworking crew. “There they were, gray with exhaustion, and I just said, ‘This is a family, not just in front of the camera, behind the camera. And I’d just like to thank’ — and I was gone,” he said. He turned around to see a grip and rigger also in tears. “I was a soggy mess. Totally, completely by surprise.”
9. There was an official wrap party, and, Carter insisted, “For Allen Leech, it’s still going on.” Dockery said her feet have only just now recovered from the night. (They finished filming in August.) Though everyone is curious what Downton would be like when Mary’s child, George, is Robert’s age, Neame isn’t thinking there will be a sequel. At least not soon. “This show is finished, but somebody will always own Downton Abbey,” he said. “Long after we’ve all retired, they might pull this idea out and start it all over again. But none of us will be involved with that.”
As for where the series ends (the U.K. will see the finale first, on Christmas Day), Doyle offered this: “There are conclusions to a lot of wonderful stories, but not everything is tied up in bows. It’s left to the imagination of the audience for them to continue these characters’ stories. … After 1926, there are tumultuous times ahead, aren’t there, in Britain. Some of those estates are gonna face tough times, aren’t they? So you can only imagine what’s going to happen to these characters.”
10. An audience question about the extensive rules and etiquette of the time period revealed a couple of fascinating bits. After praising the show’s historical adviser, Carter, for instance, said you look at the lady of the house to see which way she turns to talk at the table, and then all the ladies talk that way for the first two courses before reversing for the dessert. Bonneville said in real life, the staff rarely knocked on doors because the family would then spend a large portion of their day yelling, “Come in! Come in!” So there is a basis for the eavesdropping on the show. “The butlers and the footmen and so on would meld into a room and choose their moment to bring the information they were bringing,” he said, “which of course, in dramatic terms, gives them a fantastic advantage in that they can appear invisibly, as it were, into a room and learn all sorts of stuff that the upstairs characters don’t know that they’re imparting to the downstairs characters.”
11. Asked by another audience member to name their favorite time period for their characters, Logan and Leech picked the war years: her because Mrs. Hughes suddenly had more to do (or “delegate”), and him because “the attitudes of all the characters changed so much during the war period, and then after, life meant so much more.” McGovern and Dockery picked when their corsets finally came off. (Season 6 begins in 1925). Doyle joked that nothing good of note happened for Molesely between 1912 and 1926, which earned him a hug from Leech. (Neame said that Logan does have a “lovely storyline in Season 6. Molesely does get a bit of a break.”) Carter, who’s worn the same costume for six years (”Don’t mess with perfection, Jim,” Leech said) picked the early period: “When Carson was having to deal with telephones, and typewriters, and toasters, and electric plugs. … Maggie Smith being blinded by chandeliers.”
12. The final audience question of the night asked how the women felt about the show highlighting women’s rights throughout this time period for a younger audience. “I feel that doing the show has made me so grateful for things that we do tend to take for granted today as women: how hard-won our freedoms are, the choices we have in our life. In the beginning of the series, Cora was in no control of any aspect of her destiny whatsoever. Playing the part six years, at times made me feel as though I was living in a straitjacket,” McGovern said. “I think it’s easy to forget and to not be grateful for the strides that women have fought for and need to continue to fight for, because it’s not over yet. It really isn’t.” After more applause, and Logan noting that Edith is running a magazine and Lady Mary takes over for Branson, Carter got the last word: “Daisy learns to read. Hooray!”
The final season of Downton Abbey premieres on Jan. 3 at 9 p.m. on Masterpiece on PBS.