Downton Abbey series six preview: tears and turmoil for period drama's final run

Downton Abbey

The times are changing for the Crawleys and their servants in the show’s final series, as a special preview screening and Q&A at the Mayfair revealed

The decline of the British aristocracy appears to be the main theme of the final series of Downton Abbey, which begins next month on ITV.

As writer and creator Julian Fellowes brings things to a close, he seems to be dismantling the privileged world of Downton, often hinted at in previous series, with his usual reminders of the march of progress; the calendar days almost visibly fly past. “You think it’s a bit too much for 1925?” remarks the dowager duchess, played by Dame Maggie Smith, a surprise guest at the press screening at the May Fair hotel in London. It has become almost tradition now that characters constantly mention what year it is when speaking, just in case our attention wanders.

Judging by this first episode, the Crawley family still enjoy their hunts and parties but can no longer ignore the changing times. “Your lot’s finished,” spits one new character, who arrives to thoroughly ruffle the feathers of her posh overlords. The outspoken schoolteacher, Sarah Bunting, was the leftie thorn in their side last series as she constantly interrupted polite dinner parties to lecture them on Marxist theory.

This year, we rejoin the family as Robert, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville, also taking part in the post-screening Q&A) is preoccupied with talk of “uncertain times” and changes to the status quo that have already resulted in the imminent sale of a nearby estate. “We mustn’t crow. We may be next,” says Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) with her usual empathy.

Meanwhile, the daughters of Downton, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), both single parents, are looking to further their independence. For once, we are given respite from their love lives, although suitors are bound to surface again before the end of the series.

Just on the strength of the heavy foreshadowing in this opener, it would be no surprise to see this series end as the original Upstairs Downstairs did on ITV in 1975: with removal vans, dust sheets and echoed laughter in the deserted corridors as the once grand house is shut for the last time. There is a strong feeling that Fellowes is packing up and moving on, although he and producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge would neither confirm nor deny a possible Downton movie in the future. “You can’t kill the entire cast,” quipped Fellowes, giving the only clue about where the story might be heading.

Below stairs, the rumours begin to spread about the money-saving measures, but not all is doom and gloom. Show-stealer Mrs Patmore (played by the comically superb Lesley Nicol) livens things up considerably when she aids her friend Mrs Hughes (Phylis Logan) in a delicate matter concerning her forthcoming marriage to Mr Carson (Jim Carter). The betrothed pair provide some much-needed tenderness in their scenes together, while problems rumble on for poor put-upon Bates (Brendan Coyle) and his virtuous wife Anna (Joanne Froggatt, also at the screening).

The Bateses ended last series waiting to have their names cleared following the mysterious death of the evil Mr Green, a visiting footman who viciously attacked Anna. The troubled couple deserve a happy ending more than most, and fans will have everything crossed that they’ll be able to crack smiles before the final credits roll.

Froggatt admitted that during her final scenes, only completed the day before the screening, she had a small cry, but thanks to an early finish, she managed to avoid the wrapping of the rest of the below-stairs cast’s scenes, which apparently descended into a truly tearful session. Sentiment aside, she begins a new job almost immediately, shooting Dark Angel, an ITV drama about the first British female serial killer.

Bonneville isn’t resting on his laurels either and will shortly begin filming a new movie project about the partition of India, in which he’ll play Mountbatten.

For once, Dame Maggie, usually given the lion’s share of the arch one-liners in any episode, has her thunder stolen by faithful butler Spratt, played by a nicely droll Jeremy Swift. However, she did win the biggest laughs at the screening with her self-effacing banter about her advancing years.

The veteran actress said she hadn’t expected to make it all the way to the end of the final series and was just happy to have done so. When asked what she plans to do next, she answered, “I’m going to be lying down.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Julia Raeside, for theguardian.com on Thursday 13th August 2015 17.34 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010