Downton Abbey has already come to its conclusion in the UK, with Season 6 bidding farewell to the Grantham Estate, both upstairs and down, on Christmas Day. In the U.S., PBS Masterpiece will kick off Season 6 tonight and say a final goodbye to the Crawley family on March 6.
Executive producer Gareth Neame and creator Julian Fellowes have often told me they credit the U.S. with helping to launch the show’s worldwide popularity. It has indeed had enormous ratings success Stateside: Season 5 was seen by 25.5M people with an average audience of 12.9M viewers over its nine-week run (Nielsen Live+7 data).
Airing in hundreds more countries and languages and with a faithful following in China, it has been a staple of the zeitgeist for six years and made the period drama cool. Even Star Wars: The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams reportedly now says things on set like “Let’s Downton Abbey this up a bit.”
The show has had record ratings in the UK, despite a bit of a drag midway through the run, and ended the regular Season 6 with a consolidated 10.42M viewers. The Christmas finale was the most-watched program on the holiday. I recently caught up with Neame to discuss the U.S.’ final run of the series. Here’s our chat:
DEADLINE: How is everyone feeling about the end now that the U.S. run is upon us? You? Julian? The cast?
NEAME: I think everyone feels mixed emotions. It’s been a huge thing for everyone involved in it. It’s the biggest most successful production I’ve ever made. We all feel very blessed. Nobody regrets ending when we did. We have a final season that’s as strong as the first because we quit while we were ahead — we had the ambition that we had a complete show. We easily could have gone for a seventh season, but if I’d have said “We haven’t got Maggie” it would have been a shadow of itself. I hope that will make people want to watch the show. Everyone is very thrilled with the final season and it has gone down very well in Britain. Hopefully it will have as big or bigger an impact in America.
DEADLINE: How much of a concern were spoilers this season?
NEAME: I don’t think any more than previous years. We always have one or two or three quite strong shocks and surprises that we do try to keep under wraps. By and large we did that.
DEADLINE: In retrospect, how do you feel about the decision to keep such a delay between the UK and U.S. broadcasts?
NEAME: The moment the show really took off in the U.S. was in 2011 and 2012. It is totally unrealistic in this day and age to have a U.S./UK co-production where there is such a big time lag. However, we are where we are. (Back then) Masterpiece/PBS was acquiring British programming for the U.S. after it aired in the UK. Historically, most of the output was miniseries, not shows with a soapy/serial hook. They hadn’t ever had that so were quite used to a formula. A program would air in Britain and there would be very little pick-up until they aired in the U.S. So, they took the first (Downton) season in Q1, a quarter later than in the UK and I think they found that pattern worked very well. Despite the delay, it hasn’t affected the audiences because they’ve had record ratings. (Downton ultimately) had a better shot in January than October (on PBS) but I don’t think it’s realistic where we are now.
DEADLINE: How was the reaction to the first episodes of the final season in the UK? What can you tell us in advance of the season in the U.S. without giving too much away?
NEAME: People enjoy these final seasons. When you’re so vested in the characters and how they reach conclusions… The conclusions aren’t definite. The camera is just going to move away and unbenknowst to us (the characters’ lives will continue). I think people have found it very satisfying how stories have been tied up. We achieved all expectations. A lot of people feel it’s the best season ever. That’s rewarding.
DEADLINE: We know Matthew Goode appears in Season 6. Can you tell us anything about his role? How did that jive with his last season on The Good Wife, was there any overlap?
NEAME: Matthew’s character, Henry Talbot, met Lady Mary at the end of Season 5. Yes, he will reappear in Season 6, but exactly what goes on is to be discovered! He had finished on The Good Wife before starting on Downton.
DEADLINE: Has there been any more talk of a movie?
NEAME: (Laughing) I’m glad about the movie question because it replaces the question of three years which was always, “When is the show going to end?” We’ve had some conversations about it. Julian and I are keen. There is no script and no firm plan but it’s certainly something there is talk of; we’re not in denial about anything. We’ll know more next year.