Season five of venerated period drama Downton Abbey kicks off on the UK’s ITV in the fall with an overriding theme of change. You won’t find any S5 spoilers here, but executive producer Gareth Neame tells me today, “We’re always doing twists and turns. I hope we will have a few things that will surprise this year.” I spoke with Neame following a screening of the first episode and a Q&A session with journalists in London this afternoon. Weathering its fair share of behind-the-scenes change, like Dan Stevens’ and Jessica Brown Findlay’s shocking Season 3 departures, the show has added a host of new castmembers in the past two years and propelled the action through some key moments of the early 20th century. With consistently strong ratings for ITV and PBS’ Masterpiece in the U.S., the show reaped 12 Emmy nominations this year.
As he prepares to head to LA for the ceremony next week, Neame assures me there are “no plans to end the show at all.” That’s despite occasional handwringing in the press over its future based on comments made by some involved. “Lots of things get said that get misunderstood,” Neame says. Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ NBC period project The Gilded Age, which was first given a script commitment with significant penalty attached in late 2012, will not interfere with goings-on at the Grantham estate. Neame says, “We can’t make two shows. We will come onto (Gilded Age) at some point in the future… It’s definitely not dead, it’s just a question of capacity.”
Meanwhile, back at the Abbey, Season 5 kicks off in 1924 as Ramsay MacDonald becomes the first ever Labour Prime Minister in the UK. Neame notes that the series began with the sinking of the Titanic at the apex of the aristocracy which “slowly started to decline, and there is nothing more so than the new government that risks taking that life away.” The character of Tom Branson will face an “exciting time,” said Allen Leech who plays Lady Sybil’s widower. The liberal-minded Branson will “have an opportunity to see change from the inside out,” Leech said referring to the political shifts. As for Lady Mary, the spine of Season 4 was how she moved from a “living death and back to life” following the demise of her husband Matthew. At the end of last season “she knows life will move on” relationship-wise, Neame says, but she doesn’t know exactly how. Part of this season will deal with her finding that out. “We explore the idea that when you are older, it’s a far more complex appproach with more care.”
Leech is one of several Downton castmembers to have branched out to other projects; he’ll next be seen with Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game. Other actors like Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Joanne Froggatt, Brendan Coyle and Lily James are also spreading their wings. I asked Neame how hard it was to accommodate their expanding careers and busier schedules. “Because we shoot from the end of January through August, it gives them a longer hiatus than regular cable or network. Hopefully, we’re a benign employer and won’t make them just sit at home.” In the UK, actors are traditionally signed for three years and then “all bets are off,” says Neame. Still, with Season 6 more than a likelihood, he’s not expecting any Big Bang Theory-style negotiations. “We’re still on public television,” he laughs. Rather, it’s essentially a case of rolling negotiations. “To the American industry it seems short-sighted, and a bit quaint — and I think it probably is. But very few shows make it beyond a third season anyway, so most of time you’re pretty safe.”