NEW YORK — “Downton Abbey” broke records last year when it became the highest-rated PBS drama of all time with 24 million viewers. But the most convincing evidence of the aristocratic British drama’s popularity came in a far more aggressive manner.
When solicitor-turned-Downton-heir Matthew Crawley was killed in a car crash at the end of the third season, series creator Julian Fellowes faced the wrath of some very angry fans.
“It was a shock to viewers, and we did get some fairly startling letters,” said Fellowes at a “Downton” panel discussion last month. “The newspapers said that I needed bodyguards, which wasn’t true. But you could gauge those feelings from the viewers.”
“Downton” fans have had several months to mourn the death of dear Matthew, played by actor Dan Stevens. This Sunday, US viewers get their first look at a widowed Mary (Michelle Dockery) and baby George on PBS’s “Masterpiece.”
Fellowes, however, is still keen to explain his motives for killing off Matthew. Or, perhaps, it’s because he’s still asked with regularity why the grim reaper paid a visit to Downton last year, not just to take Matthew, but also claiming his sister-in-law Sybil Branson (Jessica Brown Findlay).
With the expiration of his three-year contract, Stevens decided he was ready to professionally move out of the Abbey and onto the Broadway stage. Findlay wanted to leave the show for film.
“Jessica had given us a lot of warning that she was going to be leaving us, so we could plan the whole childbirth preeclampsia scene,” said Fellowes, who writes every episode of the show. “It was so moving that I cried when I wrote it.”
Stevens, however, decided to depart the show after Fellowes had already planned out five episodes of the season. After the death of Sybil, Fellowes wanted to wait as long as possible before Matthew died.
“There was no other way to handle it,” he said. “We couldn’t suddenly make [Matthew and Mary] unhappy, these legendary lovers.”
He waited until the very last minutes of the final episode of season three (which aired Christmas day in the UK) to finish off Matthew in a car accident, and destroy Britain’s festive Christmas spirit.
Stevens’s departure, however, has made it possible for Dockery’s Lady Mary to become one of England’s most eligible single mothers in season four, and to start receiving plenty of male attention.
“We had invested so much in that relationship,” Dockery said. “So I was initially worried. But what it’s done is create opportunities for Julian to write such a wonderful story for Mary. She reverts back to the very cold side we saw in [season] one, and I love that.”
There is, however, another way to look at the departure of Stevens, Findlay, and Siobhan Finneran, the actress who portrayed the conniving lady’s maid Miss O’Brien — also missing from season four. A mass exodus of cast can be a barometer of trouble for a show.
Over tea the following morning, Allen Leech, who plays widower and reluctant social climber Tom Branson, is quite adamant that the show has not jumped the shark.
“Jump the shark?” asked Phyllis Logan, who plays Mrs. Hughes. “I don’t know what that is.”
“It comes from ‘Happy Days.’ They were losing ratings so they wrote an episode where the Fonz is on water skis and he jumps over a shark,” explained Leech. “It was ridiculous. It means the show has gone too far.”
“There have been no shark sightings at ‘Downton,’ ” confirmed Logan. “Although I did hear some joking that the rest of the cast would be killed off in season four.”
It’s always jarring to see these characters out of costume and dressed for 2014, particularly Logan, who was wearing full makeup and puffing at an e-cigarette as she sipped her tea. As the show enters its fourth season, Leech and Logan say they’re still a bit surprised at the show’s popularity in the US. They are often reminded by fans of minute details of the show that they no longer remember.
Both Logan and Leech credit Fellowes’s scripts with much of the costume drama’s appeal.
“One of Julian’s strengths is really just developing these characters,” Leech said. “He could have easily sent my character away after Lady Sybil died. But he actually saw the challenge of having Tom Branson stay and try to find his feet after the one person there to guide him in that world was gone.”
Even before season four starts this weekend, the announcement was made that there will be a season five. But Fellowes said he has no plans to turn “Downton” into a WWII drama.
“I don’t think you’ll see ‘Downton’ going into an eighth or a 10th year,” Leech said. “These characters have already gone through the span of 10 years on screen. I think we’ve aged terrifically well. Maggie Smith always asks what age her character is. She says the dowager must be at least 112 by now.”