Violet and Mary are not impressed with Dan Stevens.
The fourth series has been confirmed and Fellowes is mid-way through writing it. There is just the mildest hint of panic in his voice as we discuss where he’s up to.
‘No, no, nowhere near finished yet. What can I say? We have the first read-through in February so the hounds are snapping. I’ve been at it quite furiously, but my wife did insist that I take Christmas Day off.’
Of course, what happened on screen on Christmas Day in the Downton festive special left us all reeling. The handsome Matthew Crawley, husband of Lady Mary, dead in a car crash? No one saw that one coming. It had been known the actor Dan Stevens wouldn’t return for another series, but few considered Fellowes would go as far as actually killing him off.
ITV was inundated with complaints that the story line was ‘a travesty’, ‘a tragedy’ and ‘an outrage’, with some saying the ending had ‘ruined their Christmas’.
Fellowes sighs. ‘What did they want us to do? In the UK we can only get actors to commit to three series. In the States they might sign up for seven, but that’s not how it works here. And to engineer an exit is quite difficult. Problems in the marriage would just not have been feasible – not when I’d spent so long setting it up as a happy marriage!’
He chats away about the perils of being the writer of a series that becomes so successful the leading characters are in demand elsewhere.
‘It’s actually lovely to see the youngsters blossom and go on to take up other challenges, but it does present problems. It was probably right for Dan. Less right for us, but that’s what happens in this business.’
He admits that one of the ‘family’ leaving dealt the show a serious blow. ‘It’s always a big deal if a family member wants to leave. If it’s a servant it’s no problem, they can go and get other jobs so there’s an obvious exit. I didn’t want him to go, but he couldn’t be persuaded to stay. Dan did nothing wrong, he gave proper notice and everything, but I kept hoping he’d change his mind.’
Then, Fellowes admits, the Downton bosses tried to convince him to stay for just long enough to film a feasible ending that didn’t involve sudden death.
‘My thinking was if we had him for another three episodes he could have a foreign posting, but he wasn’t prepared to do that.’
So what shocks and scandals will the next series of Downton present us with? One assumes there will be much weeping and wailing from Lady Mary, suddenly our favourite TV widow? ‘Absolutely. There will be a lot of grief to be worked through.’ [Get those awards, Michelle!]
And where will the hand of happiness fall (given that there has to be a balance in these things)?
Perhaps another wedding – one that actually goes ahead – for Lady Edith? He smiles. ‘I’m not sure about that. It strikes me that there are certain people who seem to attract misfortune, and Lady Edith is one of them. Besides, it’s much easier to write about upset and tragedy. It’s actually very hard to write about happiness.’
The risk is the other cast members will also get itchy feet when they see Dan Stevens head to Hollywood. There are already rumours Lady Edith may be the next to leave. Could we see a mass exodus? ‘I hope not!’ he says, horrified. Fans will join him on that one.