'Downton Abbey' Cast: It's More Fun Downstairs NPR's David Greene speaks with some of the cast members of the British TV hit Downton Abbey. The third season premieres in the U.S. Sunday on PBS.
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'Downton Abbey' Cast: It's More Fun Downstairs

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'Downton Abbey' Cast: It's More Fun Downstairs

'Downton Abbey' Cast: It's More Fun Downstairs

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Fans of the show "Downton Abbey" will recognize this voice.

LAURA LINNEY: I'm Laura Linney, and this is MORNING EDITION's "Masterpiece Classic."

GREENE: The actress introduces each episode of the period drama, which returns to "Masterpiece Classic" on PBS this Sunday for its third season. When Laura Linney stopped by for a recent interview, she left behind that opening welcome for our next guests, the cast of "Downton Abbey."



For those who don't know the show, "Downton Abbey" is a world choreographed by ritual and rank, where every person knows his place and everything is just so. The show focuses on a British aristocratic family, headed by the Earl of Grantham, Robert Crawley, and his wife Cora. It's set in the early 20th century, and following the First World War, major societal changes are rippling through the household - the family upstairs and the servants downstairs.

GREENE: We sat down with members of the cast to reflect on their roles and preview the new season. We'll hear in a moment from Jim Carter, who plays the devoted butler, Mr. Carson. But first, I wanted to start with the aristocrats at the top of the hierarchy at Downton Abbey. Hugh Bonneville, you play Lord Grantham, and Elizabeth McGovern, you play Lady Grantham. You all don't do very much other than get dressed when you hear the gong of a bell. You eat, you drink, you socialize. I mean, does that - do you ever wish that you had a job or something?

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: I mean, I change clothes six times a day.

GREENE: You're busy.

MCGOVERN: And that is no means easy.


GREENE: You're very busy.

MCGOVERN: And I do my hair.


HUGH BONNEVILLE: No, it is a world that's removed from our world. Let's be honest. And I think there are very few aristocrats today who would live in such relaxed splendor as this generation did.

GREENE: I'm struck what you said right there. You said it's a world so different from our own world. I read something in the New York Times, a write-up describing things this way: How perversely comforting to turn our attention to a world where you will die where you were born and where the heroes are the rare overachievers who work their way up to butler from footman. Why, Elizabeth, is this comforting, in some way, to, you know, people today?

MCGOVERN: I think because in today's world, we all live with the burden of feeling that anything is possible if we're only clever enough, smart enough, work hard enough, that we can achieve any fluctuation in rank in society, and that there is a small disappointment if, for whatever reason, you haven't managed to earn a fortune or succeed in some huge way that you thought you would as a young person. And, I mean, there's something, of course, marvelous about that. I mean, personally, I wouldn't change that for anything. I wouldn't go back to the old way. But I think there was a comfort for people, to a certain extent, in knowing this is their role. This is their place.

GREENE: Your status is determined. You don't have to worry about...

MCGOVERN: Yes. There's no pressure about it. You do the most wonderful job you can.

GREENE: Yeah. Let's play a short scene from the new season. It's very early in the new season, so this is not going to be too horrible a spoiler, I promise. Our listeners in the United States are getting to watch. But this is Lord Grantham receiving some very unexpected, life-altering news.


BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) Are you really telling me that all the money is gone?

JONATHAN COY: (as Murray) I'm afraid so.

BONNEVILLE: (as Lord Grantham) The lion's share of Cora's fortune. I won't give in, Murray. I've sacrificed too much to Downton to give in now. I refuse to be the failure, the earl who dropped the torch and let the flame go out.

GREENE: You really start to feel your vulnerability at this point.

BONNEVILLE: Well, absolutely. And this is a world before financial advisors. And, you know, if you had money, it made money, and it was as simple as that in that post-Industrial Revolution era. And so this is the big crisis point for Robert and for the estate. But at the same time, he wants things to go back to the way - the certainties that there were before the war.

GREENE: I want to go downstairs. We spent time with both of you, Lord and Lady Grantham, upstairs at Downton Abbey.

JIM CARTER: We wondered when you were getting to us.

GREENE: I know.

CARTER: I mean, I'm standing here with this silver tray in my hand for an hour now, waiting to give you this glass of wine.


CARTER: (as Carson) William, are you aware the seam at your shoulder is coming apart?

THOMAS HOWES: (as William) I felt it go a bit earlier on. I'll mend it when we turn in.

CARTER: (as Carson) You will mend it now, and you will never again appear in public in a similar state of undress.

HOWES: (as William) No, Mr. Carson.

CARTER: (as Carson) To progress in your chosen career, William, you must remember that a good servant at all times retains a sense of pride and dignity that reflects that pride and dignity of the family he serves. And never make me remind you of it again.

GREENE: Jim Carter, Mr. Carson, the butler, he seems least-adaptable to the changes going on around him at Downton Abbey and in the world.

CARTER: Yeah. He's like the fabric of Downton Abbey itself, really. He's unchanging. He thinks happiness is two footmen in the dining room, and women kept out of the dining room, resists the forces of change, which, I think, Carson, you're on the loser, there, mate. I think change is coming, but he can't cope with it very well.

GREENE: I like that you're talking to your character, there. That's (unintelligible).

CARTER: Yes, yes. Come on, Carson. (unintelligible) Oh, no, sir.

GREENE: But what makes him tick? Why so threatened by change?

CARTER: I suppose, as Elizabeth was saying earlier, it's - for some people, a static situation is a secure situation. That is his security. People like this would be fairly institutionalized, really, as institutionalized as a long-term prisoner. Our lives are dictated by gongs and bells and the rhythm of the day that is dictated to us by the people upstairs. We live to serve them and to make their world perfect, and Carson takes immense pride in that. He has tremendous pride in the service that he gives. And quite a bit of status goes with it, as well. So for a man of presumably fairly low birth, he's attained considerable status. And he'll protect that, and protect the family at the same time.

GREENE: Did you have to learn actual skills of etiquette for these roles? I mean, you know, which fork to use and how to starch a shirt, tie a bowtie. I mean, were there lessons, a schooling for you?

CARTER: All that is - we're spoon-fed that kind of information, thank God. But the art department and the props department do a fantastic job, and the authenticity of everything we use is genuine. The food is genuine. The make - the menu is printed out in French, on the table in front of people for a formal dinner. And that's what they eat: mousseline of whatever-it-is.

GREENE: And the building, it's a real house, a real castle, that...

CARTER: Yes. Highclere Castle - I mean, we've put in the odd chair of our own, where theirs are too delicate for someone like Hugh to sit on.


CARTER: I don't know why that came out, there. Sorry. But everything is as you see it there. The big painting of a man on a horse at the end of the dining-room table is a genuine Van Dyck.

GREENE: It's the real thing.

CARTER: Yeah, it's the real thing.

GREENE: The voice of Jim Carter, who plays the loyal butler Mr. Carson on "Downton Abbey." We also heard from Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern, or shall we say Lord and Lady Grantham. They were not the only cast members who stopped by. Tomorrow, more voices, from the lowly kitchen maid to the conniving valet. Until then, you can test your knowledge of the inner workings of "Downton Abbey" with a quick quiz at our website, npr.org.

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