Never mind that Prince William and Princess Kate are visiting Manhattan for the first time this week. It’s the pretend aristocrats and their servants of “Downton Abbey” that diehard fans squealed for like rock stars at a screening and Q&A with cast members Hugh Bonneville (Robert), Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith), Robert James-Collier (Thomas), Phyllis Logan (Mrs. Hughes) and Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore). Also on stage were the show’s executive producer, Gareth Neame and the historical advisor, Alastair Bruce.
Following the screening of 45 minutes of episode one – just enough to keep the audience panting, an executive noted – Jenna Bush Hager, the perky daughter of George W. and Laura Bush, moderated a lively discussion that involved plenty of gushing. Her mother is also a huge fan. “My mom heard I got the screeners and asked, ‘When can I get it?’ I told her, ‘Sorry, maybe for Christmas, but now it’s all mine.”
Jenna added, “They were on the ‘Today Show’ this morning, and I thought it was quite ironic that real royalty, Prince William and Princes Kate, are here and New York has gone totally mad, but on the Today Show’ they were the royalty.” She pointed to the cast on stage.
To play catch up, when season five of “Downton Abbey” begins, it’s 1924 and there’s a new government, the Labor Party, in power. Mr. and Mrs. Bates have a cloud hanging over their heads. A certain indiscretion on the part of Lady Edith threatens her reputation, and that indiscretion is living on the estate with a family. Lady Mary has two suitors but she seems to be indecisive. (In the first episode of the new season one of the suitors presses Lady Mary again for her hand and she replies tartly, “I do love you in my cold, unfeeling way.”) Maggie Smith as Violet, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, is in top form and tosses off the best lines.
For the audience Q&A, they were cautioned: Don’t ask any personal questions or ask if anyone dies in season five.
Jenna Bush asked the cast if people stopped them in the street.
“In England, if they like you they won’t tell you,” said darkly handsome James-Collier. “In America, they’ll cross the street to tell you they like it. An Englishman will cross the street to tell you they don’t like it. They’re more enthusiastic over here than they are over there.”
Jenna also brought up the incident last season she referred to as “The terrible Watergate scandal.” A plastic water bottle was spotted on the mantel during one of the episodes that screened.
“You all think it was a mistake, but we’ve got you taking about ‘Downton Abbey,” quipped the show’s historical advisor, who noted he was not on set that day.
“Lady Edith has had many seasons of heartbreak,” sighed Jenna. “Tell us it will change?” Laura Carmichael refused to tell her any such thing, although she hinted that more trouble is ahead. “She’s in more danger of being caught … she needs to be near her young daughter.”
“Rob, you play the character that everybody loves to hate, but in some ways, loves to love. Do you find him endearing?” Jenna asked James-Collier, who looked incredulous.
“Are you joking or something?” He added that audiences might sympathize or empathize with his situation. “They can identify why he is how he is. He’s a gay man in the time when it was illegal and, obviously, the key to this huge burden, this secret, to not be allowed to love or be allowed love,” was heavy. “It gives audiences an insight as to why he behaves the way he does.”
He added, “He’s still a shit.”
Jenna wanted to know – as does every fan of the show – whether Carson and Mrs. Hughes’s relationship would turn romantic or even sexual.
“The thing about Mr. Carson and Mrs. Hughes, they do have great respect for each other, but they get on each other’s nerves endlessly, so maybe it is like a marriage,” said Logan, adding that a romance “might spoil things.” And then at their age, “one foot’s in the grave” anyway. This was hard to believe, as Logan, who wore a glitzy top and a flirty skirt, with her hair loose and long, looked nothing like her buttoned down matronly character Mrs. Hughes.
“There was no sex in the 1920’s,” the show’s historical advisor interjected.
“Rob, do you think you’ll ever find love?” Jenna said.
“Me, myself? I hope so. I hope so. Oh? You mean will Thomas ever find love?” he said. “I have on several occasions.”
After the laughter died down, the actor, who is from Scotland, added, “Thomas won’t find love, because he wasn’t allowed to love. But you’ll see Thomas question himself for the first time, his sexuality.”
Someone asked if there were any plans for the Crawleys to visit New York.
“And bring the servants,” Leslie Nicol added.
“Ten million dollars would cover it,” replied the executive producer with the purse strings.
“This has become like a charity auction,” Hugh Bonneville cracked.
The producer was asked if the show, which has just announced season six, had an end date in sight.
“How long do we drag it out for?” Neame said. “When it feels right. When does the story run false? I really don’t know when that is. I’ll feel it as I go.”
Jenna asked Laura Carmichael the burning question: “What happened to the baby daddy?”
The actors looked perplexed. After Jenna explained the American expression, Carmichael said softly, “We’ll have to wait.”
Jenna wanted to know if the actors had a hard time going back to the 21st Century after a day at Downton Abbey, or if they had to catch themselves from doing things their character might do.
“Speaking personally, I never feel that I have to cram myself into a corset,” Logan said, “or only very occasionally.”
At the reception following the Q&A, the actors posed for selfies and mingled with audience members in a most un-Downton Abbey like way.
As for his personal views about bringing the Crawleys to Manhattan for a season, Bonneville said, “I think we can safely say it’s a British show with American sensibilities, and we’ll keep it in Britain.”
Since all aristocrats hang out together evidently, I asked the charming Mr. Bonneville if he had any plans to see the Royals when he was in town. “Strangely, I left them off my guest list for tonight’s party,” he smiled. “They’re having a few days here and they’re having a great time and it’s wonderful. They’re the real deal and we’re just this humble shadow of things, but we’re having a great time visiting, as well.”