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Robert: I want Lady Edith to be happy. I want Miss Marigold to be happy. And as a matter of fact I would like your wife to be happy too.
Mr. Drewe: I can manage her. I promise.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
We’re two episodes into the final season — and Lord Grantham already has his hands full.
Last week, Robert helped Mary ward off a blackmailer. Now, he’s helping Edith manage her own scandal with Marigold and the Drewes.
Jace: On today’s episode, I’ll sit down with Hugh Bonneville to find out how he sees Robert Crawley — landlord, husband, and father.
Hugh Bonneville: It’s always surprised me, in a good way, when you see a ghastly crisis to do with a family secret or family issue looming over the horizon that Robert never quite reacts as you might expect.
Jace: I’ll also talk with Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Cora, the Crawley family’s American matriarch.
Elizabeth McGovern: She doesn’t helicopter parent them. But she hopes for them things that she would never hope for herself.
Jace: But first, let’s jump into our Talking Downton roundtable:
In Episode 2, Carson and Mrs. Hughes square off over a wedding venue; Anna confides in Lady Mary about her miscarriages; and Edith’s daughter, Marigold, is kidnapped.
I’m joined this week by two of our Talking Downton commentators:
Kate Hess, an actress and writer known for her funny MASTERPIECE parody “Murder Abbey,” and Christina Dowling, a writer and unabashed Anglophile who’s reported for E! Online.
Jace: Favorite moments?
Kate Hess (Kate): I think my favorite part was when Mrs. Patmore said she was gonna order a jar of horseradish. That’s so modern.
Jace: I loved Mary actually rolling her eyes at Edith when she complains that Mr. Skinner hates all of her ideas and hates her.
Christina Dowling (Christina): Yeah, Mary’s eye rolls were on point this episode, for sure.
Jace: She’s like the queen of side eye of the 1920s.
Kate: And you know what I think is kind of nice is like I think there’s coming out a little jealousy from Mary about Edith because she is starting to lead such an exciting life outside of Downton. And I really like that kind of shift between them. It’s nice to see Mary being jealous of Edith for once.
Jace: I mean, she’s thoroughly modern Edith suddenly.
I mean, how could you not be jealous of that?
Jace: So they went to the fatstock show. I love saying fatstock show, which is amazing to see. I love the fact that we got to see the family and the servants sort of away from Downton together and in casual clothes. Marigold is snatched by Mrs. Drewe, and ultimately the Drewes have to leave Yew Tree Farm. How do we feel about this?
Christina: Well, I thought it was such a sad ending. Like nobody’s winning in this situation with Mr. Drewe, and Mrs. Drewe, and Marigold. They did a really kind thing for Edith. It was quite a sad point to end on.
Robert: I want to help as much as I can. Please. Just tell me if there’s anything you need from me.
Mr. Drewe: That’s very kind of you, m’lord.
Robert: It’s not kind. It’s a poor return for what you and Mrs. Drewe have done for us.
Kate: How would I feel if I was Mrs. Drewe’s other kids? Like she’s completely ignoring them. And she’s like, “Oh, I just left the other kids with a neighbor. Like they don’t get to come to the fair ’cause I got to do some kidnapping.”
Jace: Final thoughts?
Kate: Well, I thought that Mrs. Hughes was being a bit of a bridezilla at first with her not wanting to get married in the servants’ hall, but it’s like who would want to get married at work? No one wants to get married at work. (Laughs)
Jace: That’s a good way of equating it.
Kate: But then on the other hand, I feel like Carson really wants to get married there, so I hope they’ll work it out.
Jace: I mean do you want to get married at the office?
Christina: No, I do not.
Jace: You could have your vows next to the photo copier.
Christina: Yeah, that’d be… that’d be great.
Kate: I was a big fan of Mary finally being the one to be like, “Anna, go to the doctor.”
Jace: Mary, I thought this week was fantastic, and she had one of my favorite lines of the week: “You’ve earned it fair and square, keeping my secrets, hiding that fearful Dutch thingamajig, carrying poor Mr. Pamuk down the gallery at the dead of night.” She does care about Anna.
Kate: That was pretty great. And Anna’s reaction which was like, “Oh, yeah, you’re right.”
Jace: “I have done all these terrible things for you.”
Kate: “I have done a lot of crazy things.”
Robert: If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would. But I can’t, Carson. Nor you nor I can hold back time.
Mr. Carson: Unfortunately.
Jace: Hugh Bonneville — who plays Lord Grantham — has had dozens of roles in film, TV, and radio drama. He recently starred in the children’s movie Paddington, and will play Lord Mountbatten — the last British viceroy of India — in the upcoming film Viceroy’s House.
Hugh Bonneville (Hugh): Thank you. Nice to see you.
Jace: Now in the– In Season 1 Episode 1 script Robert is introduced with the following description: quote “Robert, Earl Of Grantham, is handsome and clever.” “His life isn’t as uncomplicated as you might think.”
Hugh: Gosh, I’d, you know, I’d forgotten it said handsome and clever. Well, well, well. Recast.
Hugh: They yeah…that’s nice. That’s a nice little description that his life isn’t as uncomplicated as you may think. Yeah this is a man who apparently has everything. And, you know, when you first get this image of an estate like Downton, you think exactly that. You know, he seems to sit at his desk sometimes doing something. But you’re not quite sure what. Enjoys the country pastimes of huntin’, shootin’, fishing. But beneath that all, he is running a, you know, a big industry. I mean, a big local industry. And employing 200 plus people. So I give him a lot more credit. I mean, no, I wouldn’t trust him with my…as my financial advisor. (Laughs) Sometimes he can be a pretty poor judge of character. But he– What I– Above and above that what I’ve always liked is he does give people the benefit of the doubt. And does give people a second chance. So…
Jace: He cares a great deal like more than goes beyond sort of noblesse oblige. I mean, has that been sort of a nice aspect of Robert’s character in that for all of his flaws, he is deeply, deeply caring?
Hugh: We can have an image of landowners being cruel, mustache twirling bad guys in top hats who sort of say, you know, “Pay me the rent or you’re out in the snow.” But in our world, in our fictional world of Downton, you know, Robert is a man who realizes that you can’t function like that if you’re trying to run a good company, which is what it is. And of course this is a world before proper provision of either healthcare or social welfare. And it does come out of the rich landowners or, you know, those who run these estates to look after their people.
But I think more than that, Robert’s own instinctive values are to do with compassion and understanding and, you know, be it– I mean, the subject of homosexuality which is touched on throughout the show, particularly represented in the character of Thomas– I think a very touching sequence towards the end of Series 3; the cricket match when Alfred is going to get…has been to the police and is going to, you know, single Thomas out as being a bad guy and needs to be, you know, arrested for his interest in Alfred.
Alfred: But I know what I saw, m’lord, and it weren’t right.
Robert: I’m not asking you to abandon your beliefs, Alfred, just to introduce a little kindness into the equation.
Alfred: Am I not to stand up against evil?
Robert: Evil? Thomas does not choose to be the way he is. And what harm was done really that his life should be destroyed for it?
Robert: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Are you without sin, Alfred, for I am certainly not.
Jace: I wanna talk a little about the evolution of Robert Crawley. Obviously you played him for six seasons. And he’s returned this season specifically to much more the sort of wise and benevolent Earl we saw maybe at the beginning of the series. What do you make of his transformation these last few years?
Hugh: Well I’m glad you picked up on that, because I feel exactly the same. I, you know, what initially attracted me to the whole show and to the character was that sense of calm, wisdom and, you know, conservative values, but liberal instincts. I thought that was an interesting mix. And then there were times I think when, you know, he did sort of go off the rails. I even– I did actually write (laughs) to Julian at one point and say, “I think his IQ’s going down quite rapidly here.
And I don’t quite get it. I can play, you know, this particular attitude, but it doesn’t seem like the same Robert that I knew. And so he tempered that and turned it. But of course what Julian’s always been looking for is drama, is tension, is contradiction. And sometimes, you know, he’d– you’d say, “Well my character wouldn’t do that.” Or he’d say, “Well how do you know, you know?” But, his point was always we never know what’s gonna happen this evening, you know? How do I know what’s gonna happen when I walk out the front door? Which I think is very true. So I think that– I always went with it.
Sometimes there were times when I wanted to strangle Robert where he seemed to not see what was going on under his nose. And– For instance with Mary’s grief, it was– He cocooned her and tried to wrap her up in cotton wool and protect her from the world. Whereas everybody else, including his own Mother said, “You know, this is not the way to let her grieve. You need to allow her to open up and to call to life again.” And it took a while for Robert to come around to that point of view.
Robert is a man who is perhaps emotionally more stunted than others because, you know, he was brought up at arm’s length. He was a man who grew up seeing his Mother for half an hour a day. He was in the nursery. A bit like Little George is brought down, the children are brought down and presented to their parents.
Jace: I love the relationship that he has with Mary, especially as she gets older and the seasons go on. There is much more of a sort of mutual understanding and respect. What has it been like sort of changing that relationship between Robert and Mary?
Hugh: It’s been great. And I’ve always loved the texture of those scenes, of that relationship. Because Mary, you know, can be a capricious cow. And… But Robert can see through that and Robert understands that she’s a, you know, woman who’s at a loss sometimes to find her place. And has had the love of her life taken from her. And is what, you know, is cautious of exploring that again. And like all good parents, you know, Robert just wants his kids to be happy. But he has a particular relationship with Mary that I’ve always enjoyed playing, that we both have enjoyed playing those scenes, because they’re written from the heart. And, you know, he, they accept each other’s faults.
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Jace: Now one of my favorite Robert moments is actually in Season 5 when he brings Isis, who’s dying of cancer, into bed with him. What was it like filming that scene?
Hugh: Oh it was very sweet. The whole Isis thing actually was my fault. I…about, you know, a year or more before, I’d had a few letters from people saying how much they enjoyed the show, et cetera. And– But then someone commented on the dog, “Must be now getting on.” Because people do lots of calculations about the real time. And we’ve always fudged time. You know, you’re all looking the same age as you did, you know, five years ago. Even though 12 years have passed, et cetera.
So I did some rough calculations in my head and I thought, “Actually yes, this dog probably is getting on a bit.” So I just dropped that into Julian. I said, “You know, is there anything in the idea of Isis passing away? And then, you know, there could be a whole bit of mourning over the loss of his favorite dog.” And so he wrote that in.
But, of course, since we shot the scenes, the word “Isis” became wrought with horror– horrific meaning. And so people assumed the dog had been written out because of that, which was just complete nonsense. So I want to go on the record and correct people. About that. So…
Jace: TV production does take a while to happen…
Hugh: Exactly. Some people think that we literally, we literally (laughs) make up a story one week and film it the next. But it’s not the case. It takes months of preparation.
But the thing is how do you indicate that a perfectly healthy– You can’t tell a healthy dog to look ill. You can’t sort of really put too much heavy makeup on it to make it look a bit gaunt. So I suggested that we just put a little blanket around her, which at least, you know, at least might indicate that things were not great.
But she was very…she was very sweetly behaved when we did that scene where she had to lie on the bed. (Laughs)
Jace: Now there are a bunch of Robert scenes that come to mind. I love the scene where he actually brawls in Cora’s bedroom with Simon Bricker last season. And fighting the fire in his dressing gown…
Hugh: Oh yes.
Jace: …which was great. But what is your personal favorite Robert moment?
Hugh: Gosh. Well…I just…Here: The fight with Bricker was actually– It was probably the most exhausting thing ever. It took nine and a half hours.
Simon Bricker: You can’t be surprised. When you chose to ignore a woman like Cora you must’ve known not every man would be as blind as you.
Cora: Stop it! Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
Hugh: Anyway, I did crack his rib, which was awful. But it was really, really technical to shoot. And really tiring when you got two men in their 50’s hurling each other around and me in mess dress and him in a dressing gown.
Actually I suppose my favorite sequence was– I’ve always liked the sequences when we’re all together. So it would the announcement of war, that sequence in the end of the first season where we were all innocent of the show’s popularity and what it would mean.
Robert: My lords, ladies and gentlemen. Can I ask for silence? Because I very much regret to announce that we are at war with Germany.
Hugh: That was a very memorable thing ’cause it was we’d all been off doing our separate scenes all throughout the series and then it was pretty much towards the end of the shoot itself. And we were all back together. So that was a very memorable couple of days.
Jace: And then one of my favorite relationships is actually Robert and Carson. Could you pick out a specific Robert-Carson scene with Jim?
Hugh: There was a moment, gosh, it must have been Season 2, when he and I just go and are standing on the front doorstep looking out over the estate. And it’s just a shot really. It’s not necessarily a scene, but it’s a moment where you see these two men of equal stature, with mutual respect, but world’s apart, looking out over their domain.
And also equally the moment when Lady Mary came down the stairs in her wedding dress.
That moment for me when the two men are looking up at Mary, their “daughter” in quotes, coming down the stairs. That was a– I find that very touching.
Mary: Will I do, Carson?
Mr. Carson: Very nicely, my Lady.
Jace: This was just the first part of our conversation with Hugh Bonneville. We’ll share more in an upcoming episode.
Cora: You are being tested. And do you know what they say, my darling? Being tested only makes you stronger.
Jace: Elizabeth McGovern — who plays Cora Crawley — is an American film, television, and theater actress. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her part in the 1981 movie Ragtime, and she’s been nominated for just about everything else for her role as Cora Crawley. She’s also the lead singer of the indie folk band “Sadie & The Hotheads.”
Elizabeth McGovern (Elizabeth): Very nice to be here. Thank you very much.
Jace: As we enter the final season of Downton Abbey, where do we find the Crawley family?
Elizabeth: Season 6 is very much fueled by the slow fading away of life as they know it for these people. And each one of the characters, in a different way, is having to come to terms with this. And the modern age is right around the corner.
Jace: What should viewers be most excited about for Season 6 and for Cora specifically?
Elizabeth: The viewers will see the slow liberation of Cora to a certain degree. I don’t mean to get the viewers too excited, because she is very much a woman of her time. But the time is impacting her not as dramatically as her daughters. But in many ways she’s becoming more independent. She’s pursuing her own interests. And she’s standing up to Robert and the family a bit more. She really digs in her heels on a certain issue that she’s in conflict with the Dowager about. So you’ll see Cora go a certain way toward being more of a liberated, modern woman than she ever has been.
Jace: Now in the script for Downton’s first episode, Cora is described as quote “Pretty in her 40s and American” end quote. Now how’s Cora’s Americanness played a role in the show, do you think?
Elizabeth: Well, I always wanted to bring in that as much as I humanly could. Because I felt, as an American, she would be dealing with situations in a very different way. I felt very strongly that Cora would have brought a slight cultural influence to the way she raised her kids. Because I think from my reading and my intuition that the raising of children in America was different to the raising of children in the English aristocracy. And the parents did tend to be more hands on. I felt that that would have been Cora’s instinct with her own children. And I think that did sort of come into the show that she was more emotionally engaged with them than perhaps her English counterpart might have been.
Jace: She occupies a unique position in the fact that she’s sort of inside and outside at the same time. Which I think has made her more receptive to a character like Tom Branson…
Elizabeth: Yeah, definitely.
Jace: …And accepting him into the family.
Elizabeth: She’s sort of our way as an audience of looking at this English family and their ways from the outside. Looking at it, in the same way the audience might, just like, you know, a bunch of weirdoes to a certain extent.
Jace: Now my favorite Cora moment is after the death of Sybil when she says goodbye to her youngest daughter.
Cora: Because you are my baby, you know. You always will be. Always. (Cries) My beauty, my baby.
Jace: What was it like filming that incredibly emotional scene?
Elizabeth: I would say that whole arc in that period was some of the best writing I’ve ever had the privilege to play. I really loved the writing of that. Of the way he chronicled the stages of grief, you know, the anger, how often people turn against one another, rather than pulling together. The saying goodbye. And then finally, the final point that you hope you get to where you just forgive and accept. So the whole thing was really a joy to given that as an actress. Even though it was, you know, it was agony to even pretend that you’re losing a beautiful daughter.
Jace: Now over the years Robert and Cora often feel very sorry for poor old Edith, only to have their middle daughter surprise them by being so thoroughly modern in the end. How does their dynamic with Edith shift this season?
Elizabeth: Well, once again Cora has shifted for both daughters. She’s taken a step back. She lets them get on with it. She doesn’t helicopter parent them. But she’s quietly just very supportive in all their efforts to find themselves, to make decisions for themselves, to find happiness for themselves. And to be independent women. I mean she hopes for them things that she would never hope for herself. So that she’s always the one to support their efforts, to be part of this new age where women are working. Women are having romances. Women are finding out who they are, and pursuing that. And Cora is always behind all that quietly and steadfastly for both her girls.
Jace: She was a very good mother.
Elizabeth: Yeah. Because you know she’ll be there for them both.
Jace: What was that the final day of shooting like for you?
Elizabeth: That was a day drenched in tears. I have to admit.
Jace: And then they say, that’s a wrap for Elizabeth McGovern…
Jace: …What do you feel in that exact moment?
Elizabeth: Well, I wasn’t sure what I would feel. And I was determined that, you know, I would just be really professional. But because Downton has been such a life changing experience for so many of us, it’s been bonding. It was sad.
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For more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content — and to follow other MASTERPIECE shows — check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.
MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.
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Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open in New York City, now through April 2, 2018. See downtonexhibition.com for tickets and more details.