Former valet John Bates may be languishing in jail after being convicted of murdering his wife, but if Downton Abbey fans have their way, he won’t be there for long.
“A friend in LA was working on a film recently and he sent me a photograph of one of the crew wearing a Free Bates T-shirt,” says actor Brendan Coyle. “I don’t have one but maybe that’s my Christmas presents sorted out.
“On Twitter there’s a Legal Bates team and there was a Free Bates rally in San Francisco recently. Free Bates car stickers are quite a thing over there. In fact, fans have started making a whole load of Free Bates merchandise. Licensing? Now you’re talking…”
In the first episode of series three, Bates is continuing to protest his innocence from behind bars, but it seems that prison life is getting to him:
“He’s finding it a bit tedious, to be honest – he’s very much in isolation from everyone else. And he’s getting bullied a bit. He’s pushed and provoked by people in prison who have taken against him.”
Thank goodness then for wife Anna’s unshakeable belief in his innocence – but will the pair ever get to enjoy married life together?
“I can’t possibly tell you if domestic bliss will ever come. What I do know is that the house and Anna never lose faith. My own guess? Who knows – I like to play with options.”
As we see from the series opener, Bates is handling his incarceration with admirable calm. But will he eventually reach breaking point?
“When anyone’s provoked you might see a response that you don’t expect. We know that he’s had a bit of a dark past. He’s a fighting man, he’s probably killed in the past so that sort of temper, that dark side comes to the fore in extreme circumstances.”
Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates)
Anna may be head housemaid at Downton but in this new series she’s juggling her responsibilities with efforts to free her imprisoned husband Bates. And should there be a call for it, Froggatt sees no reason why Anna’s new-found detective skills couldn’t be put to good use in a spin-off series:
“Anna Bates Investigates! Anna absolutely knows that Bates wouldn’t have done something like kill his wife, and she sees it as her duty to make sure the truth comes out.”
But what effect does all this have on Anna’s normally upbeat demeanour?
“You see her really struggle with the fact that Mr Bates is not around,” admits the actress. “And you see her almost lose her positivity a bit, which we’ve never seen before. I think it’s nice to see her really strained, actually – because that’s how you’d be. That kind of positivity is difficult to keep up in the face of everything.”
And are the public supportive of Anna’s plight?
“People don’t recognize me. When Michelle [Dockery] and I were out [in America] for the Emmys, people would come up and go ‘Lady Mary!’ straight away. Then they’d look at me and go ‘Oh, oh, you’re…Anna?’ Mind you if they’re saying that I look so different I suppose that’s a good thing.”
This time around however, Anna gets to shake off her trademark pinny when hunting down the truth in London. Was it fun to wear some different costumes for a change?
“It’s nice to have a change, certainly. I do get to go out in my civvies, which is nice. Then again, it’s still a lot of long skirts, a nice blouse, possibly a brown coat and often a hat – so not exactly pushing the boundaries. But at one point I do get to wear one of Lady Mary’s dresses for a special occasion.”