Downton Abbey: Hugh Bonneville, Shirley MacLaine and Elizabeth McGovern on series three

The actors reveal what's in store when ITV1's hit drama returns on Sunday

Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham) 


“There is a nostalgia in these troubled times that we look for something that’s a little bit less frenetic, a little less panicky, a little less nasty,” says Hugh Bonneville about the appeal of Downton Abbey. “Even though the social world around Downton in real life would have been pretty horrendous for 90 per cent of the population of this world, our telly world seems to be a nice little retreat to go sometimes.” 

Not that everything will be plain sailing for Robert in this new series. The aftermath of the Great War will find Downton hit by financial concerns: “You’re beginning to see the cracks in the country house estate as a notion, what with the social changes brought about after the First World War,” he reveals. “The big estates really did start to have to fight for survival.” 

But economic hardship is not Earl Grantham’s only worry. He also has to contend with the arrival of his mother-in-law Martha, as played by Shirley MacLaine. So what was it like when the Hollywood legend met Downton’s very own Dame Maggie Smith? 

“It was quite something. I was there in the hall when Maggie and Shirley first met. It was like Stanley meeting Livingstone, you know – these two great adventurers of our industry meeting for the first time on the show. 

“Often in the dinner scenes, with me sitting between Maggie and Shirley, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, really, listening to some of the stories about the people they’ve worked with. The Apartment’s one of my favourite films and to be able to quiz her about Billy Wilder and Jack Lemmon and they way they shot it and all that sort of thing, it’s fascinating. I think she’s a remarkable woman and Maggie and she got on famously.”

Shirley MacLaine (Martha Levinson) 

It seems that the road to Shirley MacLaine accepting the role of Cora’s American mother began, oddly enough, at the hairdressers: 

“I happened to mention it to somebody, as you do in a hairdressing place and suddenly all the women there had these theories about what Elzabeth McGovern’s mother would be like. I thought, ‘My God, the whole world’s obsessed with this show and this family’. And that’s how it started.” 

As it happens, Martha Levinson’s arrival at Downton does indeed cause a stir, especially where Violet, the Dowager Countess is concerned: 

“She is extremely outspoken. Martha’s basic role in these episodes is to plead with the Dowager Countess to wrest herself, if possible, away from tradition. Because that’s what caused the war in the first place. And to become more flexible in relating to change.” 

And what of her scenes with Dame Maggie Smith? Should we be expecting fireworks? 

“The gunfight at he OK Corral does not happen between Maggie and me. We do a little sparring, we have our moments, but it’s more sophisticated than that. Martha is not just a crass, cranky American coming in there to call a spade a spade. She’s very smart and, to a large extent, sensitive about what’s going on with all her daughter’s children. And Maggie’s character is so well established, but you have to look beyond what is her expected reaction to Martha. 

“The Dowager Countess is a human being who has complications and a past of some pain that Martha understands – and to some extent addresses herself to.”

Elizabeth McGovern (Cora, Countess of Grantham) 

“Basically, the forward thrust of the series as it begins is that the world is changing,” says Elizabeth McGovern. “You see all of the characters either adjusting to it or not adjusting to it in their different ways. 

“It’s clear that Cora is having an easier time with the new way of things. She’s flexible about adjusting to the new way in which life is going. When you meet her mother [Martha Levinson] you can see why – Cora’s already made this enormous adjustment from the culture where she’s from. So she can more easily adapt to ways of life that aren’t long established by tradition.”

And what of McGovern – how is she adapting to the massive success of Downton, especially in America? 

“It’s always shocking to me – their effusive love for it, at least the couple of times I’ve been. They just can’t get enough of it.” 

Surely this must be the response that every actor hopes for? 


“You want people to notice and respond to what you’re conveying and I do have that feeling about Downton. People pick up on tiny little details and nuances in the story and talk to each other about them. That is incredibly gratifying.”