Britain is famed for its period dramas, but writer Julian Fellowes’ latest outing, “Downton Abbey,” is a little more risqué than the usual Jane Austen or Charles Dickens fare.
To wit: In one episode, Lady Mary, the eldest daughter of the aristocrats who inhabit Downton in the late Edwardian era, carries the dead body of the Turkish ambassador’s son from her room after he collapses in her bed.
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“I think the women [at the time] were starting to feel independent, it was gradually dawning on them that they had choices,” says Michelle Dockery, the actress who plays Lady Mary, as she sits on a velvet sofa in London’s buzzy Shoreditch House on a December evening. Dockery’s screen siblings, Laura Carmichael, who plays overlooked middle child Edith, and Jessica Brown-Findlay, who plays the rebellious youngest sister, Sybil, are perched alongside her.
“I think they were aware at the time it was time of change — they could feel it,” Carmichael adds.
The series, which premiered on PBS on Sunday, pits the dramas of Downton’s aristocratic Crawley family against the below-stairs goings-on of their army of servants. The action plays out on the cusp of World War I, a period that affords the characters — as well as costume designer Susannah Buxton — plenty of opportunities for lavish dress changes. The Crawley sisters swan through the series in Empire line evening gowns, Poiret-esque high-waisted hobble skirts and, occasionally, pants. In one episode, Sybil dares to debut Diaghilev-inspired harem pants during afternoon tea.
“Susannah modeled them on original costumes from the Diaghilev ballets,” says Brown-Findlay. “In the script, someone jokes to Sybil that she’s ‘not in the Ballet Russes,’ and then I [walk] up in a re-created version of one of the costumes.”
Dockery adds that the chic pearls her character often wears were key to her role.
“I play with them a lot during a scene, so I hope I get those back [in the second season] if they’re in fashion,” she says.
Indeed, all three actresses will appear in the second season, which begins filming in the spring.
“It will be so interesting to see what happens to them in the war,” says Carmichael.
“That’s what’s so wonderful about Julian, you feel very safe having your characters’ lives in his hands,” Dockery chimes in. “It could go anywhere but you know it will be somewhere great.”