Downton Abbey Series 3– Julian Fellowes, Elizabeth McGovern and Shirley MacLaine discuss Cora’s mother, Martha, and the hauntings at Downton Abbey!

by Anna Howell

It feels like forever since the unique and fabulous world of the residents of Downton Abbey was on our screens, but fear not, next month see’s the launch of the new series on ITV.

Fans of the show will know how from last year’s Christmas day special, Matthew and Mary had finally given to their very obvious feelings for each other and decided to get married, Bates had been arrested for the murder of his ex-wife and Sybil had run off with Tom Branson  to start a new life in Ireland as the humble wife of a radical journalist.
Unreality TV were invited to attend the world premiere of the first episode last month at the Mayfair hotel, London, where we were treated not only to the excellent series launch but also interviews with the cast and a question and answers press conference with Julian Fellowes, the mastermind behind the hit series phenomenon that is Downton Abbey.

The start of series three sees things in the house returning to normal after the war, where the house was turned into a make shift hospital.

The house is preparing for the wedding of Matthew and Mary, and there is an air of excitement with all, except Lord Grantham. Unbeknown to the rest of the house, Lord Grantham is harbouring a huge secret, one that threatens to send the entire estate into a pit of despair and disrepair. There is only one person that can help him, but will they? The question hangs in the balance throughout the episode, but with the wrong answer lies the fate of the wedding!

Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, visits from America to attend the wedding of her eldest granddaughter, and instantly goes into a matriarchal battle with the Dowager Countess of Grantham. Unlike Violet, Martha is embracing the modern world, and encourages her family to do the same, leaving Violet shot down on the subject on several occasions.

Martha is played by Hollywood legend, Shirley MacLaine, and her partnership with Dame Maggie Smith is one you can’t take your eyes off. Speaking of MacLaine’s casting, Fellowes explained that her presence was not a marketing exercise for the ever-growing American following for the show, but just that she was the only person who could have played the part. He explained:

“Shirley’s casting was not intentional for the US audience to feel more involved, but it was tactical. With Martha’s introduction, so comes the introduction of the struggle to move forward into more modern times after the war. With Martha comes an insight to Cora’s upbringing, showing where her more relaxed attitude has developed from.

“Shirley was a great casting, a complete contrast to the Maggie’s character. They are the complete opposite; Martha wants to embrace this new, exciting modern world, where Violet is still trying desperately to cling on to the past.

“Shirley MacLaine was wonderful to work with, her character was in no way adapted to suit her, she was simply exactly what we were looking for and I don’t honestly know who else could have played her. She was always are obvious first choice, the only actress strong enough to match Dame Maggie Smith.”

On MacLaine’s transition to English acting, he continued:

“MacLaine struggled with the rhythm of the language at first, but worked really hard at it as she was desperate not to let anyone down. She is simply a living legend, she was so easy to deal with, she was witty and funny and brought so much to the table.”

Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Lady Cora in the hit series, had this to say about the new series:

“Basically, the forward thrust of the series as it begins is that the world is changing. 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 Martha you see why – Cora’s already made the enormous adjustment from the culture where she’s come from. So she can more easily adapt to ways of life that aren’t long established by tradition.”

And, on the subject of her new on-screen mother, and the legend who plays her, she had this to say:

“I think it [MacLaine’s casting] gave everyone a boost of energy. She has an idiosyncratic way of going about everything, which was really refreshing. She’s a great storyteller, very funny, full of life and full of great observations.”

MacLaine herself had this to say about her character:

“In those days the American women who had money were looking for titles, and the titled men were looking for American money. So Martha fits the bill of the American Matriarch who lands across the pond with money. And they expect her to finance whatever’s wrong with Downton Abbey.

“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.”
On her new sparring partner, Dame Maggie Smith, MacLaine went on:

“The gunfight at the 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 as to what’s going on with 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 address herself to.”

Speaking of her UK experience, MacLaine says it has been a treat:

“Because they like me to be bawdy. And they know that I naturally am so it’s not a put on.”
Talking of the Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey is filmed, MacLaine went on:

“Now that’s a once in a lifetime experience, to shoot in such a hallowed place. I enjoyed very, very much that castle and the grounds and the past and the hauntings and the energy. I’m very much in to that stuff.”

The new series on Downton Abbey begins next month on ITV1/ITV1 hd.