Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith in a scene from season four of the Masterpiece TV series Downton Abbey. The show’s new season premieres on Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS.

Mrs. Patmore is cooking and so is Downton Abbey

As it returns for its much-awaited fourth season, Downton Abbey remains a saga about elegance, tradition and gentility — and the pressures of preserving them.

NEW YORK — As it returns for its much-awaited fourth season, Downton Abbey remains a saga about elegance, tradition and gentility — and the pressures of preserving them.

On the premiere, aired Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS, Lady Mary Crawley has buckled under the weight of widowhood six months after her husband, Matthew, perished in a car crash.

Inconsolable at the start of the episode, Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) dismisses their infant son as “a poor little orphan.”

Her father, Lord Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), wrestles with business pressures: the death of Matthew and the absence of a will have thrown the Downton manor, already financially fragile, into further crisis.

Meanwhile, the modern world of 1922 bears down on the Downton hidebound.

Just consider the encroachment of an electric mixer, the newest threat to the culinary status quo over which Mrs. Patmore reigns in the kitchen.

Even so, Mrs. Patmore remains squat, high-strung yet unbending under the pressures of keeping the Downton nobility well-fed.

In a recent interview, Lesley Nichol, who plays her, recalls filming the series’ original episode with Mrs. Patmore “shouting at everybody and being horrible.

As an actor you go, ‘Is she just a plain, nasty piece of work?”’

But Nichol says she was set straight by the series’ historical adviser, who reminded her that the character is “solely responsible for the food in that house. If you go to dinner at Downton, it’s got to be the best you’ve ever had. Sometimes people are harsh because they need things to be right.”

That was a key ingredient for playing Mrs. Patmore, but the recipe keeps the pressure on Nichol to look authentic doing it, because “viewers are looking for mistakes — they are!”

With a lifetime of credits that include the musical Mamma Mia! and the films East Is East and its sequel, West Is West, Nichol must rely on her acting chops to be convincing as a cook, because (she readily confesses) she isn’t one in real life: While her husband likes to throw dinner parties, “I’m front-of-the-house,” she explains with a laugh.

“I do the talking and the pouring of the drinks.”

It’s no secret that Downton Abbey has dined out on startling success from almost the first moment it hit the air in Britain in 2010 (three months before its U.S. debut).

It has gained a firm foothold in the culture, won 10 Emmys and two Golden Globes, and found a robust audience that rose to the challenge of calling it Downton, not “Downtown.”

Last season’s finale drew 8.2 million U.S. viewers, most of them left shattered by Matthew’s demise as they faced the long wait to see how the Downton elite and underclass would cope.

In November there was a bit of good news for rabid fans with the announcement that, yes, next year there will be a fifth season.

That news freed viewers to fret about their favourite show’s fate beyond 2015: How many years will Downton carry on?

Just ask Downton executive producer Gareth Neame. Everybody else has.

“We know there’s going to be more than five,” he replies patiently, “and I know there’s going to be less than 10. I don’t know what happens between now and then.”

Neame is the managing director of London-based Carnival Films and a Downton executive producer who, a few years ago, put the show in motion over dinner with Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning writer of the 2001 murder mystery Gosford Park.

Neame was a fan of that ensemble drama, set at an English country house in the 1930s where a party of wealthy Brits and their servants convened for a shooting weekend.

He proposed that Fellowes create a series with the same social stratification, politesse and melodrama. Its starting point was rolled back to the eve of World War I.

With Carnival (whose credits include such series as Jeeves and Wooster, Traffik and Whitechapel) set to produce, Neame sold Downton to the British commercial network ITV.

“I wanted to position the show on a very broad mainstream entertainment channel,” he says. But in the U.S., no commercial networks were biting (ironically, not even NBC, whose parent company owns Carnival Films).

Neame found a buyer instead in public television’s Masterpiece anthology.

But it goes without saying the series caught on far beyond that — in more than 200 countries.

“They’re crazy for it in China,” marvels Nichol, who found out firsthand on a visit there: “I’ve seen me speaking Mandarin!”

“The show is everything I’d hoped for, times 100,” says Neame. But when success is multiplied, so, often, is accompanying pressure. “There’s such an insatiable demand for the show. So much is expected of it!”

Neame works closely on the story lines with Fellowes, whom he credits as “the sole writer and the creator of the show” while describing his own role as “ultimate custodian of the whole thing.

“Julian and I are making the show we want to make,” he says.

“It’s our cup of tea. We make it for us, and then, hopefully, people will come along.”

But at some point in the not-too-very-distant future, those people will be forced to say goodbye.

Then Lady Mary, Lord Robert, Mrs. Patmore and the rest will be consigned to viewers’ memories (and reruns, of course).

“There are only seven stories,” says Neame, citing a familiar literary thesis, “and I think the challenge with a long-running TV show is to retell those seven stories without anyone noticing. But there could come a time where we’ll be going, ‘What do we do now?’ And I don’t want to get to that place.

“I think the show is in very good health at the moment,” he declares.

“But people should enjoy it while it’s there.

“It won’t be there forever.”

Online:

http://www.pbs.org/downton

Just Posted

Driver who backed into Red Deer pizzeria sentenced

David Andrew Amstutz sentenced for failing to remain at the crash scene

Inflation accelerates as higher airfares, vegetable prices offset cheaper gas

OTTAWA — Canada’s annual inflation rate accelerated to two per cent last… Continue reading

Paying down debt should be priority for low income workers, say experts

TORONTO — Investment planning can often be seen as a luxury for… Continue reading

Alberta couple wants cash and charges dropped in meningitis death of their son

CALGARY — An Alberta couple facing a second trial in the meningitis… Continue reading

Moose Jaw wants to challenge Norway for tallest moose statue title

MOOSE JAW, Sask. — The City of Moose Jaw, Sask., is on… Continue reading

Fashion Fridays: Inspirational gym outfits

Kim XO, helps to keep you looking good on Fashion Fridays on the Black Press Media Network

Russian fighter jets collide over Sea of Japan crews eject

One plane crashed after its crew ejected safely, the other crew also ejected but they have not been found

Judge to deliver verdict in British sailor’s gang rape case

The alleged gang rape took place at a Halifax-area military base in 2015

B.C. minister fears money laundering involves billions of dollars, cites reports

The government had estimated that it was a $200-million a year operation, instead estimates now peg the problem at $1 billion annually

Olympian snowboarder Max Parrot diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Each year in Canada, approximately 900 people are diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma

‘Prince of Pot’ Marc Emery accused of sexual assault, harassment

Emery denied the allegations, but a Toronto woman says she is not the only one speaking out

Asteroids are smacking Earth twice as often as before

The team counted 29 craters that were no older than 290 million years

Canada’s arrest of Huawei exec an act of ‘backstabbing,’ Chinese ambassador says

China has called Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou ‘politically motivated’

In limbo: Leftover embryos challenge clinics, couples

Some are outright abandoned by people who quit paying storage fees and other couples struggle with tough decisions

Most Read