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'Downtown Abbey' Gathers at TCA For Final Spin
August 2, 2015  | By Ed Bark

Beverly Hills, CA -- It would be nigh unto impossible for Downton Abbey to overstay its welcome on PBS. 

Over the years it's become the network's most popular series ever, as executives are quick to note. But now the days of reckoning are beckoning. Downton's sixth and final season begins on Jan. 3 after a New Year's Day bouquet in the form of a Tournament of Roses parade float.

"Hopefully there will be another Downton around the corner," PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger said with as much confidence as she could master before assuring that the show's Rose parade float "will have a lot of flowers on it."

Later Saturday, the venerable countess dowager of PBS' Masterpiece, Rebecca Eaton, had the distinct sinking feeling of introducing some of Downton's key players for their final group session with TV critics. She isn't taking this easily.

"Oh dear. Oh dear. I never thought this day would come," Eaton said. "(Downton) has been an incredible boost to all of us at Masterpiece, and it's a heartache that it's ending."

The nine-episode Season 6, which will climax with the traditional Christmas episode, is in the final stages of shooting, with production scheduled to wrap on Aug. 15. Hugh Bonneville, Downton's patriarchal biggest wheel as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, said the cast has "started ticking off the locations. We finished at Highclere Castle a couple of weeks ago. That was quite an interesting day and full of memories and emotions. We celebrated when we finished in the dining room, because that's always been the place for the longest scenes. So we had a team photo in there . . . And we said goodbye to a couple of our characters last week. So we're beginning to wind things down, and it's going to feel very strange on the last day."

Bonneville (with Michelle Dockery, left) sat in the midst of five actresses and characters of considerable import. Elizabeth McGovern, who plays Robert's wife, Cora, was joined by Dockery and Laura Carmichael  (their surviving daughters Mary and Edith); Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates); and Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley).

Dockery, who's moving on to shoot a TNT pilot titled Good Behavior (she'll play a fresh-out-of-prison thief and con artist), said no one wanted to leave Highclere Castle after the final scene had been filmed.

"Laura and I wandered around for the last time," she said. "We went and sat on Matthew's (Mary's deceased husband) bench. We had a bit of a cry, yes."

"It wasn't our home anymore," Carmichael said. "And of course it was never our home. It was the Highclere Castle. But it felt like it for over six years. And as soon as they said 'Cut' on that day, you realized it was just pretend."

McGovern said she'll long for the structure and relative tranquility of the times in which Downton Abbey is set. Season 6 will start in the year 1925.

"I'll miss the peace of this world in which everybody more or less knew their place and more or less accepted it," she said. "Life seemed so quiet in comparison . . . In today's world we contend with more information than we can actually absorb and handle in our emotional development. And it produces a sort of low-grade anxiety all the time. You know all this information about people before you even meet them. It's more than we can really process. But in the world of Downton Abbey, we all only know the circle (of people) that are right in front of our face. And we know our place. And we know how to behave."

There's this, too. "I'll miss being in a hit TV show," McGovern said. "There's nothing wrong with that."

Froggatt, whose Anna Bates has been underfoot much of the time as Lady Mary's maid, said she takes an opposite view of Downton's world.

"It's certainly brought back home many times how lucky I am to be living in a free society as a woman of this era," she said. "There was a lack of opportunity for women in that time unless you were born into the aristocracy."

Froggatt said she'll reboot by playing real-life, Victorian era serial killer Mary Ann Cotton in the two-part British TV drama Dark Angel. Bonneville will be jetting to India on the day after Downton wraps to play Lord Mountbatten in The Viceroy's House. He'll be opposite Gillian Anderson (The X-Files) as Lady Mountbatten.

McGovern is plain and simply "looking for a job." 

Downton's executive producer, Gareth Neame, said some cast members could be reunited in a movie down the road. "But there's no firm plans about that at all."

Otherwise, it seemed to be past time, he said, for Downton to take its place among TV's all-time classic drama series.

"We were all expecting to finish after (Season) 5," Bonneville said. But creator Julian Fellowes thought another season would "make the stories all land in a more appropriate way."

Neither PBS nor ITV in England wanted Downton to end and "there's no question we could have made a Season 7 or 8," Neame added. "I'm sure they would have been fantastic. If we had finished at Season 5, that would have been shortchanging a global audience. And perhaps if we tried to eke it out to Season 8, we'd start running out of ideas. So maybe we're leaving a little bit earlier, but I think on a really high note."

After the session, Bonneville said he's "loved every second" of Downton. Still, life as a working actor goes on.

"Now I'm a character for hire," he said. "I'll go where the next paycheck is."
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