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In Defense of a Less Soapy Downton Abbey

Julian Ovenden—the hit show’s head-turning newcomer—talks Maggie Smith, that pigpen scene and why Downton’s critics are wrong

When Matthew Crawley was hurled from his roadster at the end of Downton Abbey’s third season, some fans feared his death would derail the enormously popular television series. Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens, was written out after making it clear he wanted off the show. But he had been one-half of the love story firmly at the center of Downton, married to the imperious Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) who’d just had their baby boy when he goes on his fatal spin.

Season Four opened with the grieving widow lying in bed, too depressed to do much of anything, and the rest of the characters moping along. Oh dear, murmured many fans after the premiere. Now what?

As a re-energized Downton Abbey approaches the finale this Sunday, it turns out that the “Now what?” is intriguing newcomer Charles Blake, played by Julian Ovenden, who arrives at Downton with a skeptical eye. Instead of admiring the Crawleys, Blake, sent by the British government, openly criticizes Mary for her sense of aristocratic entitlement. But sparks fly after an evening stroll to the estate’s pigpen, and the chemistry between Blake and Mary is strong enough that Ovenden is back and shooting Season Five.

Julian Ovenden on set; photo: Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE

We asked Ovenden, who’s attended Eton and Oxford and is known for his roles in such British series as The Royal and Foyle’s War, what it’s like to join the large cast of an established hit and why he plays his character the way he does.

I love the fact that when Charles Blake comes onto the scene, he was not intimidated by Lady Mary. In fact, shortly after meeting, you began insulting each other.

I wanted to make the strongest choices possible, and I also wanted to elicit from Lady Mary’s character a note that she hasn’t played before. She’s usually got the upper hand. But falling at her feet didn’t seem to me particularly interesting.

I understand that Downton creator Julian Fellowes did not cast out a net for this character, calling in lots of actors to audition, but that he had you in mind from the beginning for Charles Blake.

We just sort of had a discussion about what I thought would be interesting and what [Fellowes] thought would be interesting and what Michelle thought. We talked it over for an hour, and then they offered me the part and he went away and wrote it. It never, ever happens that way. Generally you go through eight or nine screen tests for a show that’s so successful, so I was delighted to be involved in such a nice process.

What is it like to join a cast that’s been together for several seasons?

It’s daunting and it’s exciting. They’ve been going for four years now, so everyone’s very relaxed and welcoming. My first day I had to go in on one of those interminable dinner scenes, and I was sitting next to Maggie Smith. She’s won about 87 Academy Awards and eats directors for breakfast. It is quite scary.

There are so many characters, so you don’t get many lines or have many words. Every syllable you’re sweating over, and I probably had like three words to say in the first day. It’s quite tough—you want to do your best and establish yourself.

I think everyone enjoyed the scene where Charles Blake and Lady Mary go to visit the pigs—Downton’s new venture—and end up not only rescuing them from dehydration but getting down and dirty.

I was given a little bit of a head’s up before we got the script for episode six—they said, “There’s this stuff with a pig.”  And I said, “Oh, pigs, that sounds hideous, as about unromantic as you can get.”

Actually, it turned out to be such a fun couple of days filming, because one, it put Lady Mary into a position that she’s never been in before. It’s hysterical watching her troll through the mud. Second, you watch characters who are, most of the time, very starched and civilized behave like children. That happened spontaneously.

Do you mean there was some improvisation?

Julian wrote that [Charles Blake] kind of dabbed a bit of mud on [Mary’s] nose, which seemed to me a bit too coy. He’s not afraid of her. He’s not as tied up by convention. He’s much more of a modernist. To be more relaxed and free and flinging the mud in her face instead of placing it on her nose—I thought was a much more true reaction. Then her reaction just happened naturally.

Your character certainly behaves differently than the other young men in her orbit.

It’s nice to play a character that’s a little bit removed from the family and also from aristocracy in general. During this time, there’s this overarching sense of liberalism, a sort of social democracy that even if you’re born into a working class family, there’s a possibility that you could do an occupation that is not necessarily menial. Equal opportunity is starting. The birth of a real middle class is starting. The aristocracy have to get with it to survive. They have to get off of their behinds, stop drinking so much tea and show responsibility because the country is in a pretty tough state. Even though we’re talking about the “Roaring Twenties,” financially these big estates are facing tough times.

A great deal of the show is about adjusting to different times in England after the end of World War One.

Status was challenged. The building and edifice of English society was rocked by the First World War. They hadn’t really experienced anything like that before, where a whole generation of men went away and most of them didn’t come back. The aristocracy is clinging on with their fingernails to this Edwardian and Victorian idea. They will realize that they have to change to survive.

I think that Lady Mary will turn into someone completely different and probably a much more modern woman because she is intelligent underneath the eyes and the starchiness and cold exterior. There is sympathy, empathy and compassion.

So you think Fellowes uses the writing of characters to show social change.

He weaves in the historical, political and social into the personal and romantic. It’s very neatly done, and you never feel that he’s patronizing or that he’s lecturing. He gives the show a sense of authenticity and a kind of weight. It’s not just a posh soap.  There are some really interesting things going on socially, economically, politically. He is able to bring out those colors through the relationships that these people have.

Do you think that your storyline is a bit of a response to some of the criticism of the show?

I have no idea. You’d have to ask Julian that. He doesn’t strike me as that kind of writer. I think he’s sure about what he wants to do and is good at striking a balance.

One never knows when a favorite character is going to die in Downton Abbey. You must be relieved to find yourself shooting the next season.

Who knows how long I last for, but it’s lovely to be alive and well in the 1920s at the moment. I’m really looking forward to fleshing out the character in a second season. Because it’s done in tiny little mosaic pieces, you have to sort  of put them together over the course of nine or ten hours of drama. And it’s thrilling to be involved in a television show that can attain an iconic place. Especially in America—it’s crazy!

Downton Abbey’s Season Four finale airs this Sunday, February 23, on MASTERPIECE on PBS.

Nancy Bilyeau is the executive editor of DuJour and the author of two historical thrillers set in England, The Crown and The Chalice.



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