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Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Bendan Coyle & Michelle Dockery

Related: Interviews, PBS's Downton Abbey, Brendan Coyle, Michelle Dockery

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The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at DOWNTON ABBEY as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season.

With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award®-winner Shirley MacLaine, DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning on January 6, 2013. BWW brings you a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. Next up, actors Brendan Coyle and Michelle Dockery.

AN INTERVIEW WITH Brendan Coyle (John Bates)

You know your character has made an impact when you start seeing your face on T-shirts.

“A friend in LA was working on a film recently and he sent me a photograph of one of the crew wearing a Free Bates T-shirt. I don’t have one but maybe that’s my Christmas presents sorted out...”

According to Coyle an entire Free Bates campaign is being waged round the world, after the stoic valet was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of his wife.

“On Twitter there’s a Legal Bates team and there was a Free Bates rally in San Francisco recently. Free Bates car stickers are quite a thing over there. In fact fans have started making a whole load of Free Bates merchandise. Licensing? Now you’re talking...”

Despite the public clamour (and the T-shirts) series three begins with Bates no closer to freedom than when we left him.

“He’s in prison,” says Coyle. “And he’s finding it a bit tedious to be honest - he’s very much in isolation from everyone else. And he’s getting bullied a bit. He’s pushed and provoked by people in prison who have taken against him.”

There is always a sense with Bates that beneath a calm veneer there is anger just waiting to be vented. How far can a man be taunted before he snaps?

“When anyone’s provoked you might see a response that you don’t expect. We know that he’s had a bit of a dark past. He’s a fighting man, he’s probably killed in his past so that sort of temper, that dark side comes to the fore in extreme circumstances.”

While Anna tries to find proof of Bates’ innocence, the valet himself has to contemplate a life behind bars.

“He’s profoundly depressed most of the time. He does find some hope when he realises that Anna has not given up on him. But his mental state is one of extreme depression – as you’d expect from someone who’s been in a Victorian prison.”

Coyle knows of what he speaks – some of Bates’ prison scenes were filmed at Lincoln Castle, in a three-tiered preserved Victorian prison set within the castle walls.

“It’s a museum really and they allowed us to go and activate that,” says Coyle. “That gives it a sense of scale and scope and textual feel, a grandness. You really got the sense of somewhere very imposing as opposed to just being in a dark cell.”

His conclusions? “Victorian prisons were really grim. There are no windows, no heating, it’s just stone walls. It would have been really cold, a harsh climate, poor diet and a punishing regime as well. I read up about stuff like that – it was a very, very miserable existence. There was a high suicide rate too, unsurprisingly. A lot of hanging.”

These, then are not happy times for Bates. His legions of fans will be asking if he will ever find contentment. Brendan Coyle says he asked himself the same question, while stuck out filming away from the rest of the cast.

“I can’t possibly tell you if domestic bliss will ever come. What I do know is that the house and Anna never lose faith. My own guess? Who knows – I like to play with options.

If the so-called ‘Cult of Bates’ has done little to help the valet himself, the popularity of the character has had some happier outcomes for Brendan Coyle.

“There was a flurry of activity last year, lots of scripts and I settled on Starlings.”

The comedy, in which Coyle stars as a down to earth electrician, has been picked up for a second series already. He says doing comedy as a counterpoint to filming Downton Abbey gives him an opportunity to flex a different muscle.

“You’re always looking to change gear quite drastically once you’ve done something quite intense and that’s what Starlings offered. It was a really happy thing to do and I’m looking forward to doing that again. But it’s an extraordinary cast on Downton and everyone’s done a great job so I think people deserve to do well out of it.”

He cites the attention to detail he’s seen in the gaol sets and some of the city scenes.

“What our art department have done recreating some of the workhouse scenes is extraordinary. There’s no cutting corners – I mean you can’t really on Downton Abbey. People have high expectations and you have to try and meet them at every single point.”

One notable omission at the beginning of this series however, will be Mr Bates’ trusty stick.

“It would have been taken off him in prison so I had to recalibrate: over time the limp’s become a reflex, something I can dip in and out of, but the stick was like a prompt to get me in to it. Without it we had to decide again what this injury was.”

And it is...

“We decided it is the kind of thing that flares up every now and again, like a war wound, something like arthritis. It comes and goes. That may sound convenient for me to play in case I forget the limp, but I also think that’s the way it would have been.”

AN INTERVIEW WITH Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley)

“The big difference for Lady Mary in this series,” says Michelle Dockery, “is that she’s very happy!”

After several series of scandal, strife and a long-running will-they-won’t they with Matthew Crawley, it looks like Mary is finally getting married. Dockery for one is a little relieved.

“As much as that angst between Matthew and Mary was enjoyable to play, I must say it’s lovely now to be finally settled in some ways. Of course, like all relationships it’s not completely perfect. Let’s just say they have quite a few problems to sort out.”

First though, there’s the wedding of the decade (with apologies to a certain royal couple). Episode one is all about the nuptials, which means Michelle Dockery possibly gets to wear the second most anticipated wedding dress of the last few years.

“It’s an absolutely stunning design,” she says. “Caroline McCall [Downton Abbey’s series 3 costume designer] did such an extraordinary job. She’s really talented. She worked with Susannah Buxton [series 1 & 2 Costume Designer] – the master! – for two years so inevitably she’s just as brilliant. It’s a truly stunning dress. I'm sure that people will maybe make some comparisons with the Royal wedding. The crowds as we arrived at the church and stepped out of the carriage were just amazing, with all these supporting artists cheering us on.”

Once wedding fever abates though, it’s time for Lady Mary to settle down and take stock.

“I guess she becomes a woman in the third series. The way it’s written it feels that even though Mary maintains that pragmatic side to her – which can be quite bossy at times - she’s really grown up. That’s highlighted in Edith and Mary’s relationship. I think it’s fair to say that things have softened between them. They look out for each other a little more. Of course, they still disagree on things, like sisters do. But Mary is a little more mature now.”

Dockery has been over to America several times since Downton Abbey became a hit there. She says that fans on the other side of the Atlantic are much more effusive than in her native Britain.

“We’re approached far more in America. I wonder whether that’s to do with Americans generally being more confident at approaching someone. But the reception that we get over there is so warm that it’s wonderful. And it’s rare that this kind of response happens. I feel incredibly lucky to be part of it.”

Does she think that the nature of the show – a portrait of the English aristocracy – is part of its distinctive international appeal?

“Maybe. For Americans it’s a different effect – this world is unfamiliar to them whereas for our country you see a lot more period dramas. They have this fascination with the aristocracy and the Royal family, a part of history that they don’t have. So I guess the effect is even stronger than over here.”

She does say that people who approach her abroad are surprised that, “I’m not that posh at all. Me and Dan [Stevens] get that all the time. None of the cast are really!”

People’s reactions to Mary have changed here too, she says. Mary, in short, has become easier to like, or at least to empathise with.

“In the first few episodes people loved to hate her. She was very cold, she had this icy exterior and she was vile to her sister. Then, half way through the first series, after the incident with Pamuk [the Turkish diplomat who died in Lady Mary’s bed], she began to soften. Then in the second series you see the heart of the character much more because of course we were at war - every time she saw Matthew could have been the last. And I’ve loved that arc that Julian has written for her. Even in the third series it’s changing.”

The main change, she says, is in Lady Mary’s attitude to her family home.

“In the first series it was like she was fighting against it. She shied away – she just wanted to go off and meet someone rich. This series, the thought of leaving Downton or Downton falling in to trouble is unthinkable to her. Because this is her legacy with Matthew: now it’s in her hands. And she feels the weight of that legacy more than ever before.” 

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