Downton's back! And they've got a lot to reveal… Ten million will tune in to see if Lady Mary makes it to the altar with her cousin Matthew

Chris Hastings


03:39 GMT, 16 September 2012



12:35 GMT, 16 September 2012

Back in time: Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary

Back in time: Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary

The course of their love didn’t exactly run smoothly. But tonight a TV audience of more than ten million is expected to watch Lady Mary Crawley make it to the altar with her cousin Matthew in the new series of Downton Abbey.

Fans of the ITV period drama have been speculating about the couple’s big day ever since their emotionally charged engagement at the end of last year’s Christmas Day episode, watched by a record 12 million.

ITV bosses have tried to keep details of ‘the wedding of the year’ under wraps and have even refused to release publicity photographs of the bride-to-be in her dress.

Wedding scenes have also been noticeably absent from the trailer for the third series, which is currently a huge hit on YouTube.

But The Mail on Sunday has seen the 90-minute special and can reveal that the couple’s impending nuptials dominate the opening episode, set in 1920.

However, although Matthew and Mary do make it down the aisle, viewers will not see them tie the knot – at least not tonight.

The episode begins with the Crawley family taking part in a rehearsal for the big day. An irate Earl of Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, must decide whether to invite his wayward younger daughter Lady Sybil, following her elopement with and subsequent marriage to Branson, the family’s former chauffeur.

But worse is to follow when the aristocrat discovers he has lost almost all of the family fortune on a series of poor investments.

The impending financial crisis, which he tries to keep a secret at first, threatens not only the couple’s big day but also their relationship.

New blood: Shirley Maclaine as Martha Levinson, Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham

New blood: Shirley Maclaine as Martha Levinson, Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess of Grantham

Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, begins to question Matthew’s loyalty when he initially refuses to bail out her family with the money left to him by his late fiancee Lady Lavinia Swire. A distraught

Not so dowdy: Laura Carmichael shows she's more racy than her character Lady Edith

Not so dowdy: Laura Carmichael shows she's more racy than her character Lady Edith

Mary admonishes him: ‘How can you be so disappointing Don’t you see what this means It means that deep down you are not on our side. Shouldn’t we be brave and back out now’

As the couple fight to save their relationship, other members of the Crawley family have their own problems to deal with. The arrival of Martha Levinson, the free-thinking American mother of Cora, the Countess of Grantham, only heightens the simmering tensions above and below stairs.

Martha, played by Hollywood star Shirley MacLaine, immediately clashes with her nemesis Violet, the Dowager Countess, played by Dame Maggie Smith. Shortly after they greet each other, Martha remarks: ‘I’m afraid the war has made old women of us both.’

A waspish Violet replies: ‘I wouldn’t say that, but then I have always kept out of the sun.’

The Crawleys also struggle to cope with the elevation of Branson from chauffeur to member of the family. Branson is a staunch Irish Republican and his outspoken views only serve to further alienate his in-laws.

Producers are promising that the new series, which has received a record 16 nominations for next Sunday’s Emmy Awards, is the most action-packed yet.

Fans can expect heartbreak for Thomas, the homosexual footman turned valet. His world falls apart when he falls for handsome but scheming new footman Jimmy Kent.

The show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, said: ‘I am sympathetic to Thomas because to be working-class and gay at that moment was extremely difficult. His malice comes out of a need to control because the law will not allow him to control his own life.’

Bates, the valet, who was imprisoned last series for the murder of his estranged wife Vera, features in tonight’s episode, but viewers will have to wait a little longer to see if he manages to clear his name.

OMG! So much to see you’ll be glad of the ads


There is so much packed into tonight’s opening episode of Downton Abbey that, given Julian Fellowes’s predilection for peppering his script with anachronistic language, I’m surprised the Earl of Grantham doesn’t end it by declaring: ‘OMG, what a rollercoaster!’

I would even go as far as to say it may be the first time you find yourself rejoicing at the otherwise unwelcome bombardment of commercial breaks.

Because, without daring to give too much away, the ads will at least offer you a chance to pause and reflect on some of the following: the on-off society wedding of the permanently on-off sweethearts Matthew Crawley and Lady Mary, an ongoing miscarriage of justice, a foolish business deal which could spell financial ruin for the Earl, a worrying outbreak of trade unionism in the kitchen and a disgraceful incidence of drink-spiking in the drawing room that is perpetrated by a jealous spurned suitor who goes by the name of Larry Grey. (I don’t know if Larry has a son but as camp in-jokes go that one is already up there with Julian Fellowes’s best.)

Plus, there’s a burgeoning bromance between Matthew and his soon-to-be brother-in-law Branson, politically charged dinner-table debate about the Irish Troubles, more scheming from evil gay footman Thomas, a surprise inheritance which threatens to tear one family apart, and the first signs that Downton’s chief spinster- in-waiting Lady Edith might be preparing herself to settle for any man who will have her.

Fear not, however. All of the above is far easier to follow than the frantic onslaught of random and, on occasion, ludicrous storylines that blighted much of series two.

In any case, it is all a mere sideshow to tonight’s main piece of business: the arrival of former Hollywood golden girl Shirley MacLaine.

MacLaine plays Martha Levinson, Cora’s domineering American mother, and to say she’s been put in there to spice things up a little would be almost as obvious as saying that Kate Middleton might want to cover up a bit the next time she goes on holiday.

And in a move that confirms Downton is closer in spirit to Dynasty and Dallas than it is to those stuffy old BBC period dramas, Fellowes has set Martha on a collision course with Downton’s original matriarch Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, from the very start.

You will no doubt have already seen the ITV trailer in which Violet cattily demurs: ‘When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English.’ But, as Martha will probably say before the series is over, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Their first onscreen meeting is a bitchy joy. They look like a Hinge & Bracket tribute act and they spar like the real thing.

In fact, if this series doesn’t end with the pair of them catfighting in the Downton lake or wrestling each other over the grand staircase, I’m afraid it will have to be put down as an epic failure.

Away from the matriarchal monsterings, this episode is full of the neat touches which keep Downton’s millions of fans coming back for more.

As she seeks to overturn Mr Bates’s murder conviction, head housemaid Anna’s transformation into Downton’s very own Miss Marple is a particular treat – she even wears a sleuthing hat.

However, the one thing I urge you to look out for tonight is the wedding banquet that has been laid out – should it be required, of course – on the gigantic kitchen table downstairs.

Because if the words ‘That’s why Mrs Patmore goes to Iceland’ don’t strike a chord with you, then I’m Kerry Katona’s butler.