Feathers fly at Downton
T IME to stock up on tissues – because laughter and tears aplenty are promised in the two-hour Downton Abbey special to be screened on Christmas Day.
In this one-off episode the Crawley family, led by Lord and Lady Grantham, head for a summer break in the Scottish Highlands.
And while the aristocratic cats are away, the downstairs mice will play. Well, the servants who remain at the estate will try to – but it proves tricky under the watchful eye of butler Carson.
"Carson's still Carson and he'll never change," says Ed Speelers, who plays dashing footman Jimmy Kent.
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Fans will remember it was Carson who quelled the fall-out following valet Thomas's attempt to kiss Jimmy at the end of series three.
"There are moments between Jimmy and Tommy where they're having altercations, but we tried to make it playful and fun," says Speelers, 24.
Nine months have lapsed since the series finale and, as wise housekeeper Mrs Hughes told Mr Bates in that episode: "Life is full of surprises."
There are rumours of romance for cook Mrs Patmore, while the Thirsk Country Fair will provide the setting for a spot of bother for some staff.
"Jimmy's trying to lead fellow footman Alfred into all sorts of trouble," reveals Speelers.
Feather dusters are sure to be ruffled too with the arrival of new housemaid Edna, played by MyAnna Buring, fresh from her success in the Twilight films. The actress says she'll be watching her Downton debut with her mum this Christmas.
"I did Miss Marple and Downton this year and she's been thrilled because I've been in something she cares to watch," says 28-year-old Buring.
Forthright and determined, it doesn't take Edna long to set her sights on the estate's land agent Tom Branson, who's stayed behind at Downton with young daughter Sybil.
The former chauffeur was left a widower when Lady Sybil died in childbirth and despite the family's attempts to integrate him into their world, he continues to live between the Crawleys and the servants below stairs.
"Branson gives her hope," explains Buring. "It shows people a way beyond the station they're born into."
Up in Scotland, the Crawleys have arrived at Duneagle Castle, along with personal servants John Bates, his wife Anna, Molesley and O'Brien, where they're hosted by Shrimpie Flintshire, the nephew of Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham.
"It was just a great delight to work with Maggie Smith, one of my heroines from when I was a student," says Peter Egan, 66, who plays Shrimpie.
He adds of his character: "He's a friendly, charming man and I haven't played many sweet men in my life."
During the trip, Lady Edith discovers that newspaper editor Michael Gregson happens to be on holiday in Scotland and may not be there simply for fishing.
This causes strain between Matthew and Mary, who disagree about Gregson's motives towards unlucky-in-love Edith.
There's further tension between the family and their hosts that's exacerbated by the frostiness between Shrimpie and his wife Susan.
"They have a terrible relationship. They've lived together too long and they're tired of each other," says Egan.
As much as he enjoyed filming at Inveraray Castle, Egan was unprepared for certain experiences – namely discovering he'd be wearing a kilt.
"That gave me the horrors!" he recalls. "You have that thing about putting a skirt on, but in fact it looked very good," he adds, laughing.
Then there was the hunting scene with co-star Hugh Bonneville.
"We had to go on our bellies and it was muddy and full of animal poo. Of course when you see it, it will be 30 seconds but we had eight hours of it!"
He didn't have much success with the Scottish dancing either. "But you'll be pleased to hear I'm not doing much of it," he jokes.
Lily James, 23, who plays his daughter, agrees. "He was very funny," says the actress who was introduced as the wayward Lady Rose in the final episode of series three.
After a dalliance with a married man, she was banished to the Scottish estate by the Dowager Countess.
"I love being in the calm and away from London but I had to try and ignore that for my character, who's completely frustrated by being in this remote location," says James.
Indeed, she found the Highlands to be heaven – except for the midges.
"There's a beautiful dining scene by the lake but we had to spray insect repellent every time they said 'cut'."
While Lady Rose represents the 'new woman' of the Twenties, her behaviour only aggravates her parents' fractious relationship.
"By the time the family come and visit I think she's desperate for company and excitement," says James, who watched the Downton Christmas special with her family last year.
"In fact, it took precedence over Love Actually, which is a big thing," she says.
It'll be the same scenario this year – and she won't be alone, as millions of fans take a pew for their Downton fix.
Well, it's going to be a long wait before the fourth series airs next autumn...
Downton Abbey Christmas Special is on ITV1 on Christmas Day at 8.45pm.