'Downton Abbey' EP Talks Season 5, Maggie Smith and Public Furors

Gareth Neame tells THR about the different reactions in the U.K. and the U.S. to a recent plot twist and wonders why people keep asking him when his show is ending: "Maybe they want to plan accordingly."
Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television Limited 2013 for MASTERPIECE
"Downton Abbey"

Much as it once did with the British Empire, the sun never seems to set on Downton Abbey.

As soon as PBS wraps its somewhat delayed run of the English import, the next one is already in production. And so executive producer Gareth Neame was already two weeks into filming the fifth season of his hit drama on Monday afternoon when he spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about the fourth season's Masterpiece finale.

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Neame, who runs Downton alongside creator-writer Julian Fellowes, mentioned one big discrepancy between the U.S. and U.K. airings -- namely, the reception of the season's biggest storyline. (Spoilers follow.) The EP was quick to note that maid Anna's (Joanne Froggatt) rape, and the subsequent fallout with husband Bates (Brendan Coyle), caused an uproar when it originally aired in October.

Reluctant to get into too many details about the fifth season, Neame did seem optimistic that the drama isn't immediately headed for another Dan Stevens situation -- the actor departed the series in 2012, prompting an early demise for his character -- and admits that while he has thought about the series ending, he's not sure why people keep asking when it will happen.

Anna's rape was probably the biggest event of the season. Was it received any differently here than it was in the U.K.?

It got a lot more attention in the U.K., and it certainly got very whooped up by the British press who wanted to make a very big story out of it. In the U.S. that episode went out on the night of the Globes. I think that focus kept the media from making a big song and dance about the story. A lot of people were shocked by it. It's a heinous crime perpetrated on the most heartfelt and beloved character on the whole show. Mostly people seem to be of the opinion that it was a very sensitively portrayed story by Joanne Froggatt. There's a beginning, middle and end. It's not just a shocking episode.

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Were you surprised how much the British press dwelled on it?

I was quite surprised by how strong the shock was. It was only really two to three episodes earlier where we had one of the main characters [Stevens] dead on the side of the street. There have always been shocks and surprise. I think that people forget -- because it is a warm bath of a show -- that we do have big tough shocks amid all the romance and comedy.

Anna and Bates often seem to bear the brunt of those hardships. Do you ever wish Julian would take it a little easy on them?

I think they are a couple that has numerous obstacles -- and there are people like that in life. Every time you think they get a break, there are more obstacles for them to be together. That makes for good drama, though I hope good luck will eventually come their way.

Ever since Dan left the show, the other actors are constantly asked about their plans. Do you wish British actors had longterm TV contracts like in the U.S.?

I definitely do. Our system is brilliant for actors. It's an extraordinary mature and sophisticated acting culture. It really goes back to the way TV was set up in the two countries. In America, it was about business. British television was not set up that way. For us to turn around now, in this day an age, and say, "Let's lock you down for five years," I don't think we could recreate the business that way. And we don't pay the salaries that would make people want to put the handcuffs on. I wish I had lots more flexibility, but there's a reason it's this way. And I think there are advantages. I wish I had more control, but I don't supposed I ever will.

Maggie Smith, who's 79, is one actor that many speculate will leave before the show ends. 

Maggie Smith will be in the show as long as she wants to do it. She'll be back this coming season. She's a huge part of the show, and I think she enjoys doing it. I think it's remarkable for someone who's had such a long and illustrious career to be still delivering work of this caliber. One has also really got to make reference to the remarkable combination of Julian Fellowes and Maggie Smith. She's almost like a muse to him.

You also get asked a lot about how long the show will go on.

Why are people so interested in end dates? I get asked all of the time. The more people enjoy something, the more they want to know when it will end. Maybe they want to plan accordingly. There's definitely an obsession.

Do you talk about it?

It's talked about with all of the big shows of our time. If we were to end the show now, the show is still growing and playing in new territories around the world, but I would never want anyone to think we went too long. It's about us trying to find a balance and calling things at the right time.

What's one thing you think you called at the right time?

We made the decision to get Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Matthew (Stevens) to get engaged at exactly the right time. People found that "will they?/won't they? very stressful. I think we teased it just enough that they they were enjoying the stress of it all and then delivered just as people wanted it to be delivered.  We have to call these things, if we possible can, at the right time, and that comes to deciding the right time to call the day. I hasten to add that that's not anytime soon, because I think we're still in robust health.

Downton Abbey rolls out news about guest cast before the seasons film. Is there a push to bring in more new faces?

The show has always been big about the guests coming in, though we don't really do stunt casting. Although the bedrock of the show is this cast of hugely loved characters, it's how they interact with the guests that i think makes every season feel fresh. Richard [E. Grant] and Anna [Chancellor] are two very fun additions.