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PBS giving fans of British soap an appetizer before Season 4 starts

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The much-anticipated fourth-season première is still more than a month away, but PBS is giving its loyal Downton Abbey devotees a pre-Christmas present sure to set their stiff upper lips a-quivering.

Return to Downton Abbey, an hour-long special, is a festive dollop of Downton that will offer the British import's fans a refresher on what has happened so far in the upper-crust world of the Crawley clan, while at the same time providing a primer for viewers who haven't been watching but are eager to learn what all the proper English fuss has been about and, perhaps, join the fun.

And for both constituencies, Return to Downton Abbey serves up just enough hints and preview clips to make the arrival of Season 4 (Jan. 5 on PBS) seem as if it can't arrive soon enough.

Oscar winner and seriously smitten Downton fan Susan Sarandon hosts the special, which recaps the series' first three seasons by examining a trio of themes that have been central to the show's progress: The Changing World of Downton Abbey, The Women of Downton Abbey, and Love and Other Relationships at Downton Abbey.

Each segment includes an assortment of clips from the first three seasons, as well as interviews with series creator/writer Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame and numerous key cast members, including Hugh Bonneville (Robert Crawley), Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley), Joanne Froggatt (Anna May Bates), Shirley MacLaine (Martha Levinson), Elizabeth McGovern (Cora Crawley/Lady Grantham), Jim Carter (Charles Carson), Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason) and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley).

One of the perhaps-understated aspects of the Downton narrative that this special highlights is just how much ground -- both chronologically and in terms of the staggering volume of societal and technological change -- has been covered during the show's first three seasons.

As Downton Abbey advances into its fourth season, changes will occur at an even faster pace, as the First World War fades into the past and the heady times of the 1920s take hold. For the Crawleys, as well as the servant class that populates their world, there will be some very difficult adjustments in the months and years ahead.

The new season opens in February 1922, and the eight episode run will take the characters through until the summer of 1923. The first order of business (spoiler alert), of course, is for all the denizens of the Crawleys' Yorkshire estate to deal with last season's shocking capper (spoiler alert!), in which new father Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was killed in a car crash while travelling back home after visiting Lady Mary and their new son, George.

When Fellowes and several of his Downton counterparts made the across-the-pond journey last summer to take part in PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, much of the discussion focused on how Lady Mary will cope with the tragedy in Season 4, and how her husband's death might affect her ability to provide adequate parenting to baby George.

"She was never going to be a very maternal mother," Dockery offered during the lively interview session. "But also, she's within the aristocracy (where) they didn't really see their kids very much. So there's a nanny, and, you know, eventually there will be a governess looking after baby George, so you don't see much interaction between the baby and Mary.

"And actually, to begin with, it's hard for her to relate; it's hard to bond with the baby because, of course, she's going through the grief. And she looks at him, and she sees Matthew. So, yeah, (motherhood) is a slow process for Mary."

When Downton's third season began, the big casting news was the addition of American star Shirley MacLaine in the role of Cora Crawley's meddlesome mother, Martha Levinson, who proved to be an able adversary for imposing matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith).

Season 4 will bring the arrival of another major player from the colonies -- Paul Giamatti in the role of Harold Levinson, Martha's son and Lady Grantham's brother. According to early reports, he's something of a playboy, and his arrival in England has more to do with needing to leave American troubles behind than with any desire to be reunited with his kinfolk.

Giamatti is one of several additions to Downton Abbey's cast for Season 4; also joining the large ensemble are Harriet Walter, Joanna David, Tom Cullen and Gary Carr.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 28, 2013 C8

History

Updated on Thursday, November 28, 2013 at 9:31 AM CST: adds video

9:39 AM: adds photo, changes headline

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