Time for some Down time

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth Mcgovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Elizabeth Mcgovern as Lady Cora and Laura Carmichael as Lady Edith

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Now the nights are drawing in, it’s time to reclaim Sunday evenings on the sofa with the return of Downton Abbey. Michelle Dockery, who plays the newly-widowed Lady Mary, tells Keeley Bolger about her big storylines ahead

Downton Abbey actress Michelle Dockery is as pleased as punch.

Just nine months after her on-screen character, the icy aristocrat Lady Mary Crawley, called her first-born child George, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge followed suit.

And having heard that William and Kate are big fans of the hit ITV show, Dockery’s rather chuffed.

“It was quite amazing that day, when the royals named their baby George,” laughs the Essex-born actress. “They’re fans of the show, apparently, so who knows!”

Unlike the future monarch, Downton’s baby George has a less than fairytale start to life. On the day he was born, in last year’s Christmas special, his father Matthew, played by Dan Stevens, died in a car crash.

And in the opening of series four, which picks up six months after Matthew’s fatal accident, Mary’s struggling to bond with her child.

“She is quite detached,” says Dockery, 31, who is the epitome of modern ladylike chic in a pencil skirt and neat blouse.

“She finds it difficult to bond with the baby at first, because he reminds her of Matthew, but I don’t think Mary was ever going to be a cooey mother.

“I think she’ll be a good parent, but she won’t be an incredibly maternal one.”

However, the actress, who says she’s enjoyed working with the “gorgeous” twins who play her screen son (and haven’t yet been sick on her!), is aware that Mary’s still in a far more privileged position than her peers.

“Because of the position she’s in within the aristocracy, she wouldn’t have spent that much time with her children. You have a nanny and governess to take care of everything, so she’s not exactly a struggling single mother.”

Filming without Dan Stevens, who left to pursue a career in America, has been strange for Dockery, who shared countless scenes with her fictional love interest during the previous three series.

“Matthew was a really well-loved character, and Dan was such a wonderful part in the show that I think it was inevitable that people were really shocked by his exit - and angry by the sounds of it,” she says, in a much softer voice than her crisp Downton character.

“I guess people felt they invested a lot in Matthew and Mary, but I think it’s opened up an opportunity to start a new chapter, not just for Mary but everyone around her.”

More than 11 million people watched Matthew’s untimely death during the Christmas episode, and while Dockery knew what was going to happen, she admits that the final days on set were sad.

“I think it was inevitable that Matthew would have to be killed off,” says the actress, who previously appeared as Eliza Doolittle in the stage production of Pygmalion and had a handful of TV roles before being cast in the popular period drama.

“Being the heir to Downton, he couldn’t just disappear. Julian Fellowes, the creator, had to tie that up. We all knew it was coming but, still, to read that last episode was just heartbreaking.”

Three new characters will be potential suitors for Lady Mary.

There’ll be an old chum – Lord Gillingham – played by Tom Cullen; jazz singer Jack Ross from Chicago, played by Gary Carr, and the belligerent Charles Blake, played by Julian Ovenden.

“Mary’s coming out of her grief slowly and, of course, there are new suitors invited to the house,” says Dockery.

“Inevitably, she needs to move on at some point, because of her position, and because she now has the heir to Downton.”

There will also be appearances by opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, as well as Sideways star Paul Giamatti and former EastEnders actor Nigel Harman.

“It was great working with Paul Giamatti, and having Shirley MacLaine back,” says the actress of the veteran star who plays her American grandmother.

Despite the illustrious signings, Fellowes has claimed that the fourth series is all about Mary so there’s a fair amount of pressure for Dockery.

But the laid-back star - who modestly mentions other characters who’ll have big storylines, including butler Joseph Molesley and Sybil’s widower Tom Branson - is determined not to read too much into the hype.