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Fans are up for ‘Downton Abbey’ starting season 4

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, actress Lesley Nicol poses for a portrait at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nicol performs as Mrs. Patmore in the PBS Masterpiece hit TV series, "Downton Abbey." As it returns Sunday, Jan. 5, 2013, for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a series about elegance, tradition and gentility, and the pressures of preserving them. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, actress Lesley Nicol poses for a portrait at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nicol performs as Mrs. Patmore in the PBS Masterpiece hit TV series, "Downton Abbey." As it returns Sunday, Jan. 5, 2013, for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a series about elegance, tradition and gentility, and the pressures of preserving them. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, actress Lesley Nicol poses for a portrait at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nicol performs as Mrs. Patmore in the PBS Masterpiece hit TV series, "Downton Abbey." As it returns Sunday, Jan. 5, 2013, for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a series about elegance, tradition and gentility, and the pressures of preserving them. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)

    In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, actress Lesley Nicol poses for a portrait at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nicol performs as Mrs. Patmore in the PBS Masterpiece hit TV series, "Downton Abbey." As it returns Sunday, Jan. 5, 2013, for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a series about elegance, tradition and gentility, and the pressures of preserving them. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)

  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, actress Lesley Nicol poses for a portrait at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nicol performs as Mrs. Patmore in the PBS Masterpiece hit TV series, "Downton Abbey." As it returns Sunday, Jan. 5, 2013, for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a series about elegance, tradition and gentility, and the pressures of preserving them. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)
  • In this Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2013 photo, actress Lesley Nicol poses for a portrait at The Peninsula hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. Nicol performs as Mrs. Patmore in the PBS Masterpiece hit TV series, "Downton Abbey." As it returns Sunday, Jan. 5, 2013, for its much-awaited fourth season, "Downton Abbey" remains a series about elegance, tradition and gentility, and the pressures of preserving them. (Photo by Dan Steinberg/Invision/AP)

As it returns for its much-awaited fourth season, Downton Abbey remains a saga about elegance, tradition and gentility – and the pressures of preserving them.

On the premiere, airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on PBS, Lady Mary Crawley has buckled under the weight of widowhood six months after her husband, Matthew, perished in a car crash. Inconsolable at the start of the episode, Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) dismisses their infant son as “a poor little orphan.”

Her father, Lord Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), wrestles with business pressures: the death of Matthew and the absence of a will have thrown the Downton manor, already financially fragile, into further crisis.

Meanwhile, the modern world of 1922 bears down on the Downton hidebound. Just consider the encroachment of an electric mixer, the newest threat to the culinary status quo over which Mrs. Patmore reigns in the kitchen.

Even so, Mrs. Patmore remains squat, high-strung yet unbending under the pressures of keeping the Downton nobility well-fed.

In a recent interview, Lesley Nicol, who plays her, recalled filming the series’ original episode with Mrs. Patmore “shouting at everybody and being horrible. As an actor you go, ‘Is she just a plain, nasty piece of work?’ ”

But Nicol said she was set straight by the series’ historical adviser, who reminded her that the character is “solely responsible for the food in that house. If you go to dinner at Downton, it’s got to be the best you’ve ever had. Sometimes people are harsh because they need things to be right.”

That was a key ingredient for playing Mrs. Patmore, but the recipe keeps the pressure on Nicol to look authentic doing it, because “viewers are looking for mistakes – they are!”

With a lifetime of credits that include the musical Mamma Mia! and the films East Is East and its sequel, West Is West, Nicol must rely on her acting chops to be convincing as a cook, because (she readily confesses) she isn’t one in real life: While her husband likes to throw dinner parties, “I’m front-of-the-house,” she explained with a laugh. “I do the talking and the pouring of the drinks.”

It’s no secret that Downton Abbey has dined out on startling success from almost the first moment it hit the air in Britain in 2010 (three months before its U.S. debut).

It has gained a firm foothold in the culture, won 10 Emmys and two Golden Globes, and found a robust audience that rose to the challenge of calling it “Downton,” not “Downtown.” Last season’s finale drew 8.2 million U.S. viewers, most of them left shattered by Matthew’s demise as they faced the long wait to see how the “Downton” elite and underclass would cope.

In November there was a bit of good news for rabid fans with the announcement that, yes, next year there will be a fifth season. That news freed viewers to fret about their favorite show’s fate beyond 2015: How many years will Downton carry on?

Just ask Downton executive producer Gareth Neame. Everybody else has.

“We know there’s going to be more than five,” he said patiently, “and I know there’s going to be less than 10. I don’t know what happens between now and then.”

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