Downton Abbey’s dowager countess to meet her match

She is definitely not a woman to be trifled with. But it appears the Dowager Countess of Grantham may finally have met her match in Martha Levinson – played by Shirley MacLaine – as Downton Abbey returns to the screen.

The third series sees Julian Fellowes's drama in fine form after a second season that drew rather mixed reviews – although also 16 Emmy nominations – with Matthew and Lady Mary's tempestuous love affair centre stage, and the grey clouds of financial ruin gathering on the horizon.

However, the best lines in the opening episode, set in 1920, are reserved for Maggie Smith's redoubtable Violet Grantham and her daughter-in-law's equally formidable American mother – both of whom are very much used to having the final word.

The whole thing, Fellowes promised, goes off "like a firecracker".

"[Violet] thinks everything was better in the past and now it's falling to bits. Whereas Martha is the opposite: she thinks changing is great and the future is terrific and she wants to fly on a jet plane and get moving," said the writer.

"So you have these two almost exact contemporaries in real life facing back towards the 19th century and forward to the 21st."

At a preview screening of Fellowes's "posh soap opera", due to air in the UK in September, the director, Brian Percival, admitted to feeling nervous before MacLaine arrived on set. "She was an absolute delight. [But] I was terrified beforehand, the thought of Shirley and Maggie together – I just thought: 'Oh God.'"

Fellowes denied that MacLaine had been cast as a concession to a growing American audience who have fallen hard for the ITV drama, which airs in the US on PBS. Rather she arrives – swathed in furs and wearing a magnificent feathered hat – to remind the audience that her daughter, Cora, comes from an American background that might prove more flexible in times of change.

There were few actors who could prove an equal match for Smith, who has delivered many of Downton's most memorable lines – not to mention eye rolls. "They have to punch equally – and when they are both on screen you are trying to look at both of them," said the writer.

But it took MacLaine, who won an Oscar for her performance in Terms of Endearment, some time to adjust to the different rhythms and schedules of British television and scripts.

"She struggled at first with the rhythm of the language. It was very alien to her and she really struggled remembering it," said the producer Liz Trubridge. "She hated the thought she was letting anyone down by not getting it. She wanted to get it. She would work really hard in the evening to do so."

Filming has not yet concluded on the drama, which will run for eight episodes in the autumn, with a feature-length Christmas episode. But filming rosy, chocolate-box scenes in a summer of torrential downpours has proved trying, producers admitted.

Fans, however, will doubtless be thrilled to be welcomed back into the grand drawing rooms of Downton to revel in the cocktails and beautiful beaded dresses of 1920, and to be reunited with characters both above and below stairs – not to mention those making the painful transition between the two worlds.

The unfortunate Mr Bates would probably be quite happy to swap his current lodgings for the relative luxury of the servants' accommodation at Downton Abbey.

A fourth series has not yet been commissioned by ITV, but while the third season takes in only the early 1920s, Fellowes talked about exploring the mid part of the decade and the Roaring 20s. Producers believe the show still has plenty of life in it.

The writer scotched suggestions that the success of Downton Abbey created too much pressure when it came to writing the show. "The alternative to that is to have no pressure because the show was a flop. Clearly it's better if it's done well. I think you can't really get caught up in all that really, you just have to sort of bang on."

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