NEW YORK – Last night, the Earl of Grantham visited midtown Manhattan. Or, at the very least, Hugh Bonneville, who plays Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, visited Manhattan. Bonneville wasn't alone either, he was there with "Downton Abbey" executive producers Julian Fellowes and Gareth Neame, and actors Laura Carmichael, Michelle Dockery, Rob James-Collier, Allen Leach, Phyllis Logan, and Lesley Nicol. 
 
The evening started off with the first 40 minutes of the first episode of the upcoming fourth season of "Downton" (which premieres on PBS on January 5th). After the screening, the producers and cast took the stage in a conversation moderated by Bill Carter of the New York Times.
 
During the episode, it was the Dowager Countess, played by Maggie Smith, who got the biggest round of applause from the crowd at the Hudson Theater, but when the cast members present at the venue were introduced, it was Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas Barrow, who received the largest ovation. Though decidedly a character with tendencies towards villainy, the crowd was certainly happy to see him in attendance.
 
When the discussion opened, naturally, many of the moderator's questions centered around the shaping of season four in light of the conclusion of season three. If you haven't yet watched through the season three finale and don't want it ruined for you, stop reading now.
 
Fellowes led the charge in answering these questions about the shaping of season four, explaining how traditionally for British television shows, actors are signed to three year contracts and it wasn't until they had already worked out a substantial part of the third season that Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) informed the producers that he wanted to leave following the conclusion of the season. They had already planned for the departure of Jessica Brown Findlay (Lady Sybil) and spent a large portion of an episode with her childbirth complications and death (speaking of that episode, Fellowes stated, "It made me cry and I wrote it") and felt that doing another full episode on a death would not work very well. 
 
However, with Matthew being such an important character on the show in terms of his place in the family and his partial ownership of the estate, there was no way to explain his not being around at the Abbey save death. As Fellowes succinctly put it, "I'm afraid he had to die."
 
The fourth season of "Downton" opens in February of 1922, six months following the death of Matthew and with Lady Mary still in mourning.  Fellowes said that it wasn't his original intent to pick up the story there, but starting six months following the death of Matthew did allow for an exploration of the characters which could be interesting – some of them are starting to get over the death, while others are still shaken.
 
Dockery also got the chance to weigh in on the changes to her character in light of the departure of Stevens. The third season finale ended Mary's marital bliss, and at the outset of this season she is a bit more cold, as she was when the series began. Of that change, Dockery noted that she enjoys playing Lady Mary when "she's a bit nasty."
 
The night did not entirely revolve around doom and gloom, however. When asked whether everyone present on the panel was going to return for the already-ordered fifth season, everyone on the stage seemed to answer in the affirmative.
 
This is, no doubt, happy news to fans of the series and PBS alike. At the outset of the evening, one of the first things noted by PBS was the 67% rating bump from season two to season three.   It remains to be seen if the cast departures between three and four impact the ratings in the United States, but should some of the more popular characters be set to depart following the fourth season, fans might be very unhappy.
 
One of the other elements that fans in the States are unhappy about is the delay between the UK airings of "Downton Abbey" and the US airings. While some on the stage certainly indicated that they would like to see the two closer together, and indeed think it inevitable in the future that shows air across the world with less delay, Neame pointed out the other side of the argument which is that "Downton" has done very well with its early January premiere to this point and that were it to air on PBS in September, concurrently with the British airing, it is quite possible that the show would get drowned out in all the noise of the new television season.
 
 
Five other tidbits of note:
 

** Fellowes decided on the name "Grantham" because he escaped prep school when he was younger, boarding a train with a friend. They were pulled off the train at the Grantham stop.

** Fellowes' father is the original model for Lord Grantham.

** Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore) has been recognized at both Costco and CVS in Los Angeles.

** There is an historical advisor, Alastair Bruce, to help make sure that all the details of the series are correct.

** The fish served at meals at Downton is actually chicken made to look like fish because chicken keeps longer under the television lights.

 
 
Season four of "Downton Abbey" begins January 5th on PBS.