Cora and Robert. Picture: Supplied

Grief hangs like a thick fog over Downton Abbey when the popular British period drama returns for its fourth season.

It is six months since Matthew (Dan Stevens), heir and saviour of Downton, was killed in a car accident and his grieving widow Mary (Michelle Dockery) hasn't been able to move on.

Pale and dressed in black, Mary drifts through the grand rooms and hallways with little interest in anything, including their six-month-old son, George.

All of this proves rather unsettling for her father Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville). He doesn't know how to deal with Mary, how to raise the subject of death taxes and what to do about Matthew's plans to revitalise the estate.

His mother Violet (Maggie Smith) thinks Mary should be given a say in the running of Downton, given baby George is the new heir and Mary his guardian, but the fiercely old-fashioned Earl doesn't think Mary is up to the task.

"Robert has this particular knack of getting it wrong," Bonneville says. "He is not very well equipped with the emotional ways of the world and believes that his way is right. I believe it says a lot about the stultifying way that he must have been brought up - at arm's length from parental love and put into the care of the nanny.

"He is bringing that to bear on the next generation. Even his mother is enlightened enough to say that it (his attitude towards Mary's mourning) isn't the right way to do it. What we wanted to go for - and I think it comes across in the first episode quite well - is that Downton is wrapped in this cobweb of grief and Robert is absolutely adamant that he is going to preserve his daughter in aspic almost.

"It is his gut reaction and he won't listen to anyone else. There is that lovely moment when the clouds lift from Mary and she is back on track - but it takes him a long time to realise that is the course on which she should progress.

"All through his life his only function is to preserve this estate. He is a conservative by birth and he has to conserve it and hand it on in the best way possible. His view is that young George, aged six months, is not equipped to look after the estate; Mary certainly isn't, because she in grief and - dare I say it - a woman. She has not been trained in this world.

"That, I think, is a nice negative place to start from to allow the positives, as the series moves on, to develop, as Mary gets back into her stride, not only for her self-esteem and sense of place but also as a businesswoman, as a manager."

Music becomes more important this season with Rose (Lily James) embracing the jazz age and Dame Nellie Melba coming to perform at a party in the pivotal and controversial third episode. "Through Rose the jazz world really does make an impact," Bonneville explains.

"It becomes quite a central part in the life of Downton for a while, for various reasons. Jazz does come to Downton but I don't think you are going to see Hugh doing a jitterbug anytime soon! He does try to get up and shake his booty a bit.

"Music comes to Downton not only through jazz but also with Nellie Melba coming to visit. That was tremendous. Each episode has these delicious moments of the outside world coming in."

Melba is played by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who will perform in Perth in May. Bonneville says her visit was extraordinary and he felt ashamed that she was going to be stuck in "this little trailer park and canteen bus which is our world".

"But she was such a trouper. I was sitting very close to her during the sequence when she gets to sing and even the hardened sparks had a lump in their throat.

"Her voice is so beautiful and to have the honour of hearing it so close up . . . she had a sense of fun and enjoyed being there. She knew the show and wanted to get the acting side of things right. She is a phenomenal lady and a wonderful woman. I was moist-eyed watching her sing."

The West Australian

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