Prepare to Return to 'Downton Abbey' With This Character Refresher

Ileane Rudolph
Preview Jaap Buitendijk/© 2019 Focus Features, LLC

By order of the king, the majestic doors of Downton Abbey are open again!

The beloved drama moves from PBS's Masterpiece to the big screen in a lavish new film, in theaters September 20, that reunites most of its characters, last seen on the TV series' 2015 finale. It's 1927, and 18 months have passed for the upstairs/downstairs folks — now preparing for a visit from Britain's King George V and Queen Mary during a tour of Yorkshire. No surprise, the royals and their retinue shake up the Crawley family's quiet country manor. 

"We needed a story that would have all the characters involved in one endeavor together," says executive producer Gareth Neame, "so we created the biggest event to ever happen at Downton."

The arrival of the king (Simon Jones), queen (Geraldine James) and their entourage engenders scandal, unexpected romance, and a shocking rebellion. (The night before the movie opens, catch up with the cast in Return to Downton Abbey: A Grand Event, airing Thursday, September 19, 8/7c, NBC.)

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"Even with its sad moments, Downton is a positive and life-affirming place," says Neame. "We want people to be delighted to see these characters again."

Creator Julian Fellowes teases what they are up to.

Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery)

In the drama's penultimate episode, the eldest Crawley daughter married her second husband, auto racer turned car salesman Henry Talbot (Matthew Goode), whose common-sense attitude seems to have slightly softened Mary's all-too-sharp tongue.

(Focus Features)

Now a mother of two and running the Downton estate with her brother-in-law, Tom Branson, "Mary understands how hard that [job] is," says Fellowes, "and she has a crisis. She knows if they sell, everyone could live comfortably, but would that be letting the family down?"

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael)

At series end, Edith, the middle child, had married wealthy Bertie (Harry Hadden-Paton) to become the Marquess of Hexham, thus outranking her family. He accepted her out-of-wedlock daughter, and she finally called Mary out as "a nasty bitch" for revealing the child's parentage. Now mostly reconciled with Mary, the former magazine editor wants more from life than a grind of charity benefits.

"She's frustrated by her role's limitations, and she needs to resolve that," Fellowes shares. 

Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)

Happily for fans, the Dowager Countess is still exchanging barbed witticisms with her favorite foil, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), the Baroness Merton. Violet's equanimity is threatened by the impending arrival of disavowed cousin Lady Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton), the queen's lady-in-waiting.

"Violet doesn't believe Maud has carried on the family's dynastic obligations," notes Fellowes.

(Focus Features)

Lord Robert and Lady Cora (Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern)

"Robert has reached a fairly happy stage where Mary has essentially taken over [running Downton] and he's a kind of constitutional monarch," says Fellowes. "It suits him and Cora." As for the royal visit, the Earl of Grantham and his wife "are very flattered."

Tom Branson (Allen Leech)

The family's former chauffeur and widower of youngest daughter Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) has been accepted into the Crawley fold and co-manages Downton's tenant farms. The Irish antimonarchist makes his feelings about the royal family known and gets into some trouble for it — but he is taken with one pretty guest.

Everything We Know About the 'Downton Abbey' Movie

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The series-to-film adaptation will be released next year.

"It seemed nice that any love story in the film would be Tom's," says Fellowes.

Anna and John Bates (Joanne Froggatt and Brendan Coyle)

After surviving a rape, false murder accusations, and a prison term between them, the star-crossed couple are devotedly raising their son, now almost 2. In her continuing role as Mary's lady's maid and his as Robert's valet, they spearhead the staff's actions against the entitled and nasty visiting servants who believe themselves superior and threaten to take over their house.

"Anna has always fought her corner," Fellowes emphasizes. "She never has been a weak woman."

(Focus Features)

Charles Carson and Elsie Hughes (Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan)

The final season brought happiness — Downton's gruff butler and compassionate head housekeeper wed — and sadness, when Carson was forced to resign due to tremors in his hands.

A fan of the monarchy, he "may be the most excited by the royal visit," says Fellowes.

So it's fitting that Mary asks Carson to temporarily resume his old job during the important event. But how will he react when his wife gets involved in the servants' plots against the royal household staff?

Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier)

Life had become hard and lonely for Thomas, "a gay man at a time when homosexuality was a crime," says Fellowes.

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His scheming nature only added to his discontent, and at one point he even attempted suicide. He ended the TV series in a happier place, promoted to butler when Carson retired. After his predecessor is reinstated, Thomas takes a night off and gets dangerously reckless. But he finally makes a promising personal connection!

Beryl Patmore and Daisy Mason (Lesley Nicol and Sophie McShera)

Downton's strict but caring cook still hasn't retired to fulfill her dream of running a bed-and-breakfast, but Mrs. Patmore has plenty to be excited about — not just feeding the king and queen but also planning the wedding feast for her assistant, Daisy, and footman/farmer Andy Parker (Michael Fox). But Daisy, who years earlier married a man she didn't love (he was on his deathbed), is now questioning her choice of husband.

"She wants to marry someone who's prepared to fight for what he wants," says Fellowes. Is mild-mannered Andy up to the task?

Return to Downton Abbey: A Grand Event, Premiere, Thursday, September 19, 8/7c, NBC

Downton Abbey, September 20, In Theaters