A tribute to Maggie Smith and the Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey

When we last saw Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, she was sitting in a dimly lit room as her family waltzed all night right outside the door. In the sobering twist towards the end of the first Downton Abbey film, she asks for a one-on-one with her granddaughter.

“I may not have long to live,” the Dowager Countess says simply to Lady Mary, played by Michelle Dockery, her satin-gloved hand clutching her cane tightly.

The thought of Downtown to exist without the biting wit of Smith’s character was both expected and devastating. I lamented the likelihood during my interview with the cast, for the cover of City & Countryin the months leading up to the film’s release.

Penelope Wilton, who plays Isobel Merton, and Maggie Smith as Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey: A New Era.

Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

“If there’s another movie and she’s not in it,” I said, my voice trailing off. “I know, I know,” offered Laura Carmichael with characteristic Lady Edith dismay. Always the practical problem solver, Allen Leech channeled Tom Branson with a solution: “This movie would just be retracting us from the greatest lines the Dowager Countess ever said.”

Downton Abbey: A New Era, in theaters now, is a fitting ode to the series’ unexpected star. When the TV series premiered in 2010, it was uncertain whether the elderly Grantham family matriarch would become the most beloved of the ensemble’s vast cast. But in Maggie Smith’s hands, the Dowager Countess was no shrinking violet. Its zingers — succinct, often biting, always revealing — leapt amid the show’s famously sparse dialogue. She had the ability to put that world of long ago into perspective as if it was so gloriously different (perhaps her most famous phrase is the delightful “What’s a weekend?”) Or very relevant for today (social media would benefit from a reminder that “vulgarity is no substitute for wit.”) The dowager always had the last word; no family member would dare to answer beyond a raised eyebrow.

Plus, in a period drama that convinced us all to love period dramas again, his lines were the quoteable quotes, the tweets of a Telegram era. The Internet reveled in lists of “best of”, including “I never argue, I explain” or “Don’t be defeatist, my dear, it’s very bourgeois”. The banter across six seasons and one movie has proven so memorable and prolific that it’s strung together in 10-minute or longer montages on YouTube. Violet’s exchanges with cousin Isobel Crawley, played by Penelope Wilton, are among the most memorable. “How you hate to be wrong,” Isobel offers. “I don’t know,” Violet retorts. “I don’t know the feel.”

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Maggie Smith, seen here with Laura Carmichael, Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern in Downton Abbey.

Jaap Buitendijk

DowntownCreator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes based the character on his eldest great-aunt “who was a pretty tough character. But she was no harder on anyone else than she was on herself,” he said on NPR. Fresh air in 2013. He praised Smith’s “extraordinary skill in integrating many different aspects of a character into his portrayal, yet they never seem contradictory…a lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously or superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman.

Violet is a guy Fellowes knows well, but even though some of her other characters, like Christine Baranski’s Agnes van Rhijn in Golden age– have similarities, he says T&Cs this DowntownThe dowager is alone. “I don’t know if there’s much point in comparing Maggie and Christine except to say they’re both really good,” he recently said. “But I’ll tell you what they can both do is they can do high comedy and then a scene or two later make you cry. They don’t transform into someone else, they’re true to character, but they can get you through that range of emotions.

Downtown had a huge effect on the 88-year-old Smith herself. Although she has a storied career, with screen credits dating back to the 1950s, it was her residency at Highclere Castle that catapulted her into something of a disruptive fame. (Well, that and the Harry Potter movies.) “I find it very difficult to do anything on my own now because people recognize me,” she told the same radio show in 2016. “It’s never happened to me before because I hadn’t really done television before…a television thing.

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Maggie Smith at a 2015 celebration Downton Abbey In England.

Tim P. WhitbyGetty Images

The idea of ​​approaching Maggie Smith in public makes me anxious – who would dare! — perhaps because her screen presence had such a royal feel. She often sat on set, always received in a chair or watching the drama unfold before her. When she stood up, cane in hand, it was with great effort and effect, prompting those nearby to rush forward. Her costumes added to the queen-like feel, with a tiara perched high on her head or a lavish high-necked blouse framing her face.

But as constant as her on-screen presence was, the question of how long she would continue on Downtown was bubbling very early. In 2012, when the British tabloids reported rumors that she might not return for the fourth season, the outcry was as swift as it was fierce. “It’s hard to imagine the show without Maggie Smith,” an unnamed source told the DailyMirrorto which the Guardian replied, “A massive understatement… She personifies the show’s inimitably quirky combination of seriousness and hilarity. Downtown would not Downtown without her.”

At the end of the television’s sixth season, Fellowes floated the idea of ​​a possible film, which Smith immediately shut down. “I’m glad it’s over, I really am,” she told the Graham Norton Show in 2015. “By the time we finished, she must have been around 110. It couldn’t go on forever, it just didn’t make sense.”

maggie smith downton abbey
Maggie Smith played Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham, for six seasons of Downton Abbey and in two film adaptations.

Courtesy of PBS

How very dowager of her. And yet, she came back. Not just for the first film, but now for the second, which offers a definitive and dignified departure. [Spoilers ahead!] A new era features updates on all of the series’ main characters, but the Dowager plays a central role in both main storylines. The film opens with the revelation that Violet has been bequeathed a villa in the south of France by a former lover. While Lord Grantham and his team go to investigate and discuss her from afar but at length, Violet stays at Downton, where a film crew has come to film.

The latter proves irresistible fodder for the Dowager Countess – and perhaps for the woman who plays her. “I’d rather make a living in a mine,” she said, looking at the set disdainfully. When the movie goes from silent to sound, Violet offers, “I should have thought the best thing about movies is that you couldn’t hear them.”

But perhaps his best line is saved for last, because the goodbye no one wanted but we all knew was coming. As the family gathers around Violet’s bedside in her final moments, her lady’s maid begins to moan inconsolably. “Stop that noise,” said the dowager. “I can’t hear myself dying.”

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