As Downton’s aristocratic sisters Lady Mary and Lady Edith, you’d imagine Michelle Dockery and Laura Carmichael revelled in the opportunity to sashay around in beautiful gowns all day in the hit period series, but as the sixth and final run begins, the pair reveal they’re relieved to be bidding farewell to their characters’ glamorous garb.
“It’s definitely a fantasy to be on set doing a job without being sewn in for the fifth time in the day,” says 29-year-old Carmichael, laughing.
Without their characters’ finery, Dockery and Carmichael can usually walk around without being recognised. Still, with an average of 8.4million tuning in during the last series in the UK alone, it’s not only sherry sales, the butler trade and the UK tourism industry that have benefited from the “Downton effect”.
Indeed, there have been brushes with George Clooney – who appeared in the Text Santa special last year – trips to the Golden Globes and Emmys, and famous fans in Beyonce, Sandra Bullock, Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis, as well as the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall.
But back in 2010 when Downton started, they were relative unknowns, with Dockery having appeared as Eliza Doolittle in the stage production of Pygmalion and Carmichael barely out of her training at the Bristol Old Vic.
“When we started this, it was ours and it was so special,” recalls Dockery. “That first series was just the most amazing thing, and we never would have imagined that all of these people in 250 territories would fall in love with the show.
“To us, it still kind of feels like that – this special thing we experienced in the early days. When we’re at work, it’s like nothing has changed. It’s the stuff that goes on outside of that which is still now baffling.”
And nothing much has changed between Lady Mary and Edith’s sisterly relationship, which is perhaps at best frosty and at worst hostile.
“They’ve both created these new lives for themselves, and without their brother-in-law Tom, Mary is running the estate,” explains Carmichael.
“Edith’s living in a house where Mary is queen bee, and Edith’s flitting off to London having a brilliant time, which annoys Mary.”
While Downton Abbey will be put to bed in the UK by the end of the year, the series will ripple on in the States and across the world, where it is shown later.
And understandably the two actresses are feeling ambivalent and “emotional” about the end, already planning mass meet-ups with the cast and crew.
“It’s a very strange feeling, but at the same time, there’s lots to celebrate,” says Dockery.
And part of that celebration comes from appreciating the opportunities the period drama has given them.
“It’s a gift to be at the beginning of our careers with this on our CVs,” says Carmichael.
“It has completely transformed things [for us]. But the biggest gift is just to be working with these incredible people.
“It feels a little bit like we’re coming out of school, like we’re graduating and we’ve had the best teachers in the business; Hugh [Bonneville] and Jim [Carter] and Maggie [Smith] and Penelope [Wilton] and Phyllis [Logan]... It’s just the biggest list of people who’ve led by amazing example.”
Downton Abbey, ITV, Sunday, 9pm