Now that “Downton Abbey: A New Era” is the second hit movie from the six season TV series, the question comes up: why are three characters from the original series gone? And what happened to them?
The biggest absence is Sybil Crawley. In “A New Era,” Sybil’s widower, Branson, finally remarries. Their daughter. Sybbie, inherits a villa in the South of France.
But what about the original Sybil? Well, she died in childbirth near the end of Season 3. Her portrayer, actress Jessica Brown Findlay, unknown up til that point, wanted out. She thought three seasons was enough and she could be a big star on her own. “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes was furious. Instead of re-casting, Fellowes killed off Sybil on camera, quite thoroughly.
Brown Findlay has continued to work in the UK but in the US her career evaporated. Many “Downton” stars like Michelle Dockery, Lily James, Elizabeth McGovern, and Hugh Bonneville are well known here. Laura Carmichael, who plays Lady Edith, is going to get some traction now. All the cast has had more than a decade of fame and fortune. But Brown Findlay has lapsed into obscurity at least on this side of the pond.
Dan Stevens played Matthew Crawley, the prince charming of the show who wooed and married Lady Mary. If Matthew had lived, he’d have inherited Downton and become the lead male character. But Stevens also opted out after three seasons. Fellowes accommodated him by killing off Matthew brutally in a car accident, blood streaming from his face. And then he twisted the knife by having Mary remarry a race car driver and entrepreneur.
Stevens severely altered his looks after that, losing a lot of weight. He moved to Brooklyn and started a US career in earnest. He won high praise for two season series, “Legacy.” Stevens is currently playing John Dean in “Gaslit” on Starz. But cutting himself off from the last three seasons and the two movies was probably not his best decision. Ironically, Matthew’s mother, played by Penelope Wilton, soldiered on and became a beloved character.
One other character with a lot of potential from the original series was also dispatched by Fellowes. Lady’s maid O’Brien was a terrific villain, a cohort of conniving butler, Barrows. She was played by Siobhan Finneran with Snidely Whiplash fun. But Finneran also thought three seasons was enough and abandoned ship. Fellowes wrote her off at the start of Season 4. Finneran has been a regular in British TV, but in the US, alas, she has long been forgotten. If only O’Brien had stayed in Downton, what fun she would have had.
When actors leave series because they think the future looks rosier elsewhere! Just ask David Caruso.