By SARA NATHAN
Feast for viewers: Lady Violet Crawley (left) and the Earl of Grantham (right) at the dinner table during Downton Abbey's Christmas special
With a break-up, punch-up, animal cruelty and an unexpected romantic twist, it sounds more like a soap opera than a drama set in a stately home.
But this is what’s in store for viewers during the Christmas episode of Downton Abbey.
While full details of the plot remain under wraps until Christmas Day, the cast have let slip a few clues.
Gunning for it: Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley head out with a shooting party
Romance on the Christmas cards? Downton addicts are hoping to discover if Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley become an item
But there is still no answer to the question on every Downton’s fans lips – will Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley finally get together?
Tensions: Scheming footman Thomas Barrow dances with Lady Violet at the servants' ball
Matthew’s fiancée passed away in the last series as the house was hit by Spanish flu. Following a screening of the much-anticipated Christmas special yesterday, the audience were banned from revealing the plot.
And Dan Stevens, 29, who plays dashing Matthew – the heir to the Downton Abbey estate – admitted he had even been forced to hide the scripts from his wife.
Strictly Come Downton: Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Cora) dances with Jim Carter (Mr Carson), left, and Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) with Hugh Bonneville (the Earl of Grantham)
However, it has been revealed that the two-hour special, set over the festive season in 1919, features a New Year ball, for those from both upstairs and downstairs.
Even the strait-laced Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by Dame Maggie Smith, takes a turn on the floor – for a waltz.
Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary Crawley, said: ‘I was sat with Maggie watching the others between takes. Maggie and I were shouting numbers, almost like in Strictly Come Dancing, giving them scores. We had a real laugh watching everyone.’
It seems the dancing proved a challenge for some of the cast.
Intrigue: The family sit down for lunch after the shoot finishes, but many cracks will open up in the special
Festive: Lesley Nicol as Mrs Patmore and Sophie McShera as Daisy make mince pies
Good tidings: Sir Richard Carlisle, Lady Mary, Cora and Matthew Crawley exchange Christmas presents
Jim Carter, who plays the butler Mr Carson, said: ‘I still find it difficult to talk and waltz, as in my head I’m going “One, two, three, one, two, three”.
‘So when people wanted to engage me in a bright and lively conversation I was a bit dismayed.’
The cast said they were not worried about going head to head with BBC soap EastEnders, despite the fact that the show won the festive ratings battle last year.
Director Brian Percival said the production team made the show ‘for the viewers’ and not as a ratings vehicle.
Special screening: Stars of the hit show - including Hugh Bonneville and his wife Lulu (left), and creator Julian Fellowes with his wife Lady Emma Kitchener- at a screening of the Christmas Day episode in London last night
He said: ‘We don’t want to be competitive with anybody. If you make TV to do that it is the kiss of death.’
The stars of the drama, which has only been on air for 16 months, will begin filming a third series in February. And yesterday it was announced that ITV chiefs have already commissioned a two-hour Christmas special for 2012.
This year’s special will be on ITV1 at 9pm on Christmas Day.