British cult TV hit 'Downton Abbey' returns
"Downton Abbey", the British period drama that has attracted a cult following worldwide, is back this week, with 8.4 million Britons watching the first episode of the new series.
The show, which follows the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants a century ago, returned on ITV television on Sunday.
The fifth series begins in 1924, with the Labour Party governing Britain for the first time.
"The world is really a different place," said creator and scriptwriter Julian Fellowes. "All of our characters have to make adjustments" in a world where women "didn't want to just go back to cooking lunch".
The new series will conclude around Christmas with a special episode featuring a brief cameo by the Hollywood actor George Clooney.
A critical and commercial success -- and a cult hit in the United States -- the programme has been broadcast in more than 100 countries, including Australia, Russia, and, since April 2013, China.
"It's hard to analyse why the Chinese get involved in the British class system but we're happy that they do," actor Jim Carter, who plays the stiff butler Charles Carson, told AFP.
In France, the show pulls in more than 750,000 viewers on average.
Robert James-Collier, who plays underbutler Thomas Barrow, said the interest was comparable to that triggered by the marriage of Britain's Prince William, the second in line to the throne, in 2011.
"England, as a country, has such an old history, and from the colonial days we have been involved in a lot of countries rightly or wrongly, so I think there is a fascination," he said.
Alongside other series such as crime dramas "Broadchurch" and "Sherlock", "Downton Abbey" is part of a wave of British television productions proving a smash hit abroad.
"I think British dramas right now are produced really, really high end, high quality pieces of work," said Allen Leech, who plays Irish chauffeur Tom Branson.
The show's popularity has also allowed actors to make a name for themselves outside Britain.
Hugh Bonneville, who plays the stately home's patriarch Robert Crawley, recently appeared in "The Monuments Men" directed by Clooney, while Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary, Crawley's eldest daughter, has been working on a US film in t-shirt and jeans -- after five seasons in dresses and corsets.
Series five was heralded by a photo of cast members in period costume -- with a plastic bottle of water on the mantlepiece in the background, which caused a social media buzz.
The show reacted quickly, putting out another picture of the actors in their everyday clothes all holding plastic bottles in support of a water charity.
© 2014 AFP