When you guys are done with Downton Abbey, please please PLEASE do a spin-off prequel series about the life of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. I'd pay good money to see a series starring the inimitable Dowager Countess of Grantham before she was a dowager. And even before she was a countess!
How It Would Be Different
Admittedly, there would be some major differences between Downton Abbey and the hypothetical Dowager Abbey:
The character would be very difficult to separate from the masterful acting of Dame Maggie Smith, but Dame Maggie could appear in flash-forwards, recounting and narrating (unreliably, of course) the exploits of her youth.
Second, you would need to hire several actresses, ranging in age from childhood to post-menopausal, to play Violet in the various stages of her life. I don't know if it would be more expensive to hire several up-and-coming actresses than one Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, but I don't imagine that
It might also be difficult to find that many talented actresses who all look more-or-less like Dame Maggie did at that age. Which limits the size of the available pool of actresses somewhat.
Also, I imagine that Downton Abbey saves a lot of money on set-building by filming everything at Highclere Castle. Dowager Abbey's later seasons could take place there as well, but you'd need to find locations and/or build sets to represent the house of her birth, important locations in Ripon and other nearby towns, and anywhere else she might have traveled. That would probably add to the cost of the series, having to build all those sets.
But it'd totally be worth it.
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!]
The Dowager Countess already has all the best lines. Many of these are so pregnant with meaning and half-veiled implications that they practically sketch the story of her life without ever revealing anything. The viewer's mind cannot help but fill in the blanks from her cryptic statements:
We know from one of the early episodes in Season One that Violet's sister Roberta took part in the Siege of Lucknow. "She loaded the cannons," Violet tells her granddaughters ominously. I want you to take a moment to think about what that means: for a Victorian woman, one of high birth and standing, the daughter of a baronet, the only reason for her to load cannons like a common soldier would be that they're trapped under siege, all the able-bodied men are dead or wounded, the enemy are pounding at the gates, and the final, desperate defense has been mounted against what is certain to be their doom if the besieged fail in their task.
"One way or another, everyone goes down the aisle with half the story hidden."
What did Violet not know about the 6th Earl of Grantham when she married him? What did he not know about her? Did Violet go to the altar with a secret as ruinous as Mary's one-night-stand with Mr. Pamuk, or Lord Grantham's near-affair with one of the servants? Did Violet, unlike her granddaughter, plan to take her terrible secret to her grave?
Then again, perhaps she's referring to closeted skeletons which came to light after her parents' marriage, or the marriage of one of her aunts or uncles? It's a possibility. A likelihood, even.
"Marriage is a long business. There's no getting out of it for our kind of people."
Do I detect a touch of wistfulness in her voice? Or is it resignation?
"We can't have him assassinated. [pause] I suppose."
This line seems like it's something more than old woman expressing her idle fancy. One gets the feeling that she's running over a list in her head, counting favors, considering options. I don't know if she'd follow through on it, but the fact that she might actually know where to apply pressure to get herself a free assassination is worthy of consideration. Who might she know that could provide such a service? How did she meet them, and why would she even entertain the notion that she might be able to get that person to do the deed?
"You are not the first drunk in that drawing room, and I doubt you will be the last."
She says it very understandingly, as if she's used to it. Who else has let slip embarrassing, even scandalous words in the drawing room at Downton, while Violet was present?
"Do you promise?" (Her reply when the jilted Sir Richard declares they will probably never meet again.)
Where did Violet get the chops, the chutzpah, the sheer brass balls to speak to a man as powerful, cutthroat, and ruthless as Sir Richard, and proceed to give him a verbal slap across the face after he's just been betrayed (as he sees it) by her granddaughter? She knows that Sir Robert is not to be trusted, that he knows Mary's secret, that he's got the means and the motivation to ruin Mary's entire life, and by extension the life of all the Crawleys. But she will not be cowed by threats, and she just can't resist giving the angry bear one more little poke before he goes. I really, really like that about her. But where did she learn to do it?
"Losing a child is a terrible thing. Your heart never truly recovers."
We know that Robert and Rosamund are Violet's only two living children. but we don't know if they might have had a sibling which they don't talk about because s/he died very young. Perhaps that would explain part of the reason why Violet defends her son and granddaughters so fiercely.
I hope that I've made my case effectively, Mr. Fellowes and Company. I certainly hope that your most excellent series continues for many more seasons. But if you're ever looking for a character on which to focus more deeply, you know who would get my vote.