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“When I’m with her, I’m reminded of the virtues of the English,” Violet says of Martha.

“But isn’t she American?” asks a puzzled Matthew.

“Exactly,” Violet replies.

Series creator Julian Fellowes said the next season will encompass about two years at the start of the 1920s. Among the plot points to be resolved: What happens to John Bates, Lord Grantham’s valet who was convicted last season of murdering his wife and barely escaped the gallows.

Bonneville made his support for his loyal servant clear. At the panel’s conclusion, the actor jumped up, turned his back to the room while opening his jacket and dress shirt, and then wheeled around to reveal the T-shirt he wore underneath: “Free Bates,” it read.

“T-shirts are available in the foyer,” Brendan Coyle, who plays Bates, chimed in dryly.

MacLaine also proved a showstopper. The actress, who has said she believes in reincarnation, was asked if she and Smith had met before.

“Well, we were lovers in another life,” she said, smiling. Then she shared Smith’s recollection of their meeting some 40 years ago backstage at the Oscars, near a catering table, after MacLaine failed to take home a trophy.

“Do you know what you did, dear?” Smith reminded her. “You tucked right into that chocolate cake and said, `(Expletive), I don’t care if I’m thin ever again.’”

Also on hand for the panel were Dockery, McGovern, Joanne Froggatt and executive producers Gareth Neame and Rebecca Eaton. Stevens was among the cast members kept in London by filming, which continues through August.