The producer of Downton Abbey has revealed that a ‘major character’ will be killed off in the next series of the show – fuelling speculation among fans as to who it could be.

Speaking to the Orlando Sentinels newspaper, Rebecca Eaton let slip the plans for the third round of the period drama, and said, “Somebody will be born and somebody will die. Somebody pretty key in the cast is unfortunately not going to make it.”

And although Eaton did not say who, fans have been speculating that Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess could be in line for the chop, after the producer admitted that the veteran actress was not always the easiest person to work with.

“Maggie Smith is a handful, it’s true,” Eaton said. “She’s very difficult. She knows her worth, and she’s tricky on the set, but she delivers when the time comes.

Eaton added that viewers could look forward to some “wonderful” scenes featuring Smith and Shirley Maclaine, who arrives in the new series as Lady Grantham’s mother Martha Levinson.

“Shirley’s being as ditsy as ever,” she said, “And Maggie is barely restraining her sneer in having to deal with this American.”

The new series, which will bring the action up to the 1920s, is set to be screened later this year.