The worldwide hit period drama Downton Abbey will come to an end after the sixth season. Carnival Films, the producer, and ITV made a joint announcement on Thursday. Speculation that the show would end gained momentum when Maggie Smith hinted at her exit in an interview earlier this month.

Maggie Smith portrays Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham and is viewed as one of the key reasons why Downton Abbey is successful across the world. The period drama centers around the life of the Crawley family in the early 1900s. Screened in America on PBS, the British masterpiece quickly gained a cult following.

ITV Director of Television Peter Fincham says that they had no idea just how much of a "global phenomenon" Downton Abbey would become. He said: "What a ride it's been - for everyone involved in the production, for the cast, and most of the all for the audience. We all thought very carefully about the right moment to bring something so special to a close that felt editorially right, and left viewers wanting more."

Created and written by Julian Fellowes, the series first aired on ITV in 2010. It quickly gained huge following and at its peak was reaching 11 million viewers. The Christmas special, which will follow season 6, will be the final episode. On why the show proved so popular with audiences, Fellowes said: "Exactly why the series had such an impact and reached so many people around the world, all nationalities, all ages, all types, I cannot begin to explain.

But I do know how grateful we are to have been allowed this unique experience."

Downton Abbey has won numerous awards in the UK and US. Most recently it picked up a National Television Award for Best Drama. Lily James, who played Lady Rose MacClare, has gone on to star in the new Disney film Cinderella. Some of its other stars have been seeking work in America on the back of the show's success.

Carnival's Managing Director and executive producer of Downton Abbey, Gareth Neame, has said the final season will be full of its usual drama. "We can promise a final season full of all the usual drama and intrigue, but with the added excitement of discovering how and where they all end up."