Amid mounting speculation, the end of Downton Abbey was finally confirmed today. The historic period drama that has become a global phenomenon will close its doors after the currently shooting sixth season. Questions surrounding when the series would conclude have dogged and confounded creator Julian Fellowes and executive producer Gareth Neame going back as early as Season 2. Just 10 days ago — when they spoke at a conference in Jerusalem — the pair would not be lead as to the last time worldwide viewers would get a glimpse inside the Grantham estate. They surely knew what was afoot, but were being careful about the timing of an announcement so delicate that it would seal the show’s fate. And now it has come to pass. The decision to end the series was a concerted effort, made with all of the moving parts including the cast. But Neame also gave hope to Crawley family fans that a movie version has been contemplated, “It would be a wonderful extension… Julian and I would be very interested if we could get our ducks in a row,” he said today.
The show itself is going out on top despite a slight drop in ratings at home in the UK over the course of Season 5. Neame commented that it still drew 10.5M viewers and “there is no show that gets cancelled at those ratings.” Broadcaster ITV isn’t talking specifically about what this means to the bottom line — or how they will fill the void on Sunday nights come fall 2016 — but Christmas Day this year, when the final finale airs in the UK will “certainly be one to remember” the network said today, thanks to the show that has been a gamechanger.
Neame wasn’t giving anything away about the last season other than that it will move into 1925 and include all the current castmembers. It will also provide a window onto the end of the elevated aristocratic era. Season 6 will “start to see how that way of life” came to an end, he said.
He’s said before that all involved in the show, from viewers to cast and crew, “feel we’ve invested our own time in these lives.” No one knew it would become such a phenomenon and the idea of going out on top was a key factor in the decision to wrap up the upstairs and downstairs stories. I spoke with Neame today about how that decision was reached, and what the future might hold.
DEADLINE: When was the final decision really made to end the show?
NAEME: You’ve got an awful lot of stakeholders and the thing we had with (for example) the Duchess of Cambridge coming to the set (on March 12) meant the timing wasn’t quite right. We had to find the optimal date and with so many broadcasters being involved trying to find an optimal time, we have to control when we are ready to make that announcement. It’s not just ‘Gareth and Julian get to make an announcement’.
DEADLINE: Why did you have to be so secretive?
NEAME: We weren’t secretive about it, we’ve been asked the question ever since the end of Season 2. I don’t know why. And then, in the last year it was almost the sole question. One had to keep every day denying it 10 times and saying ‘as soon as we’re ready to say, we’ll say what’s happening.’ It’s not about secrecy. Most shows have one clear broadcaster. This show airs in the UK from September to December and in the U.S. from January to March. So, do you make an announcement at the end of the 5th season in England? I didn’t want to make an announcement during Season 5 because I thought it would distract from the 5th season if we were already discussing what was happening. Season 6 won’t be on air until September so there is plenty of time for people to realize it’s on its final journey. It was important to tell worldwide fans before the season begins. It’s about not doing it too early.
DEADLINE: Did The Gilded Age play any part in this? Julian told me last week that he wouldn’t work on Gilded Age until Downton was done. Will he now move on to that?
NEAME: (It only played a part) insofar as he has always said it. It’s pretty miraculous that one man writes a TV show on his own and clearly the idea of writing another (at the same time) is impossible so there was no way (he could do both). If we had wanted to go for another year, Julian would have waited another year before Gilded Age. This was more that we feel the time to quit is while we’re ahead. I don’t own him, I wish I did. We’re still hard at work on the upcoming season, but yes, he will graduate over to Gilded Age and maybe we’ll explore further the idea of a movie… We’re all thinking about what comes next.
DEADLINE: Did you see the writing on the wall as certain cast members started moving on over the seasons?
NEAME: Because it’s only 11 hours a year, we don’t contract all year round with a two-month hiatus. It’s perfectly possible for people to do other things. There is no restriction (like in the U.S.) which doesn’t fit in with the acting profession in England which has always been about a variety of different work. The system here with the way actors are engaged has a lot more flexibility. We feel creatively the end (is coming at) the right time. If Julian and I said we really want to go for another three years and said that to the actors, they perhaps would not have had the same reaction. Could we have gone on for another year or two? Absolutely we could have gone on for a couple more years creatively, but to end now we know exactly the story we want to tell. We’re getting out when we still have another season or two ahead of us.
DEADLINE: What does it mean that the cast has become so famous because of this show? And for (NBCU-owned Downton producer) Carnival Films itself?
NEAME: Downton has been transformative for all involved, there are members of the crew and cast who have been there since the beginning. And for Carnival, it has been the most important television show we’ve ever made. It’s been a brilliant experience and we are proud to have been able to make one of those few shows that really touches lives. It doesn’t happen many times in anyone’s careers.
DEADLINE: What was the reaction of Masterpiece chief and Downton exec producer Rebecca Eaton?
NEAME: There was never any pressure on Julian to mechanize or industrialize the show. It was for us to decide when to end. They just said it’s our call. (ITV and PBS) will miss the ratings and the revenues and the accolades that a show like this brings to any broadcaster. But it wouldn’t have been right to keep it going just because of those reasons.
DEADLINE: Is it possible after all the clamoring in past years and now that this is the end, the final season will run concurrently on ITV and PBS?
NEAME: That’s a question for PBS, but I don’t think so.
DEADLINE: You said there is contemplation of a Downton movie; is Downton the next Community?
NEAME: (Laughing) I hadn’t thought of that. Six seasons and a movie, that’s not bad.