Downton Abbey currently is filming its last season, which will make it six in total for the lauded British period drama that has captivated audiences around the world. Produced by NBC-owned Carnival Films with PBS’ Masterpiece, the winner of myriad Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards will draw to a close—if patterns hold—first on the UK’s ITV in the fall, and in early 2016 on Masterpiece.
When the final season was finally announced, after much speculation, it sounded a global alarm. Downton reinvented the period drama and has become perhaps an even bigger hit in the U.S. than it is in England, where executive producer Gareth Neame says it’s regarded as “an upmarket loveable soap.” It has never won a major BAFTA Award but will be presented with a special BAFTA this summer for its contribution to British TV.
As creator Julian Fellowes and Neame start to wrap Season 6, I chatted with both about the series’ history, and (no spoilers) what’s to come—whether they’ve checked out other recent iconic shows that have ended (Fellowes “can’t bear” to watch the end of Mad Men, such a fan is he). We also touched on how women play such an important role in the series, the importance of recognition from the industry, and a potential movie.
At what stage are you now of filming Season 6? Have the castmembers all seen the final episode scripts? How have they reacted?
Gareth Neame: We are shooting 7 and 8, and still working on episode 9. There is always anticipation. Partly it’s our process with a sole author situation; we tend to have plenty of lead time with the earlier scripts. Each year as the workload goes on, the later scripts come a little later in the process. The upside for the cast is they get a lot of scripts in the beginning, but I haven’t noticed more particular agitation.
Now that you’re winding down, has it sunk in that this is the end?
Neame: I suppose in working on the final episode you are starting to think of the implications of it being a finale, so there are slightly different things but it’s essentially the same process as with other episodes. Through this summer and fall, I’ll be doing all the normal post that I’d do, so it won’t really sink in until October, November, December when I start to realize I’m not planning next year’s show. It’s too busy to get into melancholy. But as we film the last scene at Highclere Castle and Ealing Studios or when individual characters start doing last scenes, perhaps it will be a bit more nostalgic.
Julian Fellowes: Of course, it’s dominated my life for seven years really and it’s been a success at a level that most people never know, so it certainly will not be repeated—you’re not going to have more than one of these in any lifetime and I’m old enough to know that. So in that sense it’ll be funny to see the end of things, but on the other hand I think I’m very lucky to have had one of these experiences. I think for the cast it’s been a reasonably happy job, I don’t mean they’ve never had an unhappy moment, but they all seem to get on and they pull together. Sure we’ll all look back nostalgically, but I don’t think it’s the wrong time to go. We still have a very good audience and the fact that they know it’s the last means we will retain that audience and probably even pick up a few people who had abandoned it in the 4th or 5th year, and I think people will be sorry to see it go. I think you should try and leave when they’re sorry to see it go rather than thinking, “Thank God that’s over.”
Will Mary get a happy ending? Is the focus back on her love life in Season 6?
Neame: I won’t really comment on storylines. Needless to say, Mary’s romantic life has been a constant focus since Matthew’s death and is likely to remain so.
Will there be weddings? Funerals?
Neame: We can definitely offer some big events in the coming year—highs and lows as you’d expect in a final season.
What has been the biggest change from shooting Season 1 to shooting Season 6?
Neame: The biggest difference must be between making a “TV show” and making episodes of something for which there is a high level of scrutiny and fascination right the way around the world. It doesn’t feel self-evident on set. The work on set feels very much the same except for when we’re on very public locations and there are 400 people watching—that feels a bit odd. When you decide to do something with the script, you just know that in 250 territories around the world people are going to be interested. There’s a level of everyday dealing with interest, intrusion, fascination and questions. It’s a whole different circus and we certainly did not deal with that early on.
Who do you think has become the most evolved character?
Fellowes: I think probably Edith (Laura Carmichael) because on the whole I think we evolve through adversity. I don’t, in a way, like to say that because I think it’s nicer if one doesn’t have to face all that much adversity. But the truth is, I think we grow through the difficulties we have had to overcome, which is often why it can be in real life sometimes hard for people who have a very easy start in life to evolve as personalities—they have a false expectation of what life is going to be. I think too much happiness at the beginning and too little problems can leave you sort of disarmed when the real difficulties come along, so I suppose I feel Edith, but they’ve all had their troubles. Mary (Michelle Dockery) always at the beginning permanently thought she would land in a pat of butter and to a degree she has, but she’s had the worst thing of all, which is having her husband killed in an accident. I think Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has come to a period when her own core values have more relevance than her husband’s, and so having started at the beginning having to sort of squash it down and play it the English way, she now finds that her natural response to situations is really more in tune with the 1920s than her husband’s essentially 1880s education.
Neame: We have done something very wrong if they haven’t all evolved. The obvious one that jumps out to me is Tom Branson (Allen Leech). He wasn’t even in the first episode but came in episode 3 and goes from being a love interest to marrying into the family and he provides this unique function in a show that’s about two really separate tribes. He is the one character that gets stuck in between. He grew hugely. Other examples come back to our affection for Kevin Doyle’s Molesley. He was brought in as a very small character but we responded to his brilliant acting and great comedy. We knew this was a classic character breakout who became one of the lead cast.
Downton Abbey has always put women at the forefront and even has a sort of feminist bent. Season 5 in particular had several female-centric storylines. Was that by design?
Fellowes: One of the interesting things about writing women in period is that until comparatively recently—more or less my adult life—restrictions on women in terms of freedoms were very severe even in democratic countries, particularly middle and upper class women. You couldn’t do this, you couldn’t do that and the result is that when you’ve got women that are clearly just as intelligent or ambitious as they are now, really they’re having to negotiate their path. Always they’re having to go ’round the rules, they’re having to make a life without giving up too much unless they were prepared to be George Eliot and go live in sin somewhere. But that meant every door slammed against you and most people don’t want that. They want what they want, but they don’t want to pay by giving up their entire life. So that is a gift to a dramatist because you don’t have to look for the tension. Being a woman involved a certain amount of tension.
Neame: I think we were moving into an age in Season 5 where women were getting more freedom, particularly these women with money and power and opportunities. That’s most evidenced by Edith, but to a lesser degree by Mary’s decision to take an active role in running the place, not just (being) someone who changes clothes six times a day. There’s an important scene in the iconic “Mr. Pamuk episode” (from Season 1). The morning after there is a two-hander between Robert (Hugh Bonneville) and Carson (Jim Carter); one says, “Are the women all OK? They are gentler souls than us”—I don’t recall the exact lines but they were basically saying, “We’re robust men, we can deal with a crisis. They are pretty little flowers.” And the audience knows the women have actually controlled the situation the night before and saved the family from ruin. It’s one small scene, but it really illustrates what Julian was doing.
In Season 5 it’s not just the fact that two older women have love affairs going on, it’s the way the Violet (Maggie Smith) story crops up just as she finds out that Mary has had an illicit encounter in a hotel room with a man she’s not married to. It was so deftly woven by Julian to have Violet admonishing Mary for her behavior and Mary finds out in the same episode that Violet almost left her father and grandfather.
Over the course of the run has there been anything you’ve regretted?
Fellowes: I think I’ve been pretty pleased with our storylines. Sometimes I’d get irritated because the newspapers would make out that a story was incredibly difficult to believe. I remember when Matthew (Dan Stevens) was in the wheelchair and then got better, in the Daily Mail this became impossible because he’d broken his spine. Of course he didn’t break his spine; the whole point of the story was that he bruised his spine, which did cause temporary paralysis and happened to many men in the First World War. It was actually a very difficult thing because men knew this and so they always hoped when they’d broken their spine and it was misdiagnosed that it would turn out to be it was bruised, which of course in most cases it did not. I thought it was interesting and wrote about it… Later I came to review all that because I thought, “Nobody writes all that stuff about a series that isn’t being watched.” So part of being as widely watched as we were is that every newspaper wanted to publish stories. And in the end I saw as part of us being a hit.
What are your fondest memories?
Neame: The show we have made was very much along the lines we anticipated and pretty much what I was suggesting in the first place. But I didn’t know that romance would be quite such a propellant in the whole show. It’s about a home and workplace, so clearly love, marriage and death were going to be big elements. But I didn’t know that Mary and Matthew would be one of the things audiences would be most hooked onto. It’s something to do with it being a show about romantic love not sexual love. TV is mainly about sex when talking about relationships now. So doing something chaste and non-sexual is deeply unfashionable. On cable TV they’re almost reveling in the fact that they can cut to the chase. And in the most PBS of ways, we’re going the opposite of that. What amazed me was how female audiences have loved that—the grammar that has traveled around the world. In this age, in relation to younger women, an age of Tinder and sexting, there’s something incredibly straightforward about, “You just meet your cousin and you marry him.” There were a lot of key romances—Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and Bates (Brendan Coyle), Tom and Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay). But Season 2 really galvanized romance as being the heart of the show. The way Mary had rejected Matthew and then she wants him back and he’s not available and wounded, and then his fiancée dies and he’s available again to her. It was so beautifully written by Julian and acted by Michelle and Dan—there’s that scene at the railway station at the end of Season 2, he’s going back to the war and she is the one who comes to see him and she gives him the little stuffed animal.
Fellowes: I enjoyed the Matthew and Mary romance in Season 2 when she was winning him back. I thought Michelle and Dan did that very well. The scene when she got up early to send him off to the war and give him the dog I thought was one of my favorite scenes of the whole thing.
I loved the (Season 5) storyline with Maggie and the Russian prince. I thought the scene when they were together in his rather shabby room and he was basically saying, “We’re old, we haven’t got long, why don’t we spend those years together,” and she was saying, “There’s nothing I’d rather do, but I’m not prepared to pay the price it would cost.” Neither of them had those lines, but they both made them absolutely clear because they were both actors of a very high caliber indeed.
A lot of people point to a very brief scene when Maggie Smith’s Violet encounters Carson on the day after Sybil’s death in Season 3. After that, she walks across the hallway and falters for a second, then straightens herself up. Many people thought she had that second won an Emmy just for that scene alone, and she’s shot from the back. Did you write that little trip in?
Fellowes: I wrote it, but that’s not the point. The point is that Maggie has this extraordinary taste and so you don’t have to write, “This is only very slight.” The other thing that’s written into the scene, I forget the lines exactly, but Carson says, “Oh this is a sad day,” and she says, “Yes it’s terrible,” and she touches his hand. It’s the only time in six years that she has touched Carson and there you see her just for a slight moment breaking with the conventions within which they both live quite happily, and just for once they abandon that. And again it’s in the script, but Maggie knew just to touch him and not do what a lot of actors would do, which is to make a great emotional moment out of it. Her straightening herself up to walk into the drawing room, those women, that generation and that type of women would consider it a burden to inflict their grief onto others who have their own grief. It’s not going to make Cora feel any better if Violet comes in sobbing. And there’s this thing of, “It’s their day, it’s not my day.” There was this thing put on the Internet recently of a man proposing to a woman at someone else’s wedding as a very romantic thing—well, not for me, bub! You’re trying to steal thunder. Maggie has tremendous understanding of her characters. This is our third go at the rodeo you know. We understand each other’s work methods. It’s a luxury, rather like a muse for a designer. It’s great to have an actor who understands how you write.
This is a year of so many beloved shows ending, from Mad Men to Downton. Have you learned anything from other series finales? Are you concerned about backlash?
Fellowes: I haven’t watched the last seven of Mad Men. I can’t bear it. Every time I see Mad Men in a headline I slam the page shut. The one that will kill me after Mad Men kills me is The Good Wife. So, I don’t think I have looked at other finales, but in one way (if there is a) backlash it doesn’t bother me at all. I feel this is the end, and at the end of it I walk away from it and either we did it right or we didn’t do it right. Either way these people now will live in the ether and I’m free. I had one year of being attacked. Because everyone loved it the first year, in the second year the newspapers decided to lash us so we had a whole year of being attacked, and by the third year they’d forgiven us and we went on. I don’t believe you ever require so thin a skin that you don’t mind it at all, but you do learn to live with a lashing on a fairly regular basis because the program is news and that’s what they’re going to do. I haven’t looked at others, because that sort of thing encourages you to shape your show in a way that isn’t necessarily organic, whereas if you stay with what you know… I’m sure we’ll leave one or two knots untied.
Neame: I haven’t looked at any other shows and thought, “Let’s do it this way, or what worked and didn’t work?” We are obviously cognizant of what we think the fans of this show will want. Ideas we have that will be popular with fans or won’t or are risky or edgy, we’re thinking of Downton and haven’t been influenced by a bit of a trend.
Is there going to be a movie?
Fellowes: At the moment there isn’t but you never know. Or a stage show or anything else. So I think to have them all killed in a bus (in the finale) would be a mistake. I think we bring various things to a conclusion and anything unresolved is unresolved. I’m open to the idea of a movie but I’m not anxious to do it. In my experience, and naming no names, the movie of the series is often a disappointment. Normally they’re not very good because the film producer says, “Oh, it’s not going to be anything like the series,” and of course what you want is for it to be exactly like the series. I hope we would avoid that error in doing one, but I do have mixed feelings about it.
Neame: We are up for doing it, the cast is up for doing it. There are a lot of things to work out. We have the ambition to do it, but no firm plan about it or when it would happen.