The first rule of Downton Abbey is, you don’t talk about Downton Abbey’s eventual end. That was one of the messages that came out of an INTV panel here in Jerusalem today with creator Julian Fellowes and exec producer Gareth Neame, in town for a chat about the series’ genesis and continued success. Ever since Fellowes was attached to NBC’s The Gilded Age, the end-of-Downton question has come up ad nauseam. Fellowes reiterated to me today that he won’t fully do Gilded Age until he’s done with all things Crawley. Work conceivably could start in some fashion this year, as NBC Chairman Bob Greenblatt suggested in January. But a timeline was not up for discussion with the affable Lord.
For all the speculation, does anybody really want Downton to end? Judging by the great start to the U.S. season in January — which saw the franchise’s second-highest-rated episode to date — and the oohing and aahing here today, fans remain legion. A clip of Matthew’s proposal to Mary from the S2 Christmas episode was met with audible “awwws.” It just doesn’t seem to get old.
During the discussion, Fellowes and Neame touched on the various aspects of Downton that have made it so popular around the world, as well as some controversial storylines and the strategy for bringing it to the UK’s ITV in the first place. Fellowes was also asked about the humor on the show — much of which is provided by Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. Which came first, the creator was asked: the humor or Smith? “I came before Maggie!” Fellowes proclaimed. Although he did add that while they were making 2001’s Gosford Park, for which Fellowes won the Original Screenplay Oscar, Smith ad-libbed a line during a scene when another woman is crossing the living room. “Hmmm, difficult color, green,” Smith says in the film. “That is the one line Maggie made up,” Fellowes said. It’s often quoted back to him, he said, but after years of crediting her he now simply says, “Thank you.”
Getting down to the matter at hand, Neame said the original vision for Downton was “to take the expressly British television series but reinvent it for the 21st century. … The image was at odds with a lot of traditional English costume drama, which had always tended to be literary. And if you’re adapting a 19th century novel, you have one narrative … which is not what we wanted to do.”
Instead, “We were talking about a contemporary British drama series but set in that world 80 or 90 years ago.” Part of the alchemy that ensured Downton’s success was “the platform that show was going to end up on, and it never occurred to me that we should take the show to the BBC because the BBC is where audiences around the world would expect to find the show, and I felt it wouldn’t bring the changes we really wanted to make if we were on the BBC,” said Neame, a former executive at the Beeb. Capturing the UK audience with a strong lead-in was key with the aim to air at 9PM after The X Factor on ITV. “The combination of that slot and network was sending a very different message of what the show would be.”
Fellowes added: “The BBC are more interventionist. We wouldn’t have been able to make the show as we wanted to make it, whereas ITV is much more open. It has a much stronger philosophy about who to take on to make the show and having made the decision they let you get on with making it.”
Neame noted that Fellowes has written 99% of the episodes. “That wouldn’t be possible if we were to take a lot of notes from a U.S. or UK broadcaster or have interference from outside studios,” he said. “The only way it works is with our vision.” Fellowes chimed in, “We’re definitely working on an American model but draping it in English clothes.”
Turning to some of the more hard-hitting stories of late, Fellowes spoke about the rape of ladies’ maid Anna Bates. “I wanted to do a rape story where there was absolutely no question that it was the woman’s fault at all. And I felt it was quite important to do that because I grew up in the era where people would always say, ‘She shouldn’t have been out at that time of night; why is she wearing that skirt?’ … And it created a culture where women would feel guilty. … I wanted to do a story where it was absolutely no question about it. And of course Anna is one of our sort of most pure, unblemished good characters, so making her the victim made that clear.” The reason she doesn’t want to tell Bates is because she’s afraid he’ll kill Mr. Green, but also “because it would entrap her for the rest of her life,” Fellowes continued. “It’s interesting for our generation to remember that. It’s exactly the same as the homosexuality story with Thomas. These people were still being arrested and prosecuted in the early ’60s when I was in my teens. … I think if you put Thomas into that category, suddenly his character is completely understandable. He’s very reluctant to trust anyone. He assumes everyone is against him. I’m sure that reflects a predicament that a great many people were in at that time.”
Neame added, “Although people still tend to think of Downton as a comedy of manners, still we have deaths on the side of roads and probably that crucial episode in the first season when Mr. Pamuk dies ‘on the job’ so to speak. That was massively important to say to people this is not any costume drama you’ve ever seen before.” The Pamuk story, by the way, Fellowes said was based on a true story he heard when he was younger and thought “someday that story will come in handy. And so it proved.”
Talking about the show’s endurance, Neame said: “Rather than tiring of it for me, the opposite thing happens. (For) all those of us who are involved in it, or just watching the show, the Crawley family (is) part of our lives for five years. The more we follow it and the girls grow up and get married and have their own children and all the characters get older and some characters die, the more we feel we’ve invested our own time in these lives, and I think our actors feel the same.”
Other than Smith, “most of our cast were unknowns and are now huge, huge celebrities, and this has been a huge thing for all of them and I think there’s the fact that there are 20 leading characters. There’s not little Daisy in the kitchen as a tiny non-entity character and the Dowager and the lords. All of our characters are equally weighted; they are all the leading characters of the show. They feel very much like a gang, and I think it’s very satisfying work.”
Turning to the international success, Fellowes wondered, “Are we the most successful show Britain’s ever made?” Neame responded, “Most successful ever British drama.” Fellowes: “I mean, wow!”
He added: “That took us completely by surprise. I didn’t know. If I did know, I’d do nothing but write mega hits. But I think it’s that it looks like a lovely British show but it has melody, rhythms. But also it deals with issues that are international because they are simply indebted to the human condition … all of the struggles they are going through are genuine human struggles.”
For the record, moderator Sara Johnson of Keshet International had put the following questions off-limits: Did you know it was going to be an enormous success when you started? How long is it going to go? And how old is Maggie Smith’s character? Fellowes riposted, “You can ask those, we just won’t answer.”