Julian Fellowes is preparing for a nerve-wracking Emmy night. Sitting down for afternoon tea at a London hotel, the creator of Downton Abbey, who wrote every one of the show’s 52 episodes split over six seasons, says he much prefers an awards show at which there’s a clear favorite in one of the other nominees, so that he can relax and enjoy a stress-free evening.
Of course, Downton has been an Emmy favorite itself, clocking up 69 nominations over its run, with Fellowes taking home two golden statuettes in 2011. And with the show taking its final bow this year, there’s every chance Emmy will want to take this last opportunity to reward a much-beloved global phenomenon.
Fellowes is used to people asking about a mooted big-screen transfer for the show, and says the creative team are all on board, if only they can wrangle the busy schedules of their ensemble cast. Other projects, like an adaptation of a recently-released novel, Belgravia, and an upcoming show for NBC, The Gilded Age, come first, and until then, Fellowes can only reflect on the unprecedented triumph of his last six years. And speculate about what the Crawley family home might look like in the 21st Century…
For many people, Downton ended before they were done with it. Six seasons, just 52 episodes. Why bring it to a close?
What happens in the end with any serial drama is there’s a limited number of things that happen to human beings. You do start to understand why, in Dynasty, Fallon ended up going up in a rocket ship with aliens. There are moments when you’re just thinking, “What can I make happen to them now?” And I think, if you stay too long, you start to repeat. Basically: are we happily married? Do we like our job? Are the children doing well? Are our parents OK? I mean, this is all our lives. When you’ve explored all of those for all the characters, then I think it’s time to say goodbye. And I like that it ended happily. I feel that if an audience has been loyal to you for six years, they deserve to go away from the last episode feeling good. And Edith, especially, deserved a happy ending. I had teased people, with the end of the series before the Christmas special—with once again, it had all gone wrong. But it came right in the end, and I wanted her to outrank Mary.
Oh it’s never “poor Mary”. She would survive the 1917 Revolution. She’d become a Commissar.
The show was always big in the UK, but the American response to it must have been a surprise.
Americans are so generous about it. And they love you for making a show they want to watch, so it’s all positive. The characters are real to them. I think the English are a little funnier about things that are going very well. You do understand why people get fed up of it and beetle off to America, and it’s odd really. It’s like when you get a bad review, and it’s angrily negative. You think, Jeepers. All you have to say is “I don’t think the show works.” These days it’s like being stabbed to death. I don’t want to sound anti-critic, because sometimes they do pinpoint quite interesting things. Once or twice, you read a review and you realize there was a weakness that you hoped you’d got away with, but the critic shows you haven’t. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
You wrote every single episode of Downton single-handedly. Was it a challenge to keep all those balls in the air?
I remember I used to have a fault that I would talk about a character and I would think that everything I said about that character was somewhere illustrated in the dialogue, but it wasn’t. One or two critics helped me through that.
But it’s funny, because in America people will always assume there was a writers’ room. It doesn’t matter how many times I say, “There was no writers’ room.” The next time I go on a show, I’ll be asked about what it’s like in the writers’ room, and I have to say, “Nothing happens in it. It’s just me sat in front of the computer, typing.”
I don’t in any sense decry it. Someone like Matthew Weiner runs a writers’ room, and Mad Men never wavered on its incredibly distinctive style. It just never weakened. But I personally find [the writers’ room process] a real challenge. I’m about to do this much-deferred NBC series…
This is The Gilded Age?
Yes, and I’m going to do 10 or 12 episodes, and I’ll write them myself. Then, if they want to go on with it—because they may yet cancel it entirely—they’re very likely to say, “We’ll go on, but we want 22 episodes.” In which case, I’d have to have a writers’ room. I think I’d ring up Matthew Weiner and take him out to lunch, because that would be my goal: to maintain the style and sound of the show.
What was your process for turning around 10 hours of television every year?
I would write them, and then my wife, Emma, would read them and tell me which bits were boring. Then I would send them to the producers, Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge, and really, we three made the show. They would give me their notes; first general, then another draft, then detailed notes, then another draft. Nobody in the world would see those scripts before the end of that process, and then after that process, hardly anything would change. Once we were a success, which was in the first year, everybody left us alone. I’m not sure that’ll be the same on American television. I will have to see.
You mentioned the Dynasty UFOs. Much as I would have loved to have seen the Dowager do battle with extraterrestrials, did you ever feel the strain of coming up with so many storylines?
When you have an ongoing series, inevitably there is an element of soap. A lot has to happen to these people, whereas in real lives, a whole year can go ahead and practically nothing has happened. Then you get another year where your parents die, your child is ill, the dog’s dead, you’re fired and you lose your house. The characters have to have those years every year. What you’re trying to do is to keep the dramas interesting enough so that the audience hasn’t tuned in in vain—but not Fallon going up in a rocket ship. There is a sort of line. I mean, it’s not really for me to say if I managed to steer it, but that is what you’re conscious of trying to steer. I think on the whole, we managed it reasonably.
One of the things we hit on was to create a world where big things happened, but what we always dramatized was the effect on the characters of the event; we very seldom dramatized the event itself. We didn’t see Matthew die, we didn’t see Anna raped. It didn’t matter what it was, it always happened somewhere else, like with Greek drama.
I had one very interesting comment from a woman who had seen the repeat of the previous week’s episode, which aired in the UK right before the new episode. She said, “I watched Anna’s rape on the Sunday night, and then I watched it the following week on Saturday afternoon, and you’d re-edited it.” She said, “You took out all the violence.” Of course, we hadn’t re-edited it at all; the violence was all in her head. When she thought back over the show, her head had filled in all the gaps that we’d left. I suspect I’ll do something similar with The Gilded Age, because it gives you a big choice over what you can let happen. You can explore people’s emotional responses to all sorts of things.
The nature of the industry meant that you were often writing to decisions made by the cast. I’m thinking, first of all, the departure of Jessica Brown Findlay in the third season…
I was sad when Jessica left. I felt she should have given it another year or two. It was very different to Dan [Stevens], because Jessica, right from the start, said, “I’m doing three years, and that’s it.” We planned to kill her in Episode 5 of Season 3, so we’d have three episodes to get over it. Because you can only guarantee a cast for three years before you have to renegotiate. Dan only decided to leave at the read-through, by which point we’d already done all of it. I tried to persuade him to come back and get killed in Season 4, but actually in the end, I think it did us a favor, because by killing him in the last shot and then having a time jump of six months, it meant Mary, in the next series, was just coming out of mourning, as opposed to having her in tears for the whole season. Of course, the terrible thing was that, in the UK, the final episode of Season 3 was on Christmas Day. Everyone was tucking into that one minced pie, when suddenly…
For the more experienced actors, too, Downton was a surprise. Maggie Smith said she had gone her whole life without being mobbed in public, until she starred in Downton Abbey.
I think Maggie had done the odd bit of event television, but she was really known for stage and film, and was regarded with awe. Television gives you an approachability and immediacy that is a different kind of stardom. Maggie was having to pay for that.
One thing I very much enjoyed about Violet was that I had, in creating her, touched on an iconic figure of British families. I would go beyond, and say America too. The amount of people who would say, “Whenever I watch your show, I think you must have met my aunt Madge.” There was a whole generation of women like Violet. My theory is that, when the men went off to war, the women had to keep the show on the road back home, and they did. As a result, during the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, there were these incredibly frightening matriarchs in all sorts of family situations, that everyone was half terrified of and half loved.
I modeled her on my grandfather’s older sister. And the thing about those women is that they were as tough on themselves as they were on everyone else, which is why you forgave them. They weren’t selfish in that way; they just had these incredibly high standards that everyone had to meet.
It wasn’t just in character archetypes that the show felt relatable. For as different as the lifestyle was, the history didn’t seem so far away.
Gareth and I quite deliberately wanted to set it in a period where the life was recognizable. I mean, not that many people lived like the Crawleys did, even in the 1920s, but it was a world of cars, not carriages, and railways, telephones, and, by the end, flying. So much of their daily experience was not very different from our own.
It does make one speculate about what Downton Abbey looks like today. Do you have a vision in your head for what happened next to the Crawley family estate?
Far more of those houses survived than people realize, and often with the families that were in them. It’s often down to luck, and the cleverness of the people in charge. If they had someone in charge with a really good head for business, who was practical and realistic and wasn’t trying to ignore the problems, then they had a good chance of getting through.
My own belief is that Mary, whether you like her or dislike her, is a hard worker, and she’s practical. I think she will employ the kind of advice that she needs. She would probably have opened the house to the public in the 1960s, as so many of them did, and she’d have retreated to a wing, and maybe only occupied the whole house during the winters. My own belief is the Crawleys would still be there, just as the Carnarvons are today [in the real Highclere Castle, where Downton was filmed].
And not too many generations removed. You established in Violet that the Crawleys have a rather long lifespan.
Well, she does. [laughs] I mean, George [Mary’s son] would have gone to the Second World War, and of course the fear is that he would be killed. We know that Mary is pregnant, so there’s going to be another child. As for the title, I don’t know where it would go beyond George, but let’s hope he gets through the war and has children of his own. George was born in 1921, which makes him nine years younger than my father, and he only died in 1999. If he lived to the same age as my father, he’d have died in 2008, which takes us right into the modern age.