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Downton Abbey
Focus Features

‘Downton Abbey’: How The Period Drama Changed British Television & Moved To The Big Screen

The stars of British period drama Downton Abbey are set to swap their country estate for the red carpet this evening in London ahead of the release of its big-screen debut.

Nearly four years since last appearing on the ITV/PBS drama, Maggie Smith Michelle Dockery and Hugh Bonneville, as well as the rest of the Crawley family and the servants who worked for them, are returning for the Focus Features and Carnival Films movie from Julian Fellowes.

Opening on September 13 in the UK and on September 20 in North America, the film sees the household prepare for the arrival of the King and Queen.

Ahead of their arrival, Deadline spoke with Carnival Films boss Gareth Neame about the show’s conception, how it changed British television and lead to the creation of The Crown as well as the impact on his own NBCU-backed business.

How did Downton Abbey begin? What’s its origin story?
Gareth Neame: I’m always eager to find ideas that are expressly British that should travel and have global appeal. The English country house genre can only come from the UK. It’s iconic and durable; there have been so many iterations whether it’s an Agatha Christie whodunnit or a Jane Austen comedy of manners, there are so many different guises that the English country house genre has been in. A few things happened, in 2007, I was flicking through the channels and happening upon an ancient episode of Upstairs, Downstairs. I knew what it was but I was too young to have watched it. I thought if I, at 40, was too young to have ever seen this show, it meant there were two generations of people out there that don’t know what that was so the time is right for reinvention. The other thing was when I watched Gosford Park, I was so impressed with its veracity and it seemed to be told by people who understand the world and who cared about it. It stayed in mind and I was thinking about doing an episodic series [set in this world] and I got to know Julian Fellowes through his novel Snobs and thought the only way I could explore this country house series was with the right writer and I decided he was the only person who could write this. I then pitched to him a weekly series that had the production values of the Merchant Ivory films and the pace of storytelling of The West Wing, a very contemporary feeling show, albeit set 100 years ago with multiple narratives,

I felt if we got that right it would be incredibly popular and he took a bit of persuading, he’d won the [Best Original Screenplay] Academy Award for Gosford Park and he was reluctant to go back to territory that had been successful for him in the past so he took a bit of convincing. A few weeks passed and then I received an email from him and I opened the attachment and there was a list of all of the characters. It was two pages but it had the character that became Robert Grantham, his American wife, the fact that there was no son and therefore no heir, all of these things were there. The characters didn’t have finished names and it certainly wasn’t called Downton Abbey, but that was where it all came from.

ITV bought the show; how straightforward was the pitching process?
I commissioned Julian to write a script and pitched it to ITV. Even though it wasn’t at all what they were looking for, ITV and [Former Director of Television] Peter Fincham got it straight away and they knew Julian was the fellow to write it. That was very straightforward but the thing that wasn’t very straightforward was this was around 2008 and we were about to go into the biggest advertising recession in recent memory. ITV, in 2009, actually bought very little original drama. They ordered existing shows but it was only about 20 hours of new shows and one of the strange reasons we ended up with seven episodes in the first season was they knew that six episodes was too little but they couldn’t afford eight episodes so we ended up with this random order. To their credit, they ordered the show when they were going through their toughest financial year ever. I provided the deficit finance – we were able to deficit finance because by that point I’d sold the company to Universal – and subsequently sold it to PBS Masterpiece.

The show launch in September 2010 in the UK and immediately got close to 10M viewers. What was your reaction?
We knew it was a hit the Monday morning after the first episode. We hit an opening number that we were absolutely delighted with. The second episode got about a 20% build on the first episode, which is absolutely unheard of. I would have expected a 15-20% drop off, which we would have still been perfectly happy with that but by going up it said to us that everyone came back and during the course of the first week they’d all told their friends about it. Seven weeks later it was the most talked about television show in Britain and a few months later in January 2011 it premiered in the U.S. and was pretty similar and built through season two and season three and then of course we saw it travel around the world. There are not many shows that sell to every country on the planet, which was unique and then the huge success in America, becoming unquestionably the most successful British show to go to the U.S. and garnering more Emmys than any other non-Hollywood show had amassed before.

It was largely lauded by the British press, not necessarily an easy group to impress…
The press had loved the first season and there was a little bit of the typical British response to things when we came back for the second season. Some people hadn’t noticed until season two that it was somewhat soapy, and there were a few sniffy comments but it was such a runaway train by then, the press don’t like to go in the opposite direction of a trend.

In hindsight, would you have done anything differently with the production in terms of stories or production?
You can always do things better or differently but there isn’t necessarily anything that I would have done. Things that looked like they were going to be disastrous [turned out well] such as Dan Stevens’ decision to quit the show at the end of his initial contract, which was the end of the third season. We were pretty devastated about, but it actually turned out to be far and away the best thing that happened to the show because Mary and Matthew were married at the end of season three and I had no idea what would have sustained them for another three seasons, whereas it was much better that she lost her husband and had to start all over again. It gave a real energy that sustained the second half of the run of the TV show.

What was the impact of Downton Abbey on the British production business?
There had been no original shows like this, there had been lots of British adaptations of novels by Dickens or Jane Austen but there hadn’t, for a long time, been an original contemporary piece of writing in this setting. The shows had been made were traditionally sold by BBC Worldwide or ITV Studios Global Entertainment and the foreign buyers in autumn 2010 all wanted to buy the show but they were a bit concerned when they realised it was being distributed by Universal Distribution. Essentially, what happened is that those buyers, who were all buying House from Universal, were saying ‘this is what we expect to pay for a period British show’ and NBCU’s answer was ‘we sell you House and that’s what you pay for House and in our opinion Downton Abbey is every bit as good as House, so we don’t see why we would sell this show for less than House’. That was a revolution. Downton Abbey was the first time that a British show ever achieved sales prices that were equivalent to a U.S. show and that was really gamechanging. Now, The Night Manager or Broadchurch, the value of these big shows doesn’t matter where they come from and it was Downton that first achieved those prices.

I don’t think there’s any question that The Crown happened as a result of the doors that Downton Abbey opened.

For a British show to be that big a hit with a U.S. audience lead directly to Netflix spending a lot of money on The Crown. I don’t think there’s any question that The Crown happened as a result of the doors that Downton Abbey opened and demonstrated that those stories can be immensely popular to American and global audiences. It also lead to a lot of executives for [U.S.] entertainment companies being based internationally to buy in shows from other parts of the world. This breaking down of borders, which I’m really passionate about, Downton is the show that lead that charge.

When did you and Julian start discussing the possibility of a feature film?
We started to talk about it maybe as early as season four. The feeling was the show was big enough and had such scale and production value [for a feature film]. When we decided to wrap the show up at season six, which was arguably a year earlier than we might have done, we knew the fans were going to be devastated that it was going to come to an end so it was one thing to sweeten the pill when we announced that season six would be the last. We had firm plans and Julian and I embarked on the script as soon as we finished the final season.

Does the movie have a natural ending or can you see more Downton Abbey in the future?
It can be a natural end point but there’s no reason why we couldn’t return there again if Downton translates well to the big screen and people come and see it, then several members of the cast and Julian and I have said we wouldn’t rule out doing another one. We’re ready to have those conversations if we’re lucky enough to be in that position, if the movie has done well.

What was the impact of Downton Abbey on Carnival Films?
Carnival was established by my predecessor Brian Easton in the late 70s and has a pretty long pedigree with very popular TV shows like Poirot and Traffik but I don’t think there’s any question that Downton Abbey is, by a long way, the most successful show we’ve made. But, it’s not the whole output. Right now, our show The Last Kingdom is one of the most successful shows on Netflix and we’re in season four of that.

Did you ever feel pigeonholed by the success of Downton Abbey?
Our development slate is pretty broad but over the last few years we have done a lot of historical pieces. It can happen that you get pigeonholed but in a way, it’s no bad thing to be described as the producer of one of the most successful shows ever, just as when people compare The Last Kingdom to Game of Thrones, it’s not as big as Game of Thrones but it’s a successful show. There’s no harm in being compared to that genre because it’s a shorthand that people can relate to. We have all sorts of different ideas; we just acquired the new Robert Harris novel, The Second Sleep, published this week, which has a very interesting twist in it. We’ve had some early discussions but we’re in advanced development and I’m waiting for a first draft of the script from Bill Gallagher, which we’re very excited to see. We would shoot it in the UK but it would likely be with a broadcaster in the UK or SVOD and we would shoot it here or in Hungary, where we shoot The Last Kingdom.

You’re working with Julian again on Belgravia for Epix and ITV. What can you say about that?
That’s based on his novels. We pitched the book to ITV and they loved the book and it was fairly straightforward. You can’t get away from the [Downton Abbey follow-up] short-hand and there is obviously a huge appetite for the world which Fellowes writes about and for us, as his producing partner, we cherish his writing and create the right environment for it and bring a real attention to detail in terms of how these shows are curated and made. There’s all the usual social observations and comedy of manners that people love in Julian’s writing but it’s also very different. It’s also limited, it’s six hours, it has an ending and tonally is quite different to Downton, it has a thriller component and is a family saga and is terribly moving.

HBO recently picked up The Gilded Age, you’re an exec producer but it’s not a Carnival Films project, is that right?
It’s an HBO/Universal Television co-production. It changes a bit how I work because Carnival isn’t the producing entity and HBO is in the driving seat, which makes a lot more sense because we’re shooting in New York so that would be outside our norm. We tend to do our physical production in the UK and other countries around the world, we don’t really shoot in the U.S. We’re in early pre-production and are casting and set construction. It will shoot early next year.

You have a number of other shows on the development slate including a number of book adaptations…
We’re working on an adaptation of James Smythe’s [AI novel] I Still Dream. The slate is much broader than these period pieces and this illustrates it. We’re still working on Stuxnet with HBO, that’s still on the slate, and Francesca Segal’s novel The Awkward Age [in development with the BBC] is another novel, a contemporary, British story.

You recently set up new writers scheme The Collective. How’s that going?
I’m not the only producer here that appreciates that the fact that we’re very reliant on a small cadre of leading writers and we need to try and develop more writers and give them opportunities so that’s what that initiative was about and it has certainly lead to some individual developments with new and emerging writers.

Finally, how do you view the current state of the British drama business?
I’ve been producing for 30 years and for most of that time shows were made on a shoestring and we were very proud of how low our budgets were, just as our colleagues in the States were proud of how big theirs were. It’s this English thing about how you sow’s ear. But now, writers, actors, directors and crew are being paid properly and we have very sizeable budgets to make our shows compared to what we had in the past. This is a good place. If the only problem is a surfeit of content and not enough people and studios, these are not bad problems to have.

It’s bonanza, there’s so much content being made and I’m pleased to see British stories at the top of people’s lists and playing all around the world and the extraordinarily talented actors we’ve always had in this country being so in demand and writers similarly. The challenge is that we need more young people to come into this business and that should be possible because you can earn very well from it and it’s a very rewarding life. We need more investment in studios and facilities but there was a time when you’d reach a stage in your career and you’d have to go to Hollywood and I don’t think we live in those times anymore. London is a great place, arguably the best city in the world for post-production and a great artistic city with theatre and the arts.

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