Downton Abbey Returns to America: Writer Julian Fellowes Tells All

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Julian Fellowes

During the first season of Downton Abbey, the aristocratic Crawley family and their busybody servants endured a succession crisis and the death of a Turkish houseguest. But during the second season they face an even greater challenge: World War I. TIME spoke with Julian Fellowes, the show’s Emmy-award winning writer and creator, ahead of Downton’s return to PBS Masterpiece on Jan. 8.

Downton Abbey is the most successful British period drama since Brideshead Revisited and one of the most-watched shows in the U.K. Why is it so popular?

Well, it’s obviously tapping into something, although it is hard to say quite what would explain its popularity. The English country house is certainly an icon of British culture. Somehow it seems to encapsulate the ideas that the British have about themselves, and I suppose we benefit from it. But what I think is a really interesting and is a more recent development is that the country house, which used to be seen as an expression of aristocratic virtue or prejudice — depending on your viewpoint — has now come to be seen as a broader thing, a setting of a shared history which involved most of our ancestors in some degree or other.  Even the National Trust [a charity that advises historic properties in the U.K.] has started to show far more of the workings of such houses: the kitchens and still rooms and store rooms — the places where ordinary people lived and worked. This has allowed everyone to feel they have an interest in the subject.

(VIDEO: Take a Tour of the Real Downton Abbey: Highclere Castle)

It also offers a glimpse into the lives of the privileged classes and those that serve them. Does that draw people in to the show too?

The whole culture of Downton is to show that all the lives being lived within it have an equal moral value, whether it is Daisy the kitchen maid’s expectations or Lady Edith’s. We give them all the same narrative attention, the same weight and the same seriousness. Bates and Anna are just as important as Mary and Matthew, and that is exactly what we intended. If I can say it without sounding too vain, that is the strength of the series.

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The first season of Downton Abbey drew some of the biggest audiences in the history of PBS Masterpiece in the U.S. Were you surprised that the show did so well in America?

To me, all success is a delightful surprise, since one can absolutely never predict it. I was tremendously pleased when it became apparent that the show had gone down well in America. The night of the Emmys, when we won six altogether, was one of the great nights of my life. You will probably ask about class division and so on, but class, as a topic, is of far less interest to the Americans than the British. Good for them. What the Americans want to see is life in their drama. Life of all sorts: hard lives, easy lives, or lives which, like most of ours, are a mixture of the two. If we are popular there, then I would suggest, again rather timidly, that we have managed to get some of that into the drawing rooms and sculleries of Downton Abbey.

Downton Abbey is filmed almost entirely at Highclere Castle, a 6,000-acre estate in rural Hampshire. What about that particular location appealed to you?

I have always, or at least for many years, wanted to film at Highclere.  I tried to use it for a production of Little Lord Fauntleroy for the BBC, in the 1990s, and then again for Gosford Park, but [director] Robert Altman wanted to be closer to London and Wrotham Park worked well, so I am not complaining.  However, you can see from this that I was fairly determined by the time we got to Downton Abbey.

But you and the show’s producers visited dozens of properties anyway?

We saw Highclere first, and everyone loved it. But then the usual syndrome struck, the syndrome that affects people like my wife when shopping: if they find exactly what they are looking for in the first shop they enter, it somehow spoils the fun. So they have to check out 480 other shops before they will give in, go back to the first one, and buy whatever it was. If it’s still there. We were rather like that. After seeing and loving Highclere we then set off and visited any number of country houses, from north to south, before Gareth Neame, our producer, finally woke up one morning and realized that Highclere was perfect.

Between 1914 and 1916, Highclere Castle transformed into a hospital for soldiers returning from World War I. Downton Abbey becomes a convalescent home during the show’s second season. Is this a case of art imitating life?

I would not say the house has inspired plot lines in that way. It is true that Downton becomes a convalescent home in the second series, but most of these houses played a similar role and Highclere, itself, became a fully-fledged hospital under the charge of its extraordinary and charismatic chatelaine, Almina Carnarvon. Actually, we did consider this but we decided it would be hard to believe that the family would remain in residence while it was a hospital, when many families did indeed remain in residence after welcoming recovering officers.

World War I brought many aristocratic families to their knees, and, although they survived, they never fully regained their wealth or influence. Does Highclere Castle enhance this theme in any way?

The reason the house is so perfect for our purposes is really two-fold. First, it needed to be the kind of house that made people sacrifice their lives to keep, the kind of house that altered people’s choices, altered their thinking, and for that you need a very confident house, indeed. Highclere is that house. It is an extraordinary expression of aristocratic confidence. It is easy to see that the third and fourth earls (who built it) did not suffer from any crisis of self-worth. The building trumpets the value of aristocratic rule loudly across the park as you drive up to it. It is a sculpture dedicated to the superiority of birth, and this theme is continued inside, with the great atrium hall reaching up to the sky, emblazoned with the arms and crests of every countess. It seemed to me that there was a wonderful irony in such a house being the setting for a story about one such family dealing with change, when everything they stood for was being challenged and undermined by the new century.  And so it has proved, because, of course, the house is really the principal character.

And the other reason?

It also has the bonus of being a surprisingly straightforward house in its layout, despite being very large. This was ideal for a television narrative, where the viewer would quickly grasp how the house worked. The main rooms are laid out round the hall, then comes the staircase, then the servants’ green baize door, then the dining room, and we are back at the front door. It couldn’t be more simple to follow. This makes the telling of any story wonderfully easy in geographic terms. All in all, it is hard to see how we could have done better.

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