Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes on Maggie Smith & more

By Alexandra Heilbron on December 16, 2019 | 5 Comments

Downton AbbeyDownton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes creator Julian Fellowes exudes charm and class. It’s evident in his appearance, his speech and in what he says. I was fortunate to be one of the journalists to sit down with him for a roundtable discussion last week at the Four Seasons in London, England to talk about Downton Abbey the movie, which releases on Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow (Dec. 17). Julian is not only the creator of the hit ITV/PBS series, but he wrote the movie and all the episodes of the six-season series. ~Alexandra Heilbron

To what do you attribute the sucess of Downton Abbey, both the series and the movie?
I think it has something to do with the fact that all the characters are given equal dramatic weight, so that Daisy is just as important a character as Edith. If it had been made in the 1950s, all the family would have been gracious and charming and all the servants would have been funny. If it had been made in the ’90s, all the servants would have been oppressed and the family would have been vile and mendacious. But we haven’t done either of those. We just see it as a group of people, obviously born to different circumstances in life, but for the most part, trying their best, trying to get through it as well as they can. And that is as true of Cora (the Countess) as it is of the cook, Mrs. Patmore. I suspect that has something to do with it. And also, most of them — not quite all, but most of them — are pretty decent people.

There is a lot of unpleasantness on television today and in films, golly. And you’re sitting there for two hours watching people who you would run a mile [from] rather than have dinner with. I think that may have something to do with it. Not that I’m against any kind of film or show, I mean good luck to them all if they can find an audience, that’s great. But I think that we are warmer than some shows, really.

What kind of changes did you make to bring the show to theaters? Did you decide to use sweeping shots to fill the big screen?
Well, I think that’s partly a question for the cinematographer, who was extremely talented. I thought he got more out of the house [Highclere Castle, which portrays Downton Abbey on film] for instance, than we’d ever been able to do on television. He really made the house seem dazzling. I suppose things like the train sequence at the beginning, which was written in the script, was partly because I wanted to have a slight echo of the first ever episode and also because I knew we could do it on screen in a film in a way that we would struggle to do it on television. And I deliberately chose in the royal visit as a subject that — with its balls and parades and banquets — was going to give lots of screen filling material. But you know, everyone plays a part in that. The costume designer, the set designer, they’re all working to make it a movie and to make it a movie experience. As to whether or not they succeeded of course, is up to the audience rather than me.

I’ve read some of the books by Lady Carnarvon and saw similarities between what happened in real life at Highclere Castle to what happens on Downton Abbey. Have you read them and were you inspired by any of the true life stories depicted in them?
I haven’t actually read any of Lady Carnarvon’s books but I’m sure they’re marvelous and they’re top of my reading list. It was quite nice that we had parallels. In fact, Highclere was not a convalescent home as we had it. It was actually turned into a hospital during the First World War by a rather marvelous chatelaine, Almina, who was the illegitimate daughter of one of the Rothchilds. And although she was illegitimate, he adored her and she was his heir. She spent a lot, not to say all of his money on various ventures, but one of them was turning the house into a hospital. But we had to have it as a convalescent home because we didn’t want the family to move out, which they would have had to do if it had been a hospital. I knew several houses that had been convalescent homes, so that kind of thing was really more generic, I mean how did people living in those houses deal with the war, you know? Sometimes they did nothing. They weren’t requisitioned in the First War. In the Second, they were. And then it wasn’t your choice, you just had to get out and the troops arrived or whatever it was. But that didn’t happen in the First War. You made a decision. Do we want to make a contribution or not? Anyway, I’m very pleased that Lady Carnarvon has taken such an interest in the show. And indeed, that people have taken such an interest in Highclere, which is a marvelous house and deserves to be seen.

In the movie, Tom emerges as an unlikely hero and even finds the beginning of a new love after Sybil. Why was it the right time for him to move on?
Well, the only character we had that we decided must die, was in fact William the footman. And that was only because we didn’t believe it possible that a house and household the size of Downton would go through the First World War and absolutely no one would die. I mean, I come from a perfectly ordinary family and my grandfather died in the trenches; my great-uncle died of wounds; several of their first cousins died; and even one first cousin was torpedoed by the Germans on her way back [on a ship] from Africa and drowned. So if that can happen in an ordinary family, is it likely that a household that size would escape completely? So we drew lots, literally, of the different male characters who’d gone to the war, and William was the one with the short straw.

But the uppers only died because the actors left. In America, you can get a five year contract and sometimes even a seven year contract at the beginning of a series. We can’t. The longest we can get is three years. And so we knew that at the end of three years we had to persuade them to stay. And actually, with Jessica Brown Finlay who played Sybil, it was easier because she decided that she was only going to do three years from the start. That was it. So I did research and I came up with eclampsia and you know, all of that stuff. And we killed her in [episode] five  [of the third season] so we had three episodes to get over it and all that. It was different with Matthew, because he only decided to leave more or less just before the read-through. When we’d written the five episodes [of the third season], they’d been cast, they had directors, and suddenly he said, “No, I’m going too.” He’d been offered a play on Broadway, he’d been offered a movie, I mean, I completely understood, I don’t want to sound as if I didn’t understand. I did understand, but it didn’t solve the problem.

When I knew he was never coming back, because of course I said to him, “Can’t you just come back, we’ll have a happy Christmas, baby’s in the cradle, then you come back and we’ll kill you in episode one [of the following season].” [He said] “No.” So the only way I could avoid doing memorials twice, funerals twice, you know, with Sybil, was to kill him in the last shot of the show. And unfortunately in England, that was on Christmas night. So that was ITV’s contribution to the nation’s Happy Christmas, for which I paid a high price in abusive letters. And then we had a six-month gap, so it worked for us in the end, because actually if I had killed him in episode one, we’d have had to have Mary in sulks for the rest of the series, whereas by having a six-month gap, we could have her starting to come out of it, which really played better, so it all worked out.

Speaking of deaths, are we worried about the Dowager Countess? A sequel is coming, she’s not very well…
She’s not very well, but she’s not dead! I think there’s no indication that she’s dying imminently. So we just have to wait and see what happens. We also have to see whether Maggie [Smith] wishes to survive her present situation or not.

She’s been a bit ambivalent sometimes about returning… is that just her way?
It’s always been her way. She never gives the game away until it suits her.

Everyone obviously loves the interactions between Maggie and Penelope [who plays Isobel], do these pop into your head and you chuckle to yourself, is there a joy in finding those little moments and exchanges?
Well, it’s always a relief when you find enough of them to get through the episode. I don’t really know where any of it comes from, to be honest. You sit there staring at a blank screen thinking oh god, and then a few weeks later, there’s a script. I don’t really understand the process but mercifully, I have been allowed to complete as many scripts as I have completed, with some wisecracks for Maggie, who of course, is fun to write for. She plays them so well. You never have to explain to her why they’re funny or any of that stuff. She completely gets it straight away. And she never embellishes, she never adds words. Some actors add a word and they don’t realize that if you add a word to a funny line, you change its rhythm. And it can stop it being funny. A lot of it has to do with the music of the line. You have to land on the punch word in the right rhythm. She always completely understands what the rhythm is. So I love writing for her, and I’ve done lots of stuff with her, Gosford Park (2001), From Time to Time (2009) and now seven years of Downton.

Is she your favorite?
I don’t really have favorites, to be honest. I mean, I invented them all. They’re all my babies. So I’ll say to someone, “Which is your favorite child?” And they say, “Oh, I don’t have a favorite.” Of course, they slightly do. But they’d never admit it.

But can you hear yourself in anybody?
I think I hear my father in Robert, rather. They’re quite similar. My father was more intelligent, but they’re quite similar in their kind of moral stand and they’re both decent men doing their best. But neither question the moral universe in which they exist. Robert doesn’t wake up one morning and think, “Why am I the seventh Earl of Grantham?” He just thinks, “What’s for breakfast?” And my father was much the same. Not that he was the seventh Earl of anything, but he was much the same. I mean now and then I hear Robert speak and I know I’ve been writing in my father’s voice.

Downton Abbey the movie releases on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow — Tuesday, December 17, 2019. If you’ve seen Downton Abbey (the series and/or the movie) and enjoyed it, tell us below what you’d like to see happen in a sequel movie below!

Comments & Discussion

  1. Amy • December 16, 2019 @ 10:28 PM

    I’m so glad to know the Dowager will likely be in the next one if Maggie Smith chooses to be!

  2. Donna Pershics • December 16, 2019 @ 11:19 PM

    We love this show. We watched all 6 seasons back to back on PBS. Saw the movie and it was wonderful. Cried at the end because it was over. Now finding out there might be another. Cant wait. Would you please continue with another series starting where the movie ended. Please!!

  3. Donna Pershics • December 17, 2019 @ 11:16 AM

    We love this show. We watched all 6 seasons back to back on PBS. Saw the movie and it was wonderful. Cried at the end because it was over. Now finding out there might be another. Cant wait. Would you please continue with another series starting where the movie ended. Please!!

  4. Candace Pankanin • January 9, 2020 @ 11:18 AM

    I ended up on this page while searching out a contact for Julian Fellowes so that I could tell him how delighted I was that he chose to pick up the Downton Abbey saga. I have watched the new movie 5 times already. Each time viewing I see something I missed previously, I love that. It just keeps getting better.

    Please continue with a TV series. I would be happy to contribute to the channel showing it.

    There are so many newly begun life lines to follow, create and end. So exciting to think of what might happen


  5. Donna • January 10, 2020 @ 9:58 PM

    I’m so happy to know why they killed Matthew and Sybil off. I wish they’d picked someone else for Sibyl if she said from the outset that she’d only do three seasons. I bet they’re both sorry they left, it’s the best production either of them have ever been associated with. Also, has Sibyl even done anything else? I haven’t seen her since that bomb of a movie she did with Colin Farrell.

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