'Downton Abbey' Creator Julian Fellowes: 'People Pray for My Characters'

03/04/2015 04:59 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2015
Frederick M. Brown via Getty Images

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This interview with Julian Fellowes took place at the Berkeley Hotel in London.

Did you think "Downton Abbey" would be such a success?

No. The received truth at the time of the film "Gosford Park" was that the audience had gone. It was one of those fabulously inaccurate prophecies that show business tends to specialize in. I've read in the papers that we took "Downton Abbey" to the BBC and got turned down. It's all untrue. It was pretty smooth going, actually, at ITV.

You were an actor. As an actor, did you imagine you were going to be a writer?

After drama school I wrote a couple of historical -- what we used to call bodice-ripper -- novels. They weren't of any merit, but I had stuck my toe in the water. I didn't write again until I'd been acting for quite a long period and began to think I needed a second string.

Were you a good actor?

I was beta-plus successful. I was a running character in a very popular series called "Monarch of the Glen," I was in a Bond movie, I was in a movie with Catherine Deneuve. I had a lucky break in "For the Greater Good," a mini-series for Danny Boyle. It wasn't bad, but life decided otherwise.

As an actor, does it help your screenwriting?

Yes, I think that when you are an actor, you develop a good instinct for what is sayable and what is not sayable. When an actor has a problem with a speech, their solution may not be the right solution, but they are almost always right that there is a problem.

You became an Oscar winning screenwriter and a Lord?

I think we are who we are. You have a bit more money and you are a bit more attractive to hostesses if you're in the news. My friends are the same as the friends I had before I'd written anything. I think we go in for long friendships in England -- that's a national characteristic.

Did you want to become famous and rich?

Fame is a funny business. Fame may be the spur when you're young, but I think when you are older it's the price more than the spur. I think if most people could have the success and the rewards in their careers without the fame, they would probably choose that.

Have you always been interested in the class system?

I wouldn't say always. My favorite piece of my own work is "Separate Lies," and that is about self-knowledge. For me the key virtue is self-knowledge. I think if we have a real understanding of who we are, then we are able to withstand life's buffeting. What makes you vulnerable is lying to yourself.

Is class a very English thing?

I think it's everywhere, sometimes in disguise, but everywhere. It's a question of judging people for what they are and not who they are. That strange sensation of being disliked by people who don't know you, I had that as a Catholic when I was young. I do examine that theme -- in "Downton" I have had black characters, Jewish characters.

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At this very moment prejudice and racism are coming back massively in Europe?

The danger area is that casual, unthought-out, slight prejudice that creeps in. The English upper and middle classes were no less guilty than anyone else. As a child of the 50s and 60s, you really did think that anti-Semitism was probably finished; the idea of desecrating graves and attacking synagogues just seemed to be over, to have gone like smallpox. The recurrence of the disease is fantastically depressing.

How did you build your many characters, and did you build them with the actors?

When you are writing a series, it's not like a film, because you write for the performances. You can see that this actor is funny or this one is moving, and you deliberately concoct situations to play to their strengths. If an actor says to me, "Could I have more of this, or less of that?" -- it's always worth listening, as they are inside the character.

Do you love all your characters?

I think what we got right is that we don't give either side any more weight than the other -- no more moral weight or intelligence. The love affair between Anna and Mr. Bates has the same dramatic weight as the love affair between Mary and Matthew.

How do you manage to create all these characters?

I think you know all sorts of people and you just do it. Sometimes, when you read it over, you see a false note and say, "Oh, she wouldn't have said that or used those words." And then my wife reads it over and she says, "I don't think Mrs. Patmore the cook would have said that." And she's usually right. And then after that it goes to the producers and it's only then that anyone else sees it.

Which are the most popular figures?

Everyone likes Maggie Smith as the dowager, but they all have their following.

As an actor, once you are a Lord or a butler you can be typecast. Don't they get typecast?

Not Maggie Smith, she is already famous for herself. Hugh Bonneville is also pretty famous in England, and so is Elizabeth McGovern.

Is Lord Grantham a loser, as he lost his wife's money?

I don't think he's a loser at all. He is one of the lucky ones, because his estate is going to get through. There were many families that could not embrace the changes and survive that period. I think it's an American concept that you never look depressed, that nothing ever goes wrong. In Europe it's not considered weak to say one has had a terrible year, because we all have a terrible year at one time or another.

So you make them very human, and there are ambiguous characters like Thomas the gay footman and Bates the valet of Lord Grantham?

Yes. Thomas is, in one sense, the least generous, but on the other hand, being homosexual at that time was very tough. They were still prosecuting homosexuals into my teens. Some people thought it was wrong; my parents thought it was wrong. I grew up in the atmosphere that this was the wrong thing to be doing, so I am sympathetic to their plight.

And Bates?

He never reveals his feelings. He doesn't need a mass of friends, he doesn't need reassurance, he doesn't need to tell everyone his troubles. I am fascinated by those people. He doesn't need forgiveness. He needs his wife Anna to love him, and as long as she loves him, then that's enough.

And what about Anna?

His wife is a kind of enabler -- generous, kind, perfectly social, easy to get on with. But she knows her husband is none of those things so she has to be the bridge between him and the rest. She normalizes her husband for you, even though her husband is not normal.

And Carson the butler?

He is more of a believer in the old order than any of the family. He believes much more passionately in the class system than either of the Granthams. He just feels that when the boat starts to rock, it will all fall apart, so every last detail must be maintained for as long as it can be.

And Mrs. Hughes the housekeeper?

She represents the majority of people in domestic service. For her, it's a job. She's not unhappy. When the system comes to an end she won't be particularly bothered and will use her skills in some other way and move on.

Even Mrs. Patmore the cook?

She has a marketable skill. She became a very important character, and a lot of that was to do with Lesley Nicol, who plays her, because she's very funny.

And what about Mary?

She's quite tough. The thing about people like Mary is that they just want to be in charge. They want to be at the top table. She will adjust.

She's difficult, even in love. And a cold mother?

She wants more control. I think that whole generation were fairly cold! We didn't have our children all over us until the 60s. When I was a child, I saw my father once a week and lunch on Sundays, and we weren't grand or certainly rich. That was just the way it was done in England then.

What is the relationship between Mary and her mother, Cora?

Mary thinks her mother is sentimental, and she blames it on her being an American. Mary also has a modern impetus: she doesn't want to adopt the powerless role where all the decisions were being made by the husband.

And the relationship with her sister, Edith?

She can't stand Edith. The sister has two principal narrative roles. One is that some people are just unlucky, and we have all known them. But the other is that the First World War didn't just open careers, but also perfectly ordinary women were changed by the war because of the activities they got involved with. It means Edith publishes rather than selling the magazine and just letting it go.

Are the acting company like a family, and do they get on together?

They all get on very well and look forward to coming back to work each year. They are not together between August and February, and they all do other things. And then they come back to go on with the series. It's a nice atmosphere on the set. I was there the other day.

Where is the set?

It's partly at Highclere; those are all the ground floor rooms. The kitchens and the attics and at least one bedroom and Robert's bedroom are all at Ealing Studios. So they go between the two.

Are you friendly with them all? Your great friend is Maggie Smith?

I am pretty friendly with most of them, and know some better than others. And I have worked with Hugh and Maggie and Allen Leech before. They are a nice group.

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They are very different from the characters they play?

Yes. Some more different than others.

Would you like to change or will "Downton Abbey" go on after series 6?

Our audiences have continued to rise. The largest audience we have ever had was for the last episode of the last series. The Daily Mail kept writing about how the audience was going down when in fact it was going up. We have something like 160 million in China, and in America something like 25 million, when you add them all up.

You are now writing series 6. Up until when does it go? 1940?

I never answer those questions.

Are we going to get to the Second World War?

No, not yet.

Are you going to work in America?

Yes, I am working on "The Gilded Age," which is a bit earlier than "Downton." It's sort of 1870s Edith Wharton's New York.

Do you feel comfortable with that, even though you are not American?

I think it's a challenge. I have spent a lot of time in America and I am interested in American social history and the fast-moving social system: you come from nothing, within one generation you are a prince, but the mere fact that it was custom in America to divide your fortune between all your children meant that no fortune lasted for long.

Are you inventing a new family?

Yes. A student of the era will recognize many incidents, but they are mainly fictional characters. It'll be about American society, no doubt with some foreigners in it.

What makes the success of your TV stories?

I don't know. I think you are trying to create a world in itself, a kind of universe. You want people to become involved with that world, and they do it in their relationships with these fictional characters. And sometimes their relationship can be surprisingly powerful, almost alarming. Quite what that is, it would take someone cleverer than I to define.

Do you have fun?

It's very involving and interesting, and I am very lucky to have chosen a career that continues to interest me.

Will you use big stars in this American production?

Sometimes there's an advantage in an actor's baggage, and you put that to use. You could say that we profited from Maggie's status and the aura around her to make our show instantly worthwhile, but on the other hand, the advantage of the lesser known is that they become doubly real for you.

Will "The Gilded Age" be filmed in New York?

Most of 19th century New York has gone, so we may find ourselves in another east coast town that has been better preserved.

Are you writing in your house in Dorset?

Yes, but I write wherever I am. Writing as an actor means you don't get a fetish about a desk. I write on a computer, and not at a specific time of day.

Will you write another novel?

At the moment, I haven't got the space to do another novel. I would like to.

Are you inviting people to come and live in your world?

People pray for my characters. They know it's all fiction, but they do worry about Cora!

Downton Abbey Series 5