Julian Fellowes has gone from being a reasonably accomplished actor to an Oscar-winning screenwriter to the creator of one of the world’s most successful television dramas. Now in its fourth season, “Downton Abbey” is more popular than ever, despite the intrusion of assault, class conflict and a poorly timed death.
Author Chris Wright Illustration Roberto Parada
“I slightly wondered if there might be a snack of some sort,” Julian Fellowes says to a waiter in a Manhattan bar. Then, when a menu appears: “Oh, you are sweet. Can I have a quick look?”
This excessive display of manners shouldn’t come as a surprise. Fellowes, the 64-year-old actor, screenwriter and Peer of the Realm, is also the creator of “Downton Abbey,” the show that has done for the British aristocracy what “The Sopranos” did for the New Jersey mob.
Now airing its fourth season in the U.S. (on PBS’s Masterpiece), the show has been a critical and commercial smash, one of those rare shows that people talk about rather than merely watch.
Part of the reason for this success is that “Downton” is a first-rate soap opera. There’s also a sense, though, that viewers are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in a simpler, starchier time. Certainly, devotees of the show have a deeper understanding of formal place settings than they did prior to its 2010 debut.
Many of those tuning in to season four of “Downton” will still be recovering from what happened in season three—namely, the untimely deaths of two of its most popular (and attractive) characters. While Fellowes wasn’t entirely responsible for killing Sybil and Matthew—the actors who played them had opted to leave the show—distraught and enraged fans started calling him “The Widow Maker.” It was odd.
In New York to promote the show, Fellowes insists he’s put all that behind him. Life, in fact, is pretty good. U.K. viewing figures for “Downton” last year were higher than ever, and there’s an expectation that American audiences will respond similarly. The critics have, for the most part, stopped comparing his show unfavorably to Brideshead Revisited.
Now if he can only bring himself to stop killing people off.
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Hemispheres: By the time people read this, season four of “Downton Abbey” will be about halfway through in the U.S., with no fatalities to speak of. What’s going on?
Julian Fellowes: Hold on. We’ve only had two people die in this show. It’s just that they both had to die in rather close proximity.
Hemispheres: I think the main problem has been your sense of timing—you killed Matthew Crawley at Christmas. It was depressing.
Fellowes: I know! You don’t have to tell me. When Dan Stevens (the actor who played Matthew) said he was leaving, I said to him, “Couldn’t we just have a happy Christmas, then you can come back next year and die in episode one?” But he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to go off and do different stuff.
Hemispheres: The public response to the death was astounding. One report said you had to hire bodyguards.
Fellowes: That’s not true, but I did get letters saying, “I will never watch anything you’ve worked on again!”
Hemispheres: We’ve had no deaths so far this season, but we have had a rape. That also got people worked up.
Fellowes: What was interesting to me about the rape is that people thought they’d seen things they hadn’t. Everything happened offscreen, but then there were all these letters: “Oh! These savage scenes of assault!”
Hemispheres: I don’t think that’s why people were upset. If you take a show like “Breaking Bad,” people tend to do the most horrible things to each other, but I’m guessing it doesn’t get thousands of outraged letters, because people expect it. With “Downton,” there’s a sense that viewers feel, I don’t know, betrayed. They expect something from the show and they get something else.
Fellowes: One of the basic tenets of the show is that even in the most calm and ordered lives, high drama enters in, terrible things happen. My wife’s cousin, her child died at the age of eight, then she contracted cancer and died last week. This is the daughter of a peer, grew up privileged, smashed apart by the gods. Is this any less dramatic than what I put in the show? No. In fact, for a mother to follow a child to the grave within 18 months would seem overdone on television.
Hemispheres: And you can understand someone shaking their fists at the gods for that, which may explain why people get so angry with you—in this instance, you are the creator and the destroyer.
Fellowes: The other day I was at a charity fundraiser, and this woman said, “You know, you don’t need to do these stories. I just want to see them living this life.” I told her I didn’t think the show would work if it were just people getting changed and arranging flowers. But people do feel there is a disintegrating quality to the modern world. Everything seems disordered, and nobody quite knows what’s going on. They look at “Downton” and think, “How nice it must be to be living in an ordered world.”
Hemispheres: Not everyone feels that way. The show has also provoked heated debate about the British class system. Some people take issue with your sympathetic portrayal of the aristocracy. Is this something you welcome, or do you get fed up with it—you know, “Calm down, it’s a TV show”?
Fellowes: The answer is yes on both counts. When I was a young actor, I was constantly hired to play vicars and things, people from the upper classes, and they would always be misrepresented—either horrible or messed up. That seemed to me to be so childish a need, that just because someone is apparently luckier than you are, you must immediately redesign them to be horrible. It’s the defensive mechanism of a teenager.
Hemispheres: Of course it’s plausible that someone born into privilege could be nice. I will say, though, that when Lord Grantham is friendly to his valet, I feel a bit uncomfortable. It seems less like decency and more like magnanimity. Also, how do you connect with someone on a human level when they’re brushing dandruff off your shoulders?
Fellowes: On the other hand, of course, people got on with their valets and their lady’s maids, because they fired them if they didn’t. Do you want some man you don’t like running your bath and getting you into your trousers every day? Being likable was a necessary skill.
Hemispheres: I’m a fan of the show, but it took me ages to start watching it—I’m more of a “24” man. It’s hard to put your finger on why “Downton” is such a success, but more so on why it appeals to people like me.
Fellowes: Obviously I’ve asked myself these questions a thousand times. I have an instinctive feeling that it has something to do with incorporating the essentially American energy of shows like “The West Wing,” in that there are lots of stories happening all at once—duh-duh-duh-duh. So you have that thing where you don’t want to go to the loo, because you’ll come back and can’t keep up. Also, I think it helps that most of the characters are reasonably decent.
Hemispheres: Are you OK with people calling this a soap opera, or do you hope it’s something more than that?
Fellowes: I never really understand why people get so cross about something being successful. I don’t watch “Big Brother,” but it doesn’t worry me that a lot of people enjoy it.
Hemispheres: Are you responding to my question as if the term “soap opera” is a pejorative?
Fellowes: I love soap operas. But if we’re dealing specifically with that question, I think the term is usually used to belittle the show rather than praise it.
Hemispheres: People enjoy soap operas because they get to know the characters and start caring about their lives. People like the emotional intrigue. I think that’s what characterizes soap operas, rather than a lack of quality.
Fellowes: And if that kind of emotional element isn’t there, this vicarious relationship with the characters, people might admire it, but they won’t love it.
Hemispheres: So is it more important to be loved or admired?
Fellowes: I, um … I don’t know the truthful answer to that.
Hemispheres: There are certain ideas you don’t shy away from that are almost dirty words for so-called serious writers—things like sincerity, decency, moral clarity.
Fellowes: I hope I do explore moral ambiguity. It’s something I try to achieve. But it doesn’t bother me that I write about fundamentally good people trying to do their best. I suppose it’s easier to get taken seriously if you write about horrible people doing horrible things, but if you ask me, it’s more rebellious to write about good people than it is to go along with that kind of sewer mentality.
Hemispheres: You’ve taken your share of flak in the press. Do you have a thick skin, or do some of the things they say hurt your feelings?
Fellowes: When someone says, “This show is a lot of old tosh,” I don’t really get upset about that. But I read a whole article attacking my mother, who has been dead for 30 years, about how I’m such a horrible person because my mother was a b****. I tell you, reading that stuff, you just think, “What have I done to you? I’ve just written a hit show. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it!”
Hemispheres: I read one article that said you have an uncanny ability to interpret visual details, like Sherlock Holmes. I was worried you’d look at my rumpled sleeves and think, “Ah, lives alone.”
Fellowes: I don’t want to talk as if I have some strange power, but I am interested in the details of people’s lives and what these give away. People are always telling you a story, usually one that they think they’re not telling you.
Hemispheres: That’s a big part of your storytelling, isn’t it, using the accretion of tiny details to paint a larger picture, like pointillism.
Fellowes: You’re right. I do like those little moments, the small gesture that says something about a person’s loneliness.
Hemispheres: Speaking of attention to detail, “Downton” has moved on a decade now, and I hadn’t noticed if anyone’s getting older. Are they?
Fellowes: Well, what we did with the women is to cast them 10 years older than their parts, so they’re only now about their real age. That was quite deliberate.
Hemispheres: How many more seasons might you do?
Fellowes: We’ll definitely have five, and I think it’s unlikely we won’t have six.
Hemispheres: Your next show should be about sympathetic bankers; that’ll really get people going.
Fellowes: Ha ha. Yes.
Hemispheres: Are you at all worried that, in terms of your career, “Downton” will turn out to be as good as it got?
Fellowes: You know, everyone told me when I won an Oscar [for the screenplay of Gosford Park in 2002] that it would be the peak. I was astonished and delighted to have won it, but it wasn’t the end. If all I’ve had is all I’ll ever have, I think I’ve been bloody lucky. I don’t feel I can moan with any grace.
Hemispheres executive editor and “Downton Abbey” fan CHRIS WRIGHT cannot sit down to a fast food meal without making sure his french fries are precisely two and a half inches to the left of his diet soda.