Recently, Julian Fellowes met a woman who prays for the characters in the TV series that he created and writes, “Downton Abbey.”
A round-headed, round-cheeked man with a sparkle in his eye and a bouncy British accent, Fellowes laughed lightly as he told the story. “And I said, ‘You really don’t need to pray for them, because these actors have never had it so good!’ ” The woman failed to see the humor, telling Fellowes she was particularly worried about
Cora, the American-born Countess of Grantham. “So I said, ‘Well, pray for her, it won’t do any harm.’ ”
Watching the eloquent Fellowes talk with open enthusiasm about being at the epicenter of an international TV sensation is like watching an excitable grad student in literature debate his favorite books. “Downton Abbey” has broken records for ITV in the United Kingdom and for PBS’s “Masterpiece” in America; it has captured the support of Emmy and Golden Globe voters; superfan Michelle Obama ordered advance copies of season 3, which begins in the States on Sunday night at 9; and, in what may be the best gauge of success, it has spawned countless online spoofs, including Fellowes’s favorite, “Downton Arby’s.” But still the 63-year-old man, sitting in an empty bar on Commonwealth Avenue on a recent afternoon, displays none of the self-importance that plagues so many Hollywood writer-producers.
“Downton” addicts are praying for his ensemble, a castle full of emotionally stunted aristocrats and servants facing the end of a class system together, and that makes Fellowes giddy.
The oddest moment of “Downton” fever, he says, may have been the night he told a British Film Institute audience that no, he wouldn’t write a novelization of the series, that the only novel you could write without distorting the story would be a prequel. “By the time I got home,” he says, “there was a message from my agent in California saying, ‘I didn’t know you’d written a prequel.’ By the following morning, the blogosphere was convinced that the book was already written, they were setting up the miniseries, and it was cast.
“Those moments, you get such a flash of the way ‘Downton’ is in people’s conversation — in the national conversation, that phrase that I rather like. I do think [a prequel] is quite a good idea, though. And I might do it. But right now I’m spoken for. My dance card is full.”
That’s an understatement. Fellowes, who joined the House of Lords in 2011, is currently in the middle of many projects — among them season 4 of “Downton,” a musical theater adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows” in London, a big-screen redoing of “Gypsy,” and an adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” with Hailee Steinfeld.
He’s also developing a series for NBC set in 1880s New York called “The Gilded Age.” Not surprisingly, network TV wants to borrow some “Downton” mojo. Imitation, as Fred Allen put it, is the sincerest form of television.
By way of explaining the “Downton Abbey” phenomenon, “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton tells a story about Fellowes. When he was a boy, the son of a diplomat, his mother would let the kids take over the kitchen every now and then. “One year, little Julian decided to make éclairs,” she says. “And he made them and they were fantastic and everyone gobbled them up. And his mother said, ‘Julian, they are so good, how did you make them?’ And he said, ‘I DON’T KNOW!’
“I think [the success of ‘Downton’] was as much a surprise to him as to the rest of us.”
That hasn’t stopped every culture vulture from West Hollywood to the West End of London from trying to dissect and explain the triumph of the series. Why has this particular production proven that the costume drama is still viable as mass entertainment, and not the many fine “Masterpiece” miniseries of recent years? “Downton” has no brand-name advantage — no Charles Dickens or Jane Austen byline and no major-star appeal. When Fellowes was in pre-production with “Downton,” the BBC announced it would be reviving the similarly themed 1970s classic “Upstairs Downstairs,” and Fellowes and the other “Downton” producers had a “crisis meeting,” he says, afraid they’d already been sunk by a more familiar product.
“That was the received wisdom,” Fellowes says, “that you were just going to be Don Quixote tilting at windmills without an established brand. I’m pleased to think that we’ve shaken that up a bit.” Eaton says not having Dickens or Austen looking over his shoulder has turned out to be a plus for Fellowes: “He could, as Dickens would, create a whole bunch of characters and throw them up in the air and then control lots of story lines and weave them in and out,” she says. “But he could keep it open-ended, too, and play with cliffhangers, even at the end of series one. At the end of ‘Bleak House,’ it’s the end.”
Fellowes says he doesn’t know why the show has resonated but he has pet theories. One is that the show’s upper and lower classes deal with universal issues, despite their differences in dress. Also, he feels that viewers like the way he has taken a period drama and made it “pacy,” as he puts it, like so much American TV. “I think American television changed world television in its reinvention of the series,” he says, referring to the way the single-plot shows of the ’70s gave way to brisker multi-narratives such as “ER.” “We look like a traditional British period show of lords and footmen and people coming in to dinner, but the actual pace of it is modern.”
Fellowes says he first experimented with this hybrid form when he wrote the 2001 Oscar-winning “Gosford Park” script for Robert Altman, a director famous for crowding together many characters with interlocking story lines. “I was absolutely determined to write a script that he would feel at home in,” he says.
Fellowes, by the way, is in love with houses. The morning before we met, Fellowes had traveled to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, and he still seemed intoxicated by it, calling it “ravishing” and “grand but quite intimate.” He said he felt that Wharton, who, along with Anthony Trollope, is one of his favorite authors, did not build The Mount “to be an ego proclamation.” The Mount was the reason for Fellowes’s visit to Boston; the historic site presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, noting not only “Downton” but his two novels and his script for the stage production of “Mary Poppins.”
Fellowes’s sensitivity to houses is obvious in “Downton Abbey,” and he says that finding the right location is always critical. “The house is a character to me,” he says. “I’m aware of the fact that you can go into a house and it is telling you its own story and the story of the people who live there.”
In the PBS classic “Brideshead Revisited,” which Fellowes greatly admires, the house needed to be beautiful, to reflect Charles Ryder’s love affair with the aristocracy. For “Downton,” the house needs to help viewers understand why the Crawleys are willing to make endless sacrifices to stay there — a story line that will grow across season 3. He says, “Initially audiences would think, ‘Why jump through all these hoops? Just sell it. Buy a rectory and have a nice life.’ You need a house with a compelling presence to make them think, ‘God, if I owned this, I would have to do all this.’ ”
He and the other “Downton” producers found that house in Highclere Castle, an hour outside of London. “You come down the drive and it looks like a piece of sculpture,” he says.
Fellowes was a moderately successful actor for decades, and occasionally he does feel the urge again. He went up for “The Hobbit” but lost the role to Stephen Fry. Eaton calls Fellowes’s acting work his “secret sauce”: “He writes lines that can be delivered. He knows how much fun it would be as an actor to play any one of these parts.”
Fellowes’s secret sauce also includes his knowledge of the British upper class; his wife, Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, is an aristocrat by birth. This connection, along with the perception by some that “Downton,” as A.N. Wilson put it, “glorifies an ordering of society that was hateful in reality,” has led to hostility toward Fellowes in England.
He doesn’t like the personal nature of the attacks, which portray him as a snob. “It’s obviously bollocks,” he says. “If I were tremendously snobbish, why would I constantly be examining the injustice of this way of life, why would I be writing about the servants, why would I be exposing the prejudices and intellectual indolence of that way of life? It’s like saying Edith Wharton is a snob. You couldn’t be a snob and write ‘House of Mirth.’ I’ve given up on that, really. It’s what people project onto you in the end.”Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Matthew