January 2012

Q+LA Julian Fellowes

As someone who brings the historical England of our imagination to life onscreen, the man behind Downton Abbey has no peer


Julian Fellowes is as English as Earl Grey and clotted cream. As an actor, director and writer, he has continually peeked under the petticoats of British mores and conveyed the details with relish to audiences. His writing of the upstairs-downstairs whodunit Gosford Park won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2002, and his subsequent films Vanity Fair and The Young Victoria established Fellowes as the class-fixated Anglophile’s Anglophile. His two novels, Snobs and Past Imperfect, mined the same dishy blueblood vein, and both were Sunday Times bestsellers.

A lifelong Conservative, Fellowes was made a Peer of the Realm in 2011 and bestowed with the title Baron Fellowes of West Stafford. Now with season two of the Edwardian-era Downton Abbey, the internationally syndicated costume drama he conceived and wrote for ITV, airing in the States as part of PBS’ Masterpiece, Fellowes—who was once shortlisted to replace Hervé Villechaize on Fantasy Island—stands tall as the reigning lord of ka-ching. Downton, the period piece most watched in the U.K. since Brideshead Revisited, left off last season with the outbreak of WWI and the able-bodied men in the household heading off to the trenches. We caught up with its creator by phone, during an uncharacteristic break in his schedule.

Hello, Julian. Where am I calling you—in the country or the city?
I’m actually at my office in the House of Lords in London. Well, an office is a rather optimistic description. It’s sort of a giant cupboard.

Congrats on your peerage.
Thanks. I mean, it’s been very, very interesting. I am quite political, so being actually here and a part of it all is thrilling. I do what I can—everyone recognizes that I have other things going on.

What else are you juggling?
A third season of Downton, a miniseries Titanic, due in April, and two or three film projects, including a piece set in the Vienna of Maria Theresa. My professional life is rather like a cake show at the moment. You know—“Here’s one I made earlier!” But it seems to be working.

You’re busier than a one-armed fan dancer. I’m surprised you’re not on the En--glish Olympic debate team.
Is there a debate team?

No, but there ought to be. It may be the only sport En-gland would be good at! Sorry to poke fun, as obviously the country is at the heart of your work. Downton Abbey’s season two begins this month, and without revealing too much, what can we expect?
We do go to the Front [WWI], because it would seem dishonest not to. But really the season is about how the home front dealt with the war. It’s not giving it away to say that eventually Downton becomes a convalescent home for officers, because the family can’t stay out of it any longer. In fact, Highclere, the castle in Hampshire where the show is mostly shot, was a hospital during the war. But I didn’t think it would be believable that the family would remain in residence if it had become a hospital, and of course, we wanted the family to stay at Downton.

So, the house itself becomes an even stronger character.
Yes, it does. I love Highclere. In fact I tried to get Robert Altman to use it for Gosford Park. I think why it is so successful as a character—and you’re quite right, it is a character—is it is a terribly proud house, a tremendous procla-mation of the confidence of aristocratic worth. I felt it was a rather marvelous irony to use such a house to chronicle a family negotiating its way into the modern world, where such values would be challenged at every turn.

The popularity of Downton under-scores the enduring—some may say perplexing—fascination with the English class system. Why are you so enamored of that?
I’ve been given this role, really, as a kind of chronicler of those times. I can’t deny that I am interested in the class structure—I am! Sometimes I think the whole thing’s a terrible cosmic joke, and other times I wonder if there isn’t a kind of comfort in the security it must have offered. I feel quite undecided about it, actually. You know my favorite thing I’ve ever done was a contemporary film I wrote and directed called Separate Lies. So I wouldn’t say it’s my exclusive interest, but you know, in this business, whether you’re an actor or a director, you have to be seen as a safe pair of hands for something.

Is there any aspect of the prewar class system whose passing you particularly mourn?
There were aspects to that simpler world that are quite enviable. They had this extra-ordinary belief in themselves. It’s like America in the 1950s before Vietnam, when they had an extreme conviction that every-one wanted to be American. I grew up on the films of Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, and there was something beguiling about American self-belief in those days. I don’t believe in a society as fixed as the one in Downton. In fact, one of the great failures of modern Britain has been that our social mobility has very much been compromised, a development I think is disgraceful. Again, America is ahead of us on this. Americans, on the whole, have a much more fluid society.

As much as Downton Abbey depicts an England of the imagination, its storylines are clearly indebted to contemporary stateside episodic TV.
Absolutely. At first it looks like a traditional 1970s period drama, but those shows tended to be single-narrative episodes: Lady Marjorie buying a new hat or what have you. We borrowed the much more American structure of, say, The West Wing, where you have five, six, seven plots at once. It seems more apt for the zeitgeist, and it has a higher energy quotient.

And what of the American heiresses that came to the short-term rescue of the upper class and their estates at the turn of the century?
I’m fascinated with them—and obviously, the character of Cora, Countess of Grantham, comes from that stock. Girls like Cora had these enormous dowries, and something like 350 of them married into the English upper classes. Consuelo Vanderbilt brought something like $9 million to the Marlborough family in the 1890s, which was a colossal sum—and she had two brothers! That would never happen in England because the oldest boy would get everything. And these American girls had a totally different idea of comfort, so suddenly houses started springing up with heating and bathrooms and all of that stuff, which the English had kind of resisted. Of course, their money was finite, and that way of life was essentially living on borrowed time, but these American women undoubtedly had a long-term effect and made the En-glish aware of comfort in a way they had not been before.

Were you a child of privilege?
My parents were never rich on that scale. I grew up in an ordinary vicarage-type house, and we had a flat in the city. I’m not pretending I was lying under a sheet of corrugated iron! I always get rather irritated by people who talk down their own backgrounds. And you know, I was picked up later as a young man for what used to be called “the season” [to meet eligible young debutantes], and I was put on lists and things. I would go off and stay with friends and relations in versions of houses like Downton, but I was always the rather unimportant guest. In a funny way, you have a better view of the whole thing because nobody’s concentrated on you. Nobody’s worried about whether you’re comfortable or whether others are laughing at your jokes. And I think my bird’s-eye view of that world proved to be rather useful.

HORACIO SILVA, a writer and digital strategist obsessed with English costume dramas, wishes he had his own evil footman.