'Downton Abbey' Creator Julian Fellowes On Going From TV To The Big Screen

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Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Julian Fellowes never thought a film version of his beloved TV series, “Downton Abbey,” would happen.

“All the actors have gone off in different directions. They were on Broadway. They were making series and so on,” he says. “So it was only for me really about a year after the end of the show, the murmur wouldn't die down and I started to think, 'Well if there is a film, I'd better make a few decisions about what's going to be in it.’ ”

Set in the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey, the series depicted the lives of an aristocratic family and their servants from 1912 to 1926. The show ended in 2015, and now the new film with a screenplay by Fellowes opens in theaters this week.

The movie stars all of the old favorites from the television series — Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary, Hugh Bonneville as the Earl of Grantham, Elizabeth McGovern as the earl’s American wife Cora, and Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess.

In the film, the house is frantically preparing for the arrival of King George V and his wife, Mary. Fellowes says he chose a royal visit as the catalyst for the film because he says it’s an event that would affect everyone in the house in different ways.

“They would all be on their toes,” he says. “They might be hostile. They might be angry, but they would all be something.”

Interview Highlights 

On the role of Irish widower Tom Branson in the film 

“There's a moment when he says to Mary, 'I'm law abiding now,’ or something, ‘that's what you lot have done to me.' And in a sense they have not changed his beliefs. They haven't. But what they have done is change his perception on how to conduct himself in society. I mean the reason he does have a very significant role is that when I was deciding that we were going to do it, I was looking at the last series and I realized that Tom Branson was the only one who wasn't in a sense settled at the end of the show. Everyone else was, even the long unhappy Edith had found her perfect man. And I didn't want to unpick any of that. But it gave me Tom Branson as someone who could have a love story, which I think the film needed.”

On the portrayal of gay life in 1920s Britain

“There's no reason to believe there's any smaller percentage of people were gay in 1927 than there are now. The difference being that 98% of them were forced to live a lie, and I think it's important to remind particularly young people that we have come a long way in this area. I mean at the moment, all you ever hear is how terrible everything is, but there are certain things that have improved and that is one of them. But the gathering places were not as they would be, even at the end of the '50s when it was still illegal, but it was beginning to be clear that it wouldn't be for very much longer. That wasn't true in the '20s. And if you had a gathering place, it wasn't all lined with red plush and everyone having a lovely drink at the bar. It was in a warehouse. It was in a storeroom. It was anywhere where you could set it up and move it at a moment's notice when the police found out. And I hope that comes through in the film, that it was very very difficult to be gay and to live a life. And I don't want us to lose touch with that really.”

On writing for Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton

“Well it's from when you're writing for that level of flair because you know that they're going to hit the spot every time and they're going to hit the target. When you know they're going to Maggie and Penelope or [Imelda Staunton] or whatever, it is very satisfactory. And actually one of the greatest pleasures of this latest adventure has been to sit in an enormous cinema and hear people all laughing together because you know, when you watch it on television you don't get that. You know, you have your wife who's seen it 16 times before and your son who's reading a book and that's it. And suddenly there you are in the middle of people finding it funny and I love that.”

On why “Downton Abbey” is so beloved

“Well of course, if I knew that I would do nothing but replicate its success for the rest of my life. But I think there is a fascination in looking at how our forebears lived. And one of the things I'm really pleased about, which I hope ‘Gosford Park’ and ‘Downton’ have contributed to, is that when I was a child, the story of these great houses was always the story of the family, and they were the rooms that were on show. You saw the drawing room and the library and the ballroom. But you never saw the kitchens. You never saw the servants or you never saw any of that. And that's completely different now. And I get a lot of letters enclosing photographs of people in livery, footmen and housemates and so on and lady’s maids and everything else, and they're writing about their great grandparents who were in service, and they did this and they did that. And I think people have started to see that it's a way of life that belongs to us all.”

On the timing of the film at a moment when Britain is going through turmoil 

“It wouldn't surprise me if people like to be able to take two hours off Brexit for a change. We all have strong opinions about it, and we all have friends on both sides and it's an unusual situation because it's a difference of opinion that doesn't run along class lines or north and south or even age. You get families divided. People are just split about it with no real pattern. And that's very tiring to be in the middle. You go to a dinner party and suddenly the subject comes up, and everyone goes hatchet-faced all round the table. And this is just a rest from it.”

Emiko Tamagawa produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on September 18, 2019.


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