Julian Fellowes talks about Downton Abbey: A New Era

From award-winning creator, Julian Fellowes comes the motion picture event Downton Abbey: A New Era. The much-anticipated cinematic return of the global phenomenon reunites the beloved cast as they go on a grand journey to the South of France to uncover the mystery of the Dowager Countess’ newly inherited villa.

When Gareth Neame, (CEO, Carnival Films and Executive Producer on Downton Abbey), began talking to Julian Fellowes about developing a new television drama series, it was an adaptation of Julian’s acclaimed novel Snobs that he had in mind.

“It was while working on an adaptation of Julian’s novel Snobs that I first thought we should really work on an episodic series set in an Edwardian country house,” says Neame. “Firstly, because it is a setting that is uniquely English and we haven’t had an original programme like this in many years and secondly, Julian and I both thought it was good territory to revisit.”

“I couldn’t think of anyone in the world better to write it than Julian and obviously there was a very big nod towards Gosford Park, which had made such a huge impact on defining the English country house genre,” he explains.

“I thought, if you could just take that period and put it into a prime-time series, you could have something really special,” he continues.

For Gareth there are a few television genres that are uniquely American and some that are uniquely British of which Downton Abbey is one.

“When I read Julian’s initial treatment it had such a confidant command of this period and grasp of this world, the family, the servants, and the entire setting that it was clear this was something he had wanted to write for a long time.”

For Julian, Gosford Park struck a chord with audiences everywhere and it was a period he was keen to return to.

”I had never written a television series before and I found you have such tremendous freedom to develop the characters. The way of life of these fully staffed houses had always interested me, long before I wrote Gosford Park. There is something intriguing about a group of people living in such close proximity and yet with such different expectations.”

In these country houses, Julian talks of families living within “a curious universe, alongside their servants who are, on the whole, living a different life but are just as strongly graded as their masters so that, within their world, the butler is King and the housekeeper is Queen, with all their own hopes and dreams.”

“It always intrigues me how did people deal with it, did they retain a sense of self? I hope in Downton we have a very balanced set up as both Gareth and I wanted it to be something recognisable and identifiable to audiences.”

The Genesis of the worldwide phenomenon Downton Abbey

Q & A with Julian Fellowes

Where are the Downton characters at the beginning of this new movie?

At the end of the first movie, it was clear that Mary was really taking over as the boss at

Downton and that’s a theme we go with throughout this second film. One of the jobs of being in a hereditary business is to accept that it is hereditary and there comes a time when your usefulness is diminished and the moment has come to hand on to the next generation.

Edith’s marriage to Bertie is going well and she has now given birth to a boy but in a rather modern sense, running Brancaster and motherhood is not quite enough for her. She needs an activity that draws on her brain and something outside the family unit. In the 1920s and during the First World War, women had been put to work in different areas of employment and that had stimulated them to want to work. Cora and Robert’s job in the first film was to host the King and Queen, which they did with good grace. They both have a more difficult emotional journey in this film. I wanted to give all the characters more to do this time around and I am rather pleased with the way it turned out.

What did Simon Curtis bring to the film?

Gareth and I started thinking about Downton about 12 years ago and Simon has been part of the inner structure of the show since then; as have all the partners of the core team and cast, including my own wife. Simon has a very strong grasp of narrative, which is always a useful gift, but with Downton, it’s an essential one because of the multi-narrative nature of the scripts. Some of the stories are big and run right through the film and some are quite short and are told in only three scenes. However, all the stories are interlocking and there are many scenes that serve more than one story, which is why, when we have our read-through at the beginning of production I always say to the actors that they must take responsibility for their own story.

Read a Q & A with director Simon Curtis

RC (l-r.) Actors Harry Hadden-Paton, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery with Downton Abbey series creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes on the set of DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features LLC

How do you even begin to structure a film like Downton that has so many multiple voices?

My first lucky break was being asked to write a film for Robert Altman, which turned out to be Gosford Park. I suspected that Altman felt out of his comfort zone making a film about the British class system so I thought the only way around this is to make it a completely Altmanesque script; that every time he turned the page he would recognise the structure of it. In order to achieve that I went off, in those days to the video store, and took out every single Altman film I could find. I watched them over three or four days, and I designed the film, despite its setting, to make Altman recognise his own territory. As a result, I found that I liked that form of narrative and it suited me. From then on, I moved away from the straight, linear narrative, which is what I’d mainly done before, into this multi-narrative, multi-arc form and that really stayed with me. That structure informed the entire series of Downton in its earliest concept but it does mean that you’ve got to have directors on board who are interested and understand narratives, get the gags and follow them through. Simon is very good at that.

When you are writing, how conscious are you of the balance of drama and humour?

The sort of comedy that I like is real-life comedy and in our day to day lives we all know people who are funnier than others. Those people have the gift of coming up with phrases that are funny but they don’t remove you from what’s going on around you so in that sense you can return to the truth of the narrative situation without any difficulty. That is the level of comedy that sits well in an ongoing family saga like Downton and of course, for that, you need certain members of the cast to be talented with comedy lines. I was lucky with Maggie Smith, because I’d worked with her a few times before and the character I wrote that she played in Gosford Park was quite similar to Violet Grantham in Downton. Maggie has many gifts and one of them is that she can be very funny one minute, and two minutes later have you crying and she can shift gear without changing into someone else. She remains very true to the character.

Penelope Wilton stars as Isobel Merton and Maggie Smith as Violet Grantham in DOWNTON ABBEY: A New Era, a Focus Features release. Credit: Ben Blackall / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

What are the main differences in writing a series for television and movies?     

The main difference between the two is that when you are writing a series for television, after the first series, you are writing for performances that already exist. You are writing to fit the actors. For example, Lesley Nicol is a very funny actress but back in the beginning of all this, I didn’t really know her. I’d seen her in East is East which she was very good in but the more I realised how funny she was, the more I wrote about the fact she was funny. You also learn which actors are very good at emotional scenes and I quite deliberately give them material that I know they will shine in because it gives you a lot of high points. I’m part of a dying breed that believes that one of the jobs of the entertainment industry is to entertain. I want people to watch Downton and enjoy it. I want them to go to this movie, have a nice time – laugh and cry, then go out and have a decent dinner and get back home and feel they’ve had a really good evening. That’s my goal and if people ask is it enough to just entertain, then the answer is yes. I also hope that every now and then we can make them think about the disparity of backgrounds in an equal society, or make them think of the difficulties of being homosexual in a period when it was still illegal. We touch on those sorts of subjects but that’s not the prime purpose of the film. The purpose of the film is to give the audience a really good evening out.