Creator Julian Fellowes chats about Downton Abbey!

ITV1 and PBS seem to have pulled out all the stops in the production of Downton Abbey and that began with hiring Julian Fellowes (Gosford Park, The Young Victoria) to write the script!

When Gareth Neame (Executive Producer for Downton Abbey) began talking to Julian Fellowes about developing a new drama series, it was an adaptation of Julian’s acclaimed novel Snobs that he had in mind. Discussions quickly turned to a subject that Gareth had been mulling over for some time and, as luck would have it, Julian had been thinking along similar lines. “It was while working on an adaptation of Julian’s novel Snobs that I 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 programe like this in many years and secondly, Julian and I both thought it was a good territory to revisit.”

Highclere Castle - photo by neilalderny123
“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. “When I read Julian’s initial treatment it had such a confident 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 that 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 feel identifiable to audiences.”

The Edwardian period is not often portrayed in television drama, with dramatists and writers favouring the Regency period of Jane Austen instead. “This is a time that perhaps our parents, but more likely our grandparents, would have lived in, so it’s not a completely foreign country, explains Gareth. “The modern era began at the end of the 19th century and this was something Julian and I discussed a lot. By the late 19th Century, electricity came in and then gradually motor-cars, telephones, people commuting to work on the London Underground or on a bus and then came mortgages and pensions and these are all things that modern audiences recognise and identify with.”

“My father was born in 1912,” adds Julian, “not my great grandfather but my father, so 1912 is a period that many people alive today have heard about from their parents or grandparents.” Crucial to the look and feel of the show for Gareth was to bring modernity to the design without compromising the period. “We wanted the show to have a contemporary feel to it without losing any of the glorious elements that made that era unique. I think this is helped by it being an original script allowing the audience to enjoy all the trappings associated with period drama.”

Julian was also keen to portray what it was like to live and work in service during this time and for women, particularly young women, service was the only option. “When the economic system changed, people, and most particularly women, began to be offered jobs where they could have a free evening instead of being on duty until they went to bed. It was clearly a better option. Remember during this time we saw the rise of women’s rights, the organisation of labour, the changing status of the worker, the massive increase of productivity in the Midlands, so the modern world was pushing through and in fact the First World War would release all of that energy,” explains Julian.

One of Julian’s many considerable achievements with the scripts is to create 18 characters, introduce them all in the first episode and give them all storylines. “It’s like keeping plates spinning all the way through the story. I think one of the reasons the cast enjoyed making this so much, is that they’ve actually all got a meaningful story throughout the seven episodes,” observes Gareth. “Julian has got a great command of every single one of those characters and the journeys they go on and that really gives the actors something they can get their teeth into.”

One of the most important characters in the script was the house itself and despite visiting Highclere Castle first, Gareth, Julian and the production team spent six months visiting many different houses eventually returning to Highclere Castle. With its 1000 acres of grounds, designed by famed landscape architect Capability Brown, the Castle provided the perfect backdrop for Downton Abbey. “Finding the hero location was a funny journey because from day one Julian said, the house he had in mind was Highclere. When the show was greenlit I came down to have a look around,” recalls Gareth.

“Initially, it seemed wrong to just tick the box without exploring other options because it was such a key factor in the show and probably the singular most important character,” he adds. “One of the reasons we came back to Highclere was that our production designer (Donal Woods), made a point that the show was set in Edwardian England and many period dramas over the last few years have tended to be set in Georgian houses.” “Highclere’s gothic look felt so different to other period dramas and we were keen to make a fresh statement so the show could stand out.”

Julian’s passion for great houses is well documented and for him the choice of Highclere Castle as the setting for Downton Abbey was an easy one. However, with a cast of 35 actors, supporting artists and a crew of over 100 it was important from a logistical point of view that the house was accessible. “I love Highclere and wanted Gosford to be at Highclere. But Bob Altman very much wanted people to be able to sleep in their beds and so we had to move nearer to London to Wrotham, (another wonderful house). To me, Highclere is a unique architectural statement and tells us much more about the confidence of the late Victorians and the confidence of high Empire,” observes Julian.

Highclere Castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon and their family and is undoubtedly one of England's most beautiful Castles set amidst spectacular Parkland. The Carnarvons’ ancestors have lived at Highclere since 1679. “The Castle has some wonderful interiors especially the library which is an absolutely marvellous room. It’s a very quintessential English Library and the Great Hall is wonderful.” It was always the plan to film the state rooms and public rooms on location, however, over the years the kitchens and bedrooms of large country houses have changed dramatically therefore it was necessary to build the servants quarters, kitchen and bedrooms in a studio. “The thing about filming in these great houses is that if you were to start from scratch, you simply couldn’t build this and if you did you would have used up all your budget in one room,” adds Julian.

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