Gareth Neame is the executive producer on Downton Abbey.
In many ways being the man in charge of Britain’s current most successful television export should be an easy job two series in. But Downton Abbey just keeps getting bigger and that means Gareth Neame, the man who is everything from the second pair of eyes on each and every script to the ambassador for what has become a global brand, has got his work cut out.
“We had this extraordinary phenomenon in the first season. Then in the second season we had a 20-25 percent increase in the ratings and during the course of series two we saw the whole global phenomenon take off – all of the US awards and the rolling out of the show across the world. In the course of the last year we’ve seen the huge success it’s had in America – so we have this very hot property. But it’s one that has to be loved and cherished. We’re now one of the best-loved and well-known TV shows on the planet and we have to protect it. Plus we have to get more and more ambitious about it now we know how loved it is. We have to keep our many millions of fans rewarded.”
That level of attention can have its downside.
“On a weekly basis there’s a level of interest, scrutiny and fascination that you wouldn’t normally have. I’ve spent most of my career trying to get people to be remotely interested in what we’re making. On Downton it’s the reverse, the level of interest is huge all year round.”
At a creative level, Neame’s job is quality control.
“First and foremost it’s the scripts. I work directly with Julian and I’m like his editor I suppose.” Neame also looks after everything from Downton’s global presence to its legacy, but he says that crucial to his work is that he remains a fan.
“My job is half creative, half business but I’m not running a factory – you have to love this and one of the reasons it’s so successful is the people who make it: we love these characters. I’m the number one fan of Julian’s writing and how beautifully observed and witty and intriguing it is. I love his turn of phrase and the skill with which he keeps 20 characters’ meaningful stories all airborne at the same time. Everything is very lovingly crafted.”
What surprises Neame most as he sees the reaction to Downton worldwide is the universality of the story.
“You go round the world and see how a show which is about class, a very rigid construct and how it worked in British society 80 years ago. You see how that sense of hierarchy, that sense of tribe is understood in every single country on the planet. It is remarkable.”
So does the man at the top of the Downton production hierarchy have a favourite character?
“Do you know I can’t make up my mind! Sometimes I’ll watch a scene and think he or she is my favourite – that again is the skill of Julian and the actors. Depending on the storyline you can sometimes be swept away with one character and then it changes. It’s any of them and all of them.”