Julian Fellowes is the creator/writer of Downton Abbey
After the tumult of the First World War, series three of Downton Abbey finds a whole way of life in the balance, says Julian Fellowes.
“It’s really about that moment after a crash when you feel your body to see how many bones are broken. I think society was going through that in 1919 and 1920 – just how much of the old life was coming back? Were people prepared to do those jobs? How much more money were they going to want and so on? You had some people thinking that the old ways were probably over and others thinking things didn’t seem to be as different as all that.”
History, of course, tells what happened. “Gradually over the next two decades many houses were let go, and by the 40s and 50s it really was the coup de grace for that way of life. So the 20s and 30s always strike me as being a rather nebulous, febrile period. In some ways it was very exciting – there were all the new dances, aeroplanes and movies, and more and more people having cars and so on. But in another way it was also full of fear because nobody quite knew what the new world would be.”
Part of Fellowes’ task, as Downton Abbey’s sole writer and a producer too, is to determine how much of this historical colour to bring into the story.
“In the end,” he says, “Downton is a family saga. It has been popular because people are involved with the characters. You never, ever want to lose touch with that. You are interested in Edith in a way that you are not interested in, say, politicians of the time and that is something that a writer and the producers have to bear in mind.”
None the less, the Irish Question does loom large in some of this series’ plotlines. Fellowes says that’s simply because the characters at the time could not have ignored it.
“I used the Irish thing because in fact in the 20s people were not talking about the collapse of Germany and the Weimar Republic, people were talking about the troubles in Ireland. That was the big topic.”
It is the way the scripts deal with it, he says, that is important.
“We don’t have too much about de Valera and Collins and all the rest of it but instead we talk about a family whose house is burnt down – Mary remarks that they are a family just like hers. Suddenly, this family whose house has been burnt down in the Troubles, by making them a family like the Crawleys you make it more alive.” And so the political is made personal.
“All you’re trying to do when you use history in a drama is to say, ‘Look, this really happened.’ The way history is taught, sometimes it’s as if history happened to this other group of robots and then ‘real people’ started in 1968. That isn’t the case. So I would say that my brief is to make some references to things that are happening at that time and then hopefully people will go on to Wikipedia or Google and look up the Irish Troubles, or Ypres, or The Somme. And they learn something. But I don’t think that’s my job. My job is to make them aware of the fact that history involved real people just like them, and they were getting through their troubles like we’re getting through ours.”
Fellowes has enjoyed near untrammelled success with Downton Abbey at home and abroad, but he is always analysing the writing process as he goes on. He breaks it down in to three parts.
“I think on the whole there is a kind of decency about the morality of Downton. All these people, really, from the kitchen maid to the Earl, are trying to do their best. That is something that the writer needs to serve. Then there is a balance between funny, trivial plots and really serious, life plots. You have to get that right. It’s like a see-saw – you’re trying to nudge it this way and that to get both of those reasonably evenly represented. Finally a temptation of all series is to bring in new characters and give them the interesting stories because essentially you’ve played out the old ones. That is a temptation that must be resisted – you must continue to give real stories to the long running characters or otherwise you water down the spine of the show.”
In terms of new characters, none looms larger than Martha Levinson, Cora’s mother, who is played by none other than Shirley MacLaine.
“The thing about Shirley was that she just got on board. She didn’t carry on as if she was a Hollywood star, deserving somehow of something different. We didn’t have any of that. She just was very nice, very convivial with the crew and the cast and they were sorry to see her go. I think she enjoyed herself.”
So does this mean that Fellowes will now be inundated with Hollywood megastars pleading for roles in Downton Abbey?
“Actually, we have always had a bit of that – big Hollywood actors saying, ‘Can I come and work?’ But I think you have to ration it. Within the story as it is, for Cora’s mother to be a giant personality, that’s fine. But you can’t have that with many characters. I think you can do it occasionally because it’s fun. But if you do it too much you start running the thing down. The thing about guest stars is they bring so much baggage that they rather dilute the … Downton-ness of the whole thing. And one must never do that.”