Julian Fellowes On The Rules Of 'Downton'

Jan 10, 2014
Originally published on February 21, 2014 9:02 pm

This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 11, 2012.

Julian Fellowes may be the Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, but the English screenwriter, director and novelist says his background "was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it." What he means is that he did not grow up with servants waiting on him hand and foot, as people have seen done for the Crawley family on Downton Abbey, the hit television series Fellowes created.

The series details the lives of the Crawleys and the people who serve them in an upstairs-downstairs examination of social class in the first half of the 20th century. The world the Crawleys have always known is fast becoming anachronistic.

By the time Fellowes, who also wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's 2001 film Gosford Park, was growing up as a boy in the '50s, the bulk of the social upheaval dramatized in the series had already happened. This is one of the reasons he says his title does not necessarily indicate the grandness of his lifestyle. That said, much of what he knows of that life he learned from relatives who both lived it and lived through the world events that changed it. His oldest great aunt, for example, is the model for Violet Grantham, played by Maggie Smith.

"[My aunt] was born in 1880, you know," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "and she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that, and I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21, so I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand."

It's the juxtaposition of the lives of the aristocratic family against the lives of the servants that defines Fellowes' work. Class is a defining and longstanding fascination for him. It began, he says, with his mother and father.

"My parents came from different backgrounds," he tells Davies. "My father's was grander than my mother's, so my mother had ... to put up with the disapproval of my father's relations. And ... I saw it as a child when I didn't really understand what was going on, and I saw it later as an adult when I did. ... From that grew a kind of interest, in a way, of the unfairness of class, the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection ... and yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement."

Interview Highlights

On rules

"We don't really like rules. We think, in some way, they are an infringement of liberty. But of course the good thing about rules is that you always know what you're doing, you always know what you should wear, you always know where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there, and, you know, we've lost that kind of security."

On working with Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey

"What I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but they never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person. A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously, or superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman and, of course, she's very, very funny, so whatever you write for her always sounds much funnier than it was when you thought of it and, you know, all of those reasons make her very rewarding to write for."

On writing Gosford Park for director Robert Altman

"I went out and got every single Altman film I could find and gave myself a kind of weeklong Altman fest, and I understood his style and, quite deliberately, I wrote the film so that he would recognize it as one of his own films, despite the fact that the subject matter — you know, the English, the upper class, whatever you call them, and the servants and so on — was not his natural terrain. Nevertheless, the style of the film, the way it was constructed, the multiplot thing, interlocking one scene which promotes maybe three or four stories and so on, that was all designed so that he would feel at home in this script."

On the first time he became aware of the upstairs-downstairs dynamic

"I remember one time when I was quite young ... I was staying in a house and I got lost and I went through the wrong door, and I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between what sounded like four or five, six people shouting. ... And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there. Not, you know, only the family who lived there, but people who worked there were also, you know, enjoying life or hating each other or loving each other or whatever."

Copyright 2016 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. The masterpiece series "Downton Abbey" began its fourth season Sunday, and even if you haven't caught the "Downton Abbey" bug, we think you'll find its creator and writer Julian Fellowes an insightful observer of social class in 20th-century England.

Fellowes grew up the son of a diplomat, with an aristocratic background, and he has a title himself, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. Fellowes is an actor as well as a writer, and much of his writing has dealt with class distinctions and how they affect human relationships. His screenplay for the 2001Robert Altman film "Gosford Park" won an Oscar.

"Downton Abbey," which has won a host of awards, focuses on an aristocratic English family and their servants in the early 20th century, when sweeping changes were breaking down old social barriers. Season 3 ended with the unexpected death of Lady Mary's husband Matthew Crawley in an auto accident. Season 4 began with the surprise departure of the scheming ladies' maid O'Brien, who left Downton to work with another family.

I spoke with Julian Fellowes last January, before the start of Season 3. Julian Fellowes, Lord Fellowes, welcome to FRESH AIR.

JULIAN FELLOWES: Well, it's very nice to be here.

DAVIES: I wanted to play a clip from Season 1. This is a moment at a table in the kitchen downstairs, where the servants are all having tea. And we hear - one of them is O'Brien, who's played by Siobhan Finneran, disparaging Matthew Crawley, he's a cousin of the master of the house, who's arrived on the scene and may inherit Downton, the whole place.

We'll hear a shuffling of furniture as the servants spring to their feet because Lady Grantham, who's played by Elizabeth McGovern, has suddenly showed up in the kitchen and has overheard Ms. O'Brien, her own ladies maid, talking down Matthew Crawley. She rebukes Ms. O'Brien, and this leads to an interesting exchange after that among the servants. Let's listen.



SIOBHAN FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) I'm sorry, but I have standards. And if anyone thinks I'm going to pull my forelock and curtsy to this Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham) O'Brien. Were you discussing Mr. Crawley?

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) Yes, my lady.

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) Is it your place to do so?

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) I've got my opinions, my lady, same as anybody.

PHYLLIS LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Can I help your ladyship?

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) This is the button went missing from my new evening coat. I found it lying in the gravel. But I was shocked at the talk I heard as I came in. Mr. Crawley is his lordship's cousin and heir. You will, therefore please, accord him the respect he's entitled to.

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) But you don't like him yourself, my lady. You never wanted him to come...

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) You're sailing perilous close to the wind, O'Brien. If we're to be friends, you will not speak in that way again about the Crawleys or any member of Lord Grantham's family. Now I'm going up to rest. Wake me at the dressing gong.

ROB JAMES-COLLIER: (As character) I don't think that's fair, not here in the servant's hole.

FINNERAN: (As Sarah) I agree. If she was a real lady, she wouldn't have come down here. She'd have rung for me and given me the button, that's all.

JAMES-COLLIER(As Thomas) This isn't their territory. We can say what we like down here.

LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Who says?

JAMES-COLLIER(As Thomas) The law, and parliament. There is such a thing as free speech.

LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Not when I'm in charge. Don't push your luck, Thomas(ph).

DAVIES: And that's from the series "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. It's such a lovely scene, and what we hear here is the class lines are clear, the roles and clear, and yet they're changing. The series begins, what, in 1912. This was a particular moment in class relations in Britain, isn't it?

FELLOWES: Well, I think it was attractive to us because it was a period of tremendous change in quite a short time. You know, between 1912, when they - we begin the first show and 1922, where we are at the end of Season 3, is only 10 years, and yet the changes in Britain were enormous between the sort of end of high imperial confidence and so on and then through the war years and finally into the uncertainty of the '20s when all sorts of things were being challenged.

And, you know, these great revolutions of women's rights or workers' rights or whatever it is, they don't come out of nowhere. They are there early, and they're just below the surface, and then something like a war happens, and it makes everything come through. But, you know, you don't invent from nothing. It hasn't quite come yet, but it's sort of fizzing away somewhere.

And that's what a scene like that will tell you, that they're nearly at the end of always being second banana, and, you know, they can express that.

DAVIES: Right, and then some among them say not so fast, remember your place.

FELLOWES: Well, I mean, one of the interesting things about this kind of drama is that, you know, the family upstairs are, on the whole, all equal. They're certainly equal in terms of class and position, but, you know, they might accord respect to the father or something like that. But they're not at all different socially.

That's not true of the people below the stairs who are working there. There is a vast social range between Carson the butler and Daisy the kitchen maid, and all of these ranks were sort of observed, you know, and you had these - I mean we can't do them all because heaven knows we have enough characters in locations as it is.

But in a real house, you would have a special sitting room for the visiting valets and a special sitting room for visiting ladies' maids and so on. On and on it went, the detail of this extraordinarily complicate structure. But, you know, that said, it was on the brink of starting to come down.

DAVIES: One of the things that I love about the series is that as a viewer, I gradually become aware of the distinctions among the servants, and others, by the forms of address. You know, the aristocrats are referred to lord and lady or your lordship or your ladyship. The servants, even those of highest rank, are referred to by their last names only by the aristocrats, even when speaking affectionately.

I mean, when - there's a moment when Lady Grantham is talking to Mrs. O'Brien, and she's - they're having a nice, intimate conversation, but she still calls her O'Brien. And then among the servants, some are called Mr. and Mrs., those of lower rank like the kitchen maid Daisy only by their first names. There were a clear set of rules and forms of address here, huh?

FELLOWES: Well, I mean, we live in an era where there are sort of no rules for anything anymore. But of course the good thing about rules is you always know what you're doing. You always know what you should wear. You always know where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there.

You know, we've lost that kind of security. I think that that is one reason why, you know, the show appeals because it seems to show a more ordered and kind of ordained world. In fact, of course, that is largely a myth. It was a world where all sorts of, as I've said, things were bubbling just beneath the surface.

But nevertheless in terms of your daily life, what you wore when you got up, what you called people, what you did next, I think it was sort of easier to follow the plot than in our own time.

DAVIES: You know, a lot of your writing, both for television and film and your novel, involve distinctions of social class. Now you grew up the son of a diplomat with an aristocratic heritage, I believe. Did you have servants growing up?

FELLOWES: No, I mean, I think my background was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it. I mean, you know, we had people who came in and did some cleaning, but I mean, who - plenty of other people have that. I think in a way why I became quite aware of class as a kind of life-defining issue was because my parents came from different backgrounds.

My father's was grander than my mother's. And so my mother had to sort of put up with the disapproval of my father's relations, and I suppose from that grew a kind of interest in, in a way, the unfairness of class, the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection and, you know, so nothing to do with merit, and yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement and all sorts of other factors that, you know, have a long-term effect on us.

DAVIES: One of the things that makes "Downton" great and "Gosford Park," which is a movie I really love, is the intimate look at the servants, the life downstairs. Where did you become so acquainted with their lives and customs and rules?


FELLOWES: You know, I was lucky in one way. I mean, I was - I'm now kind of 150 years old. And so when I was young, I still had great-aunts and that kind of thing who had lived, to a degree, that life before the First World War. I mean, my eldest great-aunt, who is really the model for Violet Grantham, was born in 1880, you know, and she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that.

And I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21. So I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand. Where I was tremendously lucky is I was interested when I was young. One of the problems, you know, when you don't get interested in things until you're much older is a lot of people are dead.

And because I was interested as a teenager, there were still many members of the family who could talk about what life had been before the first and second wars, you know, and I was very glad to hear it.

DAVIES: Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're listening to my interview with "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes. We spoke last January.

The Maggie Smith character in "Downton Abbey" is just such a delight. Tell us who she is, how she fits into the family.

FELLOWES: Well, she really, as I've said, she's really based on my eldest great-aunt, who was quite a tough character, but she was no tougher on anyone else than she was on herself. In fact in real life she had quite a tragic life. Her husband died of wounds at the end of the First World War, and her only child drowned on active service in the second. So she had a lot to bear, poor thing.

But she was tough and funny, and some of the phrases that - you know, what's a weekend and stuff like that, come from her. I remember in "Gosford Park" one question Maggie asked me, she said: I don't understand about the marmalade. And I said, well, that was this particular aunt - because Lady Trentham in Gosford was also sort of based on her - and I said this particular aunt always thought that if a house ran out of its own jams and jellies then it was not being well-run, and it was sign of its weakness.

Oh, she said, I've got it, I've got it. And she does that line so wonderfully. I mean, she looks into the jam pot and says ooh, bought marmalade, I call that very feeble. And what I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but then never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person.

A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously or both superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman.

DAVIES: Well, we should hear one of these moments, and this is from the first season, where she and Lady Grantham, played again by Elizabeth McGovern, are sitting and discussing the difficult matter of finding a suitable husband for Lady Mary, the oldest of the Crawley daughters.


MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) How about some house parties?

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She's been asked to one next month by Lady Anne McNair.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) That's a terrible idea. She doesn't know anyone under 100.

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Oh, I don't think things are quite that desperate. Poor Mary, she's been terribly down in the mouth lately.

MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She was very upset by the death of poor Mr. Pamuk.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Why? She didn't know him. One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.

DAVIES: Can't get enough of Maggie Smith. That's her and Elizabeth McGovern in "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. Dinners are really something at the Crawleys. Lord Grantham dresses basically like an orchestra conductor. Was this done every night? I mean, didn't they ever just want to just dress down and eat leftover turkey sandwiches?

FELLOWES: It was pretty well done every night. I mean I - there's a wonderful quote when Duff-Cooper asked his brother-in-law, the Duke of Rutland, he said - when black tie was just beginning to come in, in the '20s, but still white tie was normal in the sort of great houses, and he said to the duke: Don't you ever wear black tie? And the duke thought for a moment and said: When I'm dining alone with the duchess in her bedroom.


FELLOWES: And, you know, that was his idea of letting it all hang out. But no, I mean, they were a formal people, those with the correct clothes for eating dinner. One of the difficulties when we wear those costumes is that most of us are dressing on our own. So we're in a wrestling match with studs and pins of this and that and links and so on, whereas there you were always being helped with it, as you would be in a film or on television.

And that makes it different. I mean, in the '50s, Dior very much revived the sort of corseted, almost crinoline dress and so on, but it didn't last very long because it wasn't suited for getting into on your own.

DAVIES: In Season 3, an American arrives on the scene, a real American here. I mean Cora, Lady Grantham, is an American but who has spent a long time in England as the wife of Lord Grantham. But her mother, who is played by Shirley MacLaine, arrives. Tell us a little bit about her and the role that she plays.

FELLOWES: Well, what I really wanted the audience to be reminded of, really, by Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, is that Cora is not some ancient American aristocrat. She's not a Winthrop, you know, or a Stuyvesant or one of those founding-father families. She is the product of new money, quite a lot of it, but she's - that's who she is.

But there were others, like Mary Leiter, who married Lord Curzon, who came from men who had made their own fortunes, and that is what Cora's come from. And the reason I want the audience to be sort of aware of that is Cora's story is really that she married into the system and swallowed it wholesale and got it all down, but now that the world is changing, and things are being challenged, in a funny way her original values are much more suited to the modern world than Robert's.

You know, she has the American work ethic. She is not obsessed by rank. She is kind of much more free about accepting the changes that are coming, as you will be seeing in the third series. The future doesn't frighten her. And so we have that kind of exemplified by Martha because we've got the two grandmothers now, Violet played by Maggie Smith and Martha played by Shirley MacLaine, but they're totally different.

Violet is nostalgic for the past. She thinks everything was better in 1870. Her clothes reflect this, her manners and so on, whereas Martha believes in the modern world. She likes the way it's going. She wants to wear modern clothes and modern makeup and fly on a plane and just get on with the future.

DAVIES: You know, I thought we would hear just a moment of their interaction. This is Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine, the two grandmothers, in a moment from season three.


SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (As Martha) Oh dear. I'm afraid the war has made old women of us both.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Oh I wouldn't say that, but then I always keep out of the sun. How do you find Downton on your return?

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Much the same, really, probably too much the same, but then I don't want to cast a pall over all (unintelligible).

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) How could you ever do that?

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Tell me, what do you think of young Lochenbar(ph), who has so ably carried off our granddaughter and our money? Do you approve of him?

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Not as much as you will when you get to know him.

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Has he gone home to change?

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) Oh no, we won't see him again tonight. The groom never sees the bride the night before the wedding.

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Nothing ever alters for you people, does it? Revolutions erupt, and monarchies crash to the ground, and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.

SMITH(As Lady Grantham) You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.

MACLAINE: (As Martha) Yes we do. We just don't give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.

DAVIES: That's from Season 3 of "Downton Abbey," written and created by our guest Julian Fellowes. Of course one of the changes that comes to the Crawley family, the shocking development of one of the daughters, Lady Sybil, marrying the family chauffer, Tom Branson.


DAVIES: I don't know how likely this would have been to happen in 1912 or '14 or '15, but one of the things I love about the way it's portrayed here is that of course the aristocracy is shocked, and they have to come to terms with it. Some react differently. But then the chauffeur goes back to the house where he was a part of the service and has to interact with the other servants, who are so used to clear social distinctions, and he has changed.

FELLOWES: I mean, I always like to base these things on a real story, and when people say oh that would never have happened, of course it did happen, just as love affairs between servants and members of the family happened. They were very disapproved of, but they still happened.

And this particular story is based on the daughter of an earl who ran off with the groom actually, it wasn't the chauffeur, it was the groom, but I don't think there's a great distinction in that. And they had to put up with it. I think it was very difficult, and of course they rather encouraged the couple to live in Dublin because it's sort of easier if they're out of sight.

But, you know, families then like families now, when your children marry someone you would not have chosen for them, there is a moment where you have to decide am I going to quarrel with my son or my daughter and literally no longer have them in my life, or am I going to find a way to get on with this person. And I think most of us hope for the second, and that's really what the Granthams have to do.

DAVIES: You know, "Downton Abbey" begins in 1912, when there are all these social trends that are causing the old order to begin to unravel. Did your observation of kind of the disappearance of that way of life make you want to really explore the end of that period and the dissolution of the aristocracy?

FELLOWES: I just remember one time when I was quite young. I was - I forget now - 17 or something like that, and I was staying in a house and I got lost and I went through the wrong door and I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between - it sounded like four or five, six people shouting and yelling and this and that and the other.

And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there - not, you know, only the family who lived there, but the people who worked there and that at some point I would explore that fairly simple emotional recognition that everyone's life is of 100 percent importance to them, and no matter who they are. And you know, I've been sort of, in a sense, exploring it ever since.

DAVIES: Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of the masterpiece series "Downton Abbey." Its fourth season begins Sunday. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.