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Showrunners 2012: 'Downton Abbey's' Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes

On his toughest scene to write in the past year: "It was quite difficult to write the proposal scene between Matthew and Mary as we had delayed it for so long. But there comes a moment when you have to put up or shut up, and I think we had reached it."

From their obsessive rituals (Peppermint Patties! Oatmeal! Bruce Springsteen!) to the parts of their jobs they hate most (killing characters off, dealing with agents), TV's most influential writer-producers featured on The Hollywood Reporter's annual list of the Top 50 Showrunners come clean about the people, things and quirky habits that keep them -- and their shows -- alive. 

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey (MASTERPIECE on PBS)

The show that inspired me to write:
Fellowes: The first television show that entirely enthralled me was The Forsyte Saga, a series that, in those pre-television-recorder days, literally emptied the streets of London on the night it was transmitted.  It was based on a series of novels by Galsworthy about the trials of an affluent family before and after the First World War...  rather like Downton Abbey.

THR's Top 50 Showrunners 2012 -- the Complete List

My big break:
Fellowes: My first screenwriting jobs were for BBC's Children's Drama department, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Prince and the Pauper, but my first "major" writing job was Gosford Park, a commission that came completely out of the blue in January 2000. I picked up the telephone in the kitchen and Bob Balaban asked: "Would you like to write a screenplay for Robert Altman?" After a stunned pause, I said "Y-y-y-y-yes." And I won the Oscar for the best original screenplay in 2002.

My toughest scene to write this year:
Fellowes: It was quite difficult to write the proposal scene between Matthew and Mary as we had delayed it for so long. But there comes a moment when you have to put up or shut up, and I think we had reached it. Even so, there was a great imperative for the moment not to be disappointing. But Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens are so marvelous, that I don't think they would ever have allowed it to be a let-down. And it wasn't.

The most absurd note I’ve ever gotten:
Fellowes: In The Prince and the Pauper, I had a character denouncing Mary Tudor, saying she would want to "marry with the Prince of Spain and rule us from Madrid." One of the producers ringed "Madrid" and wrote "Where?" in the margin. When asked to clarify, he said "What about the viewers who have never heard of Madrid?" I said: "What about the viewers who have never heard of chairs or tables or summer or winter?" He didn't pursue it. 

My preferred method for breaking through writer's block:
Fellowes: To be honest, I don't seem to have time for writer's block, although, when I am particularly stumped, I tend to go for a walk along the river where I live. It doesn't solve much, but at least I get a breath of air.

If you could add any one writer to our staff, it would be:
Fellowes: I wouldn't mind adding any writer. At the moment, there's only me.

What is the show you're embarrassed to admit you watch?
Fellowes: I suppose the answer to this might be Coronation Street, which is a long-running soap in the U.K. But I'm not a bit ashamed of it.  I think it's perfectly wonderful, and I am looking forward to the next episode keenly.