'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Julian Fellowes ('Downton Abbey')

julian fellowes - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

julian fellowes - Getty - H 2016

"When I was young, I overheard a conversation between two girls," says Julian Fellowes — the creator, sole writer and executive producer of the acclaimed drama series Downton Abbey, which came to an end in March after six remarkable seasons — as we sit down to record an episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast at New York's iconic Empire Hotel. "One girl said to the other, 'I haven't got enough boys for my party,' and the other one said, 'Why don't you ask the Fellowes brothers?' The first one said, 'Well, I would, but to get the good-looking one you have to have the dull, ugly one.'" He pauses and adds, "That was my motivator. I knew I might be ugly, but I wasn't dull."

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That unpleasant early-life experience sparked a long and winding road to success for Fellowes, who is now 66 and anything but dull. For decades after graduating from Cambridge, he was a character actor on both sides of the Atlantic, on stage (he beat the boards on the West End), in films (including the 1997 Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies) and on TV shows (such as Monarch of the Glen). "I was always playing mysterious foreigners," he says with a laugh. As he grew older, he knew he needed a "plan B," and decided to get into producing children's television. In that capacity, he ended up rewriting some scripts, which were well-received, "and suddenly I was a TV writer."

One person for whom Fellowes had worked, the actor-producer Bob Balaban, was working with the great director Robert Altman to develop an upstairs-downstairs murder mystery in a British country house, and Balaban recommended that they explore the possibility of having Fellowes, a writer who was born into and is extremely well-versed in aristocratic life, write it. Fellowes submitted ideas for characters and a story — deliberately "tailored" to Altman's preference for many characters, intersecting storylines and overlapping dialogue — and got the job. The resulting film, 2001's Gosford Park (Fellowes first produced film script), ended up winning him, at the age of 52, a best original screenplay Oscar, and changing his life thereafter.

Thus began for Fellowes a run of work in which a common thread has been the subject of class and the interactions and tensions between classes. It factors into Mary Poppins and School of Rock, films that he adapted into Tony-nominated Broadway musicals; Doctor Thorne, a four-part miniseries that debuted on Amazon Prime in May; Belgravia, a serialized novel that he’s released through an app; The Gilded Age, the next drama series on which he’s set his sights, which he’s doing for NBC; and, most famously, Downton Abbey.

Downton came about after Gosford producer Gareth Neame raised a possibility with Fellowes one night over dinner, Fellowes recalls. "He said, 'Would you ever consider going back into Gosford Park-territory for television?'" The writer was reluctant — but realized he had ideas for a larger story about life in England around the time spanning 1912 to 1925, and consented to pitching it around. ITV, a commercial TV network in the U.K., bit. Fellowes wrote — solo, and with the expectation that he might be penning a one-off series. A first-rate cast was assembled, including Gosford's Maggie Smith. And then, almost immediately upon its unveiling, Downton became the unlikeliest of international phenomena.

The trials and travails of the Crawley family and those who attended to them were watched by a larger audience than ITV had ever drawn, lovingly spoofed by everyone from George Clooney to Lebron James to Saturday Night Live and recognized with a plethora of awards, including two Emmys for Fellowes. After six seasons of gripping drama — during which joys and tragedies in characters' lives prompted emotional feedback from viewers all around the world — Fellowes felt the time was right to wrap up the story. ITV wanted to continue the series without him, but he blocked that idea. Instead, he was adamant that he wanted to lay down his story — for the moment, but not necessarily for forever. With a twinkle in his eye he says, "I'm completely open to a movie version."