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Standing at the threshold of the U.S. broadcast of its fifth season (via PBS’s Masterpiece Classic, beginning Jan. 4), Downton Abbey, for all its engrossing multiple storylines and the deep bench of its enviable acting ensemble, remains a testament to the power of one — in this case, the singular vision of the series’ creator, executive producer and sole writer Julian Fellowes.
With eight new episodes and the requisite annual Christmas special under Fellowes’ belt, the fifth season finds the members of the Crawley clan, their intimates and the servants they employ neither reeling nor wrestling as much with the multitude of changes the increasingly unpredictable 20th Century has wrought on their once-locked-in lifestyles — rather, most of the cast of characters find themselves actively adapting to the new ways of the world, by choice or otherwise.
Even as they explore intriguing social and technological advances, ranging from contraception to wireless radio, they continue to weather deeply personal dramas, including a few pointed plotlines carrying over from the prior season, including the ongoing efforts of Lady Mary’s ardent suitors, how Lady Edith will handle having her secret daughter now living within arm’s reach and the consequences of the continuing investigation into the murder of Anna’s assailant, Mr. Green.
As a fresh serving of his souffle of shifting British social mores and upstairs/downstairs drama is served up to a still-hungry American audience, Fellowes joined The Hollywood Reporter for a (spoiler-free) reflection on what he and his Downton team have accomplished over the season.
Where was your energy level when you started putting together your plans for the current season?
I think that’s quite a complicated question, actually. I mean, of course in one way, as the show continues and continues, you are casting about for new ideas for stories and so on. But at the same time, you’ve got to know these people so much better than when you invented them, and the actors’ characterizations have given them all those layers in how they do their work, because I do think the creation of characters in a long-running series is a combination of the writer and the actor. And I think it feels very flattering and exciting to be asked to go on with the story, so that in itself brings its own energy, really.
What did you find was the primary creative challenge of the new season?
I don’t know the answer to that. I mean, the challenge of anything is to keep it interesting. Do we care? Does it matter whether Mary is happy or unhappy? Does it matter whether Edith looks after her child or doesn’t? And really, what it comes down to: Are these still people with whom the audience wants to be involved? I think that’s the challenge at the start of the series, and it’s the challenge at the end of it. I would say that every year, you deal with it differently.
We have different themes. You know, we had the theme in the fourth series of Mary sort of rebuilding herself and coming back to life, and I think the theme of the fifth series is that the changing world has finally made it over the park wall and is encroaching on the house, and they are all, in their different ways, finding that they’re living in 20th century instead of the 19th. Because I think that was the great issue for the generation of the 1920s — that at the beginning of it, they weren’t quite sure how much the world had changed. And by the end of it, in 1929 — not helped by the crash — it was quite clear that things had changed irrevocably. During that decade is when they made that discovery. So in a sense, I suppose that’s the theme of the fifth series, but nevertheless, I would go back to just this basic question of keeping them interesting.
There are a lot of stories carried over from the season before, which wasn’t done in previous seasons. How was it for you to make that decision, to see how prominently you wanted to continue particular plotlines, not just the effects they’d had on the characters’ lives?
I think I get sort of slightly disbelieving when I’m watching things where stories are entirely resolved — “Tick, tick. That’s it. We never see those people again. We never hear that story again” — because it doesn’t strike me as being terribly lifelike. But on the whole, these trails of things, these relationships within families, these things you think are buried but they’re not quite — the feet are still sticking out. You know, all our lives have that, things where you sort of think you’ve resolved it, but maybe you haven’t, and I like that ongoing kind of platting so that new stories sort of jostle against and get platted together with old ones. And I suppose that is part of the way I like to do it, really.
Were there any characters you were particularly excited to write for this time around?
No, I don’t think I would say that. I think I’m pretty involved with all of them, really, by this point. I mean certainly at the very beginning of the show, I would become more interested in a character, because I would see how it was being performed by the particular player, and they would have acquired three dimensions by being cast, represented. I think I did get sort of interested in Mrs. Patmore and O’Brien and all sorts of people who had been quite shadowy in the original concept. But because of Siobhan [Finneran], because of whoever was playing them, yeah, it changed it for me. But after that, I see them all as my babies, really. I mean, I always do search to check that they’re all in an episode enough, and about every two or three episodes they all get a decent story. That seems to be the way we do it, really.
You’ve spoken about how the modern world is increasingly encroaching on the lives of the people of Downton Abbey. Can you talk about applying your knowledge and your research of the changes that were happening in that era to your storylines?
I think we deal with the changing attitude to sex. I mean, in the 20s, not only was [birth control pioneer] Marie Stopes‘ work becoming better known and the whole business of contraception for women becoming better known and so on, but also you had this whole generation of widows in their 20s. I mean, my grandmother was a widow at 25 because my grandfather died during the war. And my great aunt was a widow at 30 for the same reason. And suddenly there was a mass of these young women of all backgrounds, all classes, who were suddenly widowed, and that created a sort of different kind of sisterhood, which actually was felt in many different areas.
Obviously their political importance and so on, and the demand for the vote built and built, and by ’28, everyone was enfranchised and so on. But also, it did change the attitude toward sex, but you must still leave that in a 1920s context. So Mary, for instance, is slightly freer, but she still must protect her reputation. So you have a mixture of 19th century reputation awareness but 20th century liberation, and I rather enjoyed that.
And you also see the changing structure in the household as jobs start to become amalgamated. There’s no kitchen maid anymore, and different people have to muck in and help with other jobs, and people have to drive, and people have to do this and this and this, because the households were shrinking. And that tremendous definition and departmentalizing that the Victorians adored — where they would have this room for sewing on buttons and that room for taking off lasterplast — I mean, everything was separated. That gradually started to go after the First World War, and of course after the Second, it was really for most people, even at that time, it was largely gone. But that again I find quite interesting is — because we all do it — when people think things are essential until they have to do without them, and then they discover they’re not essential at all.
What’s been most satisfying about your creative relationship with Maggie Smith?
Well, Maggie, you know — it’s my third thing I’ve done with her, because we met on Gosford Park, and then we did a film called From Time to Time and now this, Downton. And I do think we have kind of caught each other’s rhythm. She is a very witty woman and very intelligent, and so she never needs to have a line explained to her. She doesn’t need to be told why it’s funny. Sometimes with an actor, you have to say, “No, it works because she’s just said this, and now you’re going to say…” But you never need that with Maggie.
She always has a very, very clear grasp, and as a result, it allows you a kind of latitude. You can give her lots of throwaway stuff that’s funny but not in a “ha ha” way, just kind of obliquely witty, and she will always get the absolute maximum result out of that. Of course it’s very rewarding, because when she plays your characters, you come out of it as being this very witty, clever writer, and it’s all much better than it was when it left your computer. But you are taking advantage of that. So I hope we have the advantage of each other, really.
As the changing times affect your Downton characters, do you find it also influences the way you tell your stories?
Well, I think you are aware that in most families, as this period progressed, the individuals in those families saw they had more options than they had had at the beginning. And that’s nothing to do with being a rebel or fighting the system, but just as the years went by, many people who came from certainly the lower-upper class but even further up than that [found] there was less money. There was less, and in certain cases, they had to do something: They had to get a job; they had to work; they had to make a life happen for themselves in some way that they had not really been prepared for.
When these girls, for instance, were young — you know, when they were 15 — there was no real suggestion that they would not be living some version of the life they had lived with their parents for the rest of their lives. Because if you went back down their family tree, that’s what everyone had been doing for the last 400 or 500 years. And they weren’t to know the enormous changes that were coming, but pretty soon after the war, some of those changes began to be manifest. A lot of the estates packed up, and the houses were sold, because they were heavily in debt after the agricultural depression and so on and so forth.
So all around, instead of seeing a fixed world of unchanging values, they saw the opposite. They saw a shifting sand. And they had to somehow shift through that themselves. And, you know, I think it was very hard for a lot of them, and some of them went under, but some of them were made stronger by it. I think in the show, you can see Mary was always pretty strong, but she’s taking control of her own life, and Edith, who is very conventional and if nothing had changed, would just have married “Lord Some or Other” from down the road and that would have been the end of her, but as it is, the changes that have come about have wrought a great change in her life. And now, I think it’s debatable whether or not she’d be happy if nice “Lord Thing” turned up and proposed. So I think you do see the characters within your story change.
Where are you in your big-picture vision for Downton Abbey as a whole? Do you sort of have a notion of the endgame and how long everything’s going to play out, or are you still just sort of discovering it year by year?
Well, I mean … the short answer is “Yes, year by year.” But I think one does have a sort of sense of when it’s going to be time to call it quits and where they’ll all be when that time comes. It won’t go on forever. And all I can tell you for definite is that there will be a sixth series, because we don’t have the American thing of when the series — you know, they book five series in advance and all that stuff — we only ever renew by the year. So it’s slightly different in Britain. Americans tend to misinterpret that as if I were saying, “This is the end,” but I’m not saying that. I’m saying, “I don’t know when the end will be, but I do know it won’t go on for 20 years.”
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