British film hyphenate Julian Fellowes, 61, who won an original screenplay Oscar for “Gosford Park,” returns to early 20th century England for the script of his latest TV drama, “Downton Abbey.” The four-episode series about life on a great country estate, starring Maggie Smith, Elizabeth McGovern and Hugh Bonneville, last year became ITV’s most-watched costume drama in the U.K. since 1981’s " Brideshead Revisited.” “Downton” makes its American debut on PBS’ “Masterpiece” on Sunday night.
What’s our fascination with turn-of-the-20th-century life about?
It’s almost our world. When you look at something going on in 1640, you don’t see a connection. But when you look at 1900, you see our world but apparently a simpler form of it where somehow everyone knows the rules, whereas we increasingly have a sense that none of us know the rules. And we’re in a slight state of social chaos. And it seems beguiling to watch an ordered world where everyone knew what they were doing. Of course the trick of it is that when you watch it on television, you can enjoy all the security of everyone knowing what they’re doing but you don’t have to get up at 5 in the morning to put on a gray dress and go and clean out the grate. You enjoy the warmth of it, but none of the work of it.
I think that part of the fun of the series is watching the characters react to new technology.
[Executive producer] Gareth Neame originally came to me and asked if I was prepared to revisit “Gosford Park” territory for television, and we both decided right off that we wanted it to be in a period where, yes, it was settled and it was that system but it was sufficiently modern so that you could kind of understand who they were. So you don’t run down the steps in a dimity dress to get into a carriage. These people travel in cars and trains, and they have a telephone and electricity. So even though it’s not up to date now, nevertheless you can recognize that world and you can see them moving into it.
You must have done some research into the introduction of things like electric light. People were afraid it emitted poisonous vapors?
I got that from one of my great aunts. She was called Lady Sydenham, and she had this house called Lamberhurst Priory, and she had read somewhere that electricity leaked electric vapors out of the plugs, so a maid had to go round every night and take out the plugs and put in a sort of stopper to stop the vapors seeping out. It wasn’t just her being mad; this was a contemporary fear of the new technology. And I just loved the idea of that so much that I gave it to Maggie [Smith].
How does your approach to writing about that period differ from that of writers who are contemporaries of the time?
I would like to think that the advantage of writing about it from our viewpoint is that you know where they were going, so you can kind of take both a humorous and a philosophical view of their resistance to certain things and their beliefs in certain things, in the things they thought would last forever and were eternal and we know they weren’t. And of course from that, one has to extrapolate how many of our own beliefs that we think are absolute and eternal are also simply matters of our own period.
I love it when Maggie Smith says, “No one wants to kiss a girl in black.” Tell that to people in New York.
Yes, when did black become compulsory?
The series’ premise is about the perils of primogeniture and American heiresses’ fortunes as one solution to that, which I found quite interesting.
The great boon of the American heiress was that to get an English heiress, everyone else had to be dead. You never left your daughter a reasonable size of everything if you had a son, whereas the Americans have always believed in dividing their fortunes among their children, and that meant that if you had a very rich man, all his daughters would be rich. And that simply didn’t obtain in Europe at all. So these girls were the absolute savior of many houses languishing in the pit of the agricultural depression. About 350 of them came over and married into the different tiers of the English upper classes.
In the series, one character says to the Earl of Grantham (Bonneville), “Just because you’re a lord, you think you can do what you like with me.” And you yourself are about to enter the House of Lords. Were you surprised by your appointment, and how does that status compare these days?
I don’t think the status thing is the same because the whole point of being someone like the Earl of Grantham in 1912 is that you literally own everything you can see. You were a little king, and there were good kings and bad kings, but you were immensely powerful. There are people who are richer than anyone’s ever been, but they don’t really make up a coordinated class anymore.
The modern House of Lords, which is essentially an appointee house, in 1911, only a year before “Downton” starts, lost its power to control legislation. They lost their veto, and that was put into the House of Commons. From then on the House of Lords became only an advisory body. I think I was chosen essentially for supporting the Conservative Party while pursuing my career in a profession that’s largely committed to the Labour Party but also because they want some more people on the benches who can speak on the conditions obtaining within the arts. All of that is very different from anything Robert Grantham would be doing. I think it has a different purpose but nevertheless a useful one in the modern world.