1 of 2
2 of 2
Downton Abbey returns for its long awaited Christmas special, with oldhands Hugh Bonneville and Maggie Smith staring alongside the Shirley MacLaine, who returns to play Lady Cora's mother. American superstar Paul Giamatti is the new kid on the Downton block, joining the cast as Lady Cora's brother. We look back at Richmond Editor Richard Nye’s interview with Downton creator, Julian Fellowes.
The last series saw the roaring Twenties firmly establish itself at Downton Abbey. For Lord Julian Fellowes – creator of the hugely popular show – life has been roaring for quite some time. For over a decade, the writer, actor and director has been carving himself an enviable niche as the elegant, accessible dramatist of Britain’s stratified past. From the hit film Gosford Park, for which he won an Oscar in 2002, to his best-selling novel Snobs, Fellowes’s work opens a warm and inviting window on a lost world delineated by class. The Young Victoria – another of his screenplay triumphs – was filmed at Ham House four years ago. And then, in 2010, Downton Abbey opened its doors and captured millions with its aristocratic charm.
This morning, at home in Dorset, it is wife Emma – great-grandniece of 1st Earl Kitchener – who answers the phone. I am, it transpires, an “absolute dream”: not only am I just the chap they are expecting, but I am also keeping other, less desirable callers at bay. No wonder that His Lordship is on sparkling form.
“The 20s were both fascinating and, forgive me, more complicated than you suggest,“ he enthuses, reflecting on the most recent Downton series and demurring gently at my disparaging of the decade as a light, syncopated interlude between symphonies of despair.
“When World War I ended, the upper classes weren’t immediately sure how much had changed. But as the 20s progressed, after Lloyd George had removed land subsidies and ravaged the rural economy, it became clear that they would struggle to keep their homes.
“At the same time, the modern world was breaking in. There was music; you could fly; fashions were looser; women no longer had to sit around waiting for a man to propose. So there was a mixture of optimism about the new world and dread of seeing the old world collapse.”
It is, insists Julian, too easy to be cynical about this transitory age. The censorious caricature of a long, vacuous, hedonistic party, with a guest list of vile-bodied Bright Young Things, is too severe. Depression and the Third Reich may ultimately have silenced the band, but the music was undeniably sweet.
“It’s a mistake to take that side of things too seriously. In many ways, the 20s was just a lot of good music and a few skirts above the knee. Yes, it was shallow, but for four years these people hadn’t known if they were going to be alive next week. Now they’d survived and they were having fun. If you were politically aware, you could see that there was trouble ahead, but for many people life was so much better than before the war.”
The nuanced assessment is typical of Fellowes, whose contempt for easy generalisation infuses his life and work. The son of a diplomat who campaigned for the restoration of Haile Selassie to the Ethiopian throne, he has spoken of his “sympathetic melancholia” at the eclipse of the English aristocracy and sits as a Conservative in the House of Lords. Yet his regard for established orders is born not of blind reaction, but an instinctive understanding of the past.
“Whenever you get a period ill at ease with itself, the technique is to dismiss everything that went before as even worse. Today we have this absurd philosophical position: we hate the rich and grand, but all we want to be is rich and grand. Almost every journalist commits this oxymoron daily.
“But you can’t have a free, prosperous economy and maintain a constant war on the rich. It is childish to target whole sections of society. Everyone is an individual, whether it’s Lady Cora in the drawing room or Daisy in the kitchen. This is what I try to convey.”
Not surprisingly, gripes about an ‘out-of-touch’ government of ‘Old Etonians’ – as if the two states were intimately connected – leave him cold. “Some individuals,” he once told The Richmond Magazine, “are wired up to grasp what people really care about; others just aren’t.” David Cameron, he ventured, was among the former. But that was in 2009, when Cameron was still ensconced in opposition and Gordon Brown was the besieged PM. Have time and transfer of power changed his view?
“Well, he’s pretty safe in comparisons with Brown, but the insulation that goes with being prime minister inevitably distances you from society. That’s nothing to do with background though – it’s to do with position. The same thing happens to celebrities. Catherine Zeta-Jones said that a million pounds doesn’t mean much to her – I bet it did when she was a girl. It’s interesting that probably the person least excited by his celebrity is Prince William, as he was trained to be grounded from the start.”
There is a certain benignity about Fellowes. He may excoriate folly, but his underlying premise is the basic decency of humankind. Critics chide him for his excess of sympathetic characters – for all the breathless drama, the corridors of Downton are scarcely awash with skulduggery and vice. But for Julian, a Catholic, love of sinner trumps hatred of sin.
“In my experience, most people do their best. They take the cards life has dealt them and play them as well as they can. Even those who do really horrible things can justify them in their brain for one reason or another. I try to get this across. We’re all Jekyll and Hyde, but for me, Jekyll is usually in the ascendant.”
How then to explain the flourishing of Hyde; the relentless waves of savagery which break without pity or purpose over human affairs?
“Well, you have to look at mob psychology. Stirring up the mob is always a mistake, as you’re telling them that they can do whatever they like without fear of punishment, as long as they’re part of the gang. The 2011 riots were an example of that. I felt sorry for some of those kids, standing in court with their mothers sobbing beside them. It was being part of a crowd that made them act as they did.
Or think of the French Revolution. People who did all sorts of terrible things, who were still alive 40 years later, must have looked back in disbelief at their crimes. It was all a kind of hypnosis.“
If so, World War I stands out in grisly silhouette as among the most spectacular collective trances of all: a baleful spell beneath which the nations of Europe, made mad through grand illusion, were destroyed by the gods of war. Earl Kitchener, Julian’s ancestor by marriage, is among the field marshals so often lambasted for the futile ordeal in the mud. But here too, says Fellowes, conventional wisdom is wrong.
“He’s had his hammering, in a Daily Mail kind of way, but he did create the army that won the war. He thought outside the box, as we would say, modernising supply lines and creating the vast recruiting campaign that others thought unnecessary. He knew full well that it wouldn’t ‘all be over by Christmas’.
“Furthermore, as he’d shown with the Boers, he knew how to make an honourable peace. His death was a great loss. If he’d lived, he might have tempered the excesses of Versailles.”
He didn’t. A German U-boat saw to that. And when the guns finally stopped, naivety mixed with vengeance redrew the faultlines of Europe, sowing seeds of resentment and another calamitous war.
But the storm was yet far off; and as the 20s crackled into life, a doomed world of great country houses embarked on its final fling. The Downton dance is about to return, blithely attuned to all the giddy, hopeful chords of the age.