Julian Fellowes may be the Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, but the English screenwriter, director and novelist says his background "was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it." What he means is that he did not grow up with servants waiting on him hand and foot, as people have seen done for the Crawley family on Downton Abbey, the hit television series Fellowes created. The third season premiered Sunday.
The series details the lives of the Crawleys and the people who serve them in an upstairs-downstairs examination of social class in the first half of the 20th century. The world the Crawleys have always known is fast becoming anachronistic.
By the time Fellowes, who also wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's 2001 film Gosford Park, was growing up as a boy in the '50s, the bulk of the social upheaval dramatized in the series had already happened. This is one of the reasons he says his title does not necessarily indicate the grandness of his lifestyle. That said, much of what he knows of that life he learned from relatives who both lived it and lived through the world events that changed it. His oldest great aunt, for example, is the model for Violet Grantham, played by Maggie Smith.
"[My aunt] was born in 1880, you know," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "and she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that, and I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21, so I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand."
It's the juxtaposition of the lives of the aristocratic family against the lives of the servants that defines Fellowes' work. Class is a defining and longstanding fascination for him. It began, he says, with his mother and father.
"My parents came from different backgrounds," he tells Davies. "My father's was grander than my mother's, so my mother had ... to put up with the disapproval of my father's relations. And ... I saw it as a child when I didn't really understand what was going on, and I saw it later as an adult when I did. ... From that grew a kind of interest, in a way, of the unfairness of class, the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection ... and yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement."
"We don't really like rules. We think, in some way, they are an infringement of liberty. But of course the good thing about rules is that you always know what you're doing, you always know what you should wear, you always know where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there, and, you know, we've lost that kind of security."
On working with Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey
"What I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but they never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person. A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously, or superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman and, of course, she's very, very funny, so whatever you write for her always sounds much funnier than it was when you thought of it and, you know, all of those reasons make her very rewarding to write for."
On writing Gosford Park for director Robert Altman
"I went out and got every single Altman film I could find and gave myself a kind of weeklong Altman fest, and I understood his style and, quite deliberately, I wrote the film so that he would recognize it as one of his own films, despite the fact that the subject matter — you know, the English, the upper class, whatever you call them, and the servants and so on — was not his natural terrain. Nevertheless, the style of the film, the way it was constructed, the multiplot thing, interlocking one scene which promotes maybe three or four stories and so on, that was all designed so that he would feel at home in this script."
On the first time he became aware of the upstairs-downstairs dynamic
"I remember one time when I was quite young ... I was staying in a house and I got lost and I went through the wrong door, and I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between what sounded like four or five, six people shouting. ... And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there. Not, you know, only the family who lived there, but people who worked there were also, you know, enjoying life or hating each other or loving each other or whatever."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you haven't caught the "Downton Abbey" bug, you may be sick of hearing people obsess over whether Lady Mary and Matthew Crawley will ever wed or whether poor Mr. Bates would overcome his troubles.
Even if you aren't a fan of "Masterpiece Classics" series, we think you'll find its creator and writer, our guest Julian Fellowes, an insightful observer of social class in 20th-century England. Fellowes grew up the son of a diplomat, with an aristocratic background, and he has a title himself, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford. Fellowes is an actor, as well as writer, and much of his writing has dealt with class distinctions and how they affect human relationships.
His screenplay for the 2001 Robert Altman film "Gosford Park" won an Oscar. "Downton Abbey," which has won a host of awards, focuses on an aristocratic English family and their servants in the early 20th century, when sweeping changes were breaking down old social barriers. Season three begins after World War I.
In the season premiere last night, Lord Grantham, played by Hugh Bonneville, ponders his changing world with his mother-in-law, an American played by Shirley MacLaine.
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SHIRLEY MACLAINE: (As Martha Levinson) You know, the way to deal with the world today is not to ignore it. If you do, you'll just get hurt.
HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham) Sometimes I feel like a creature in the wild whose natural habitat is gradually being destroyed.
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Some animals adapt to new surroundings. It seems a better choice than extinction.
BONNEVILLE: (As Lord Crowley) I don't think it is a choice. I think it's what's in you.
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Well, let's hope that what's in you will carry you through these times to a safer shore.
GROSS: Downton's creator, Julian Fellowes, spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
Julian Fellowes, Lord Fellowes, welcome to FRESH AIR.
JULIAN FELLOWES: Well, it's very nice to be here.
DAVIES: You know, a lot of your writing, both for television and film and your novel, involve distinctions of social class. Now you grew up the son of a diplomat with an aristocratic heritage, I believe. Did you have servants growing up?
FELLOWES: I mean, I think my background was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it. I mean, you know, we had people who came in and did some cleaning, but I mean, who - plenty of other people have that. I think in a way why I became quite aware of class as a kind of life-defining issue was because my parents came from different backgrounds.
My father's was grander than my mother's. And so my mother had to sort of put up with the disapproval of my father's relations, and I suppose from that grew a kind of interest in, in a way, the unfairness of class, the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection and, you know, so nothing to do with merit, and yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement and all sorts of other factors that, you know, have a long-term effect on us.
DAVIES: One of the things that makes Downton great and "Gosford Park," which is a movie I really love, is the intimate look at the servants, the life downstairs. Where did you become so acquainted with their lives and customs and rules?
FELLOWES: You know, I was lucky in one way. I mean, I was - I'm now kind of 150 years old. And so when I was young, I still had great-aunts and that kind of thing who had lived, to a degree, that life before the First World War. I mean, my eldest great-aunt, who is really the model for Violet Grantham, was born in 1880, you know, and she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that.
And I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21. So I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand. Where I was tremendously lucky is I was interested when I was young. One of the problems, you know, when you don't get interested in things until you're much older is a lot of people are dead. And because I was interested as a teenager, there were still many members of the family who could talk about what life had been before the first and second wars, you know, and I was very glad to hear it.
DAVIES: Well, let's talk about "Downton Abbey," and I wanted to play a clip from season one. This is a moment at a table in the kitchen downstairs, where the servants are all having tea. And we hear - one of them is O'Brien, who's played by Siobhan Finneran, disparaging Matthew Crawley, he's a cousin of the master of the house, who's arrived on the scene and may inherit Downton, the whole place.
We'll hear a shuffling of furniture as the servants spring to their feet because Lady Grantham, who's played by Elizabeth McGovern, has suddenly showed up in the kitchen and has overheard Ms. O'Brien, her own ladies maid, talking down Matthew Crawley. She rebukes Ms. O'Brien, and this leads to an interesting exchange after that among the servants. Let's listen.
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SIOBHAN FINNERAN: (As Sarah O'Brien) I'm sorry, but I have standards. And if anyone thinks I'm going to pull my forelock and curtsy to this Mr. Nobody from Nowhere.
ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: (As Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham) O'Brien. Were you discussing Mr. Crawley?
FINNERAN: (As Sarah) Yes, my lady.
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) Is it your place to do so?
FINNERAN: (As Sarah) I've got my opinions, my lady, same as anybody.
PHYLLIS LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Can I help your ladyship?
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) This is the button went missing from my new evening coat. I found it lying in the gravel. But I was shocked at the talk I heard as I came in. Mr. Crawley is his lordship's cousin and heir. You will, therefore please, accord him the respect he's entitled to.
FINNERAN: (As Sarah) But you don't like him yourself, my lady. You never wanted him to come...
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) You're sailing perilous close to the wind, O'Brien. If we're to be friends, you will not speak in that way again about the Crawleys or any member of Lord Grantham's family. Now I'm going up to rest. Wake me at the dressing gong.
ROB JAMES-COLLIER: (As character) I don't think that's fair, not here in the servant's hole.
FINNERAN: (As Sarah) I agree. If she was a real lady, she wouldn't have come down here. She'd have rung for me and given me the button, that's all.
JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas) This isn't their territory. We can say what we like down here.
LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Who says?
JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas) The law, and parliament. There is such a thing as free speech.
LOGAN: (As Ms. Hughes) Not when I'm in charge. Don't push your luck, Thomas(ph).
DAVIES: And that's from the series "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. It's such a lovely scene, and what we hear here is the class lines are clear, the roles and clear, and yet they're changing. The series begins, what, in 1912. This was a particular moment in class relations in Britain, isn't it?
FELLOWES: Well, I think it was attractive to us because it was a period of tremendous change in quite a short time. You know, between 1912, when they - we begin the first show and 1922, where we are at the end of season three, is only 10 years, and yet the changes in Britain were enormous between the sort of end of high imperial confidence and so on and then through the war years and finally into the uncertainty of the '20s when all sorts of things were being challenged.
And, you know, these great revolutions of women's rights or workers' rights or whatever it is, they don't come out of nowhere. They are there early, and they're just below the surface, and then something like a war happens, and it makes everything come through. But, you know, you don't invent from nothing. It hasn't quite come yet, but it's sort of fizzing away somewhere.
And that's what a scene like that will tell you, that they're nearly at the end of always being second banana, and, you know, they can express that.
DAVIES: Right, and then some among them say not so fast, remember your place.
FELLOWES: Well, I mean, one of the interesting things about this kind of drama is that, you know, the family upstairs are, on the whole, all equal. They're certainly equal in terms of class and position, but, you know, they might accord respect to the father or something like that. But they're not at all different socially.
That's not true of the people below the stairs who are working there. There is a vast social range between Carson the butler and Daisy the kitchen maid, and all of these ranks were sort of observed, you know, and you had these - I mean we can't do them all because heaven knows we have enough characters in locations as it is.
But in a real house, you would have a special sitting room for the visiting valets and a special sitting room for visiting ladies' maids and so on. On and on it went, the detail of this extraordinarily complicate structure. But, you know, that said, it was on the brink of starting to come down.
DAVIES: One of the things that I love about the series is that as a viewer, I gradually become aware of the distinctions among the servants, and others, by the forms of address. You know, the aristocrats are referred to lord and lady or your lordship or your ladyship. The servants, even those of highest rank, are referred to by their last names only by the aristocrats, even when speaking affectionately.
I mean, when - there's a moment when Lady Grantham is talking to Mrs. O'Brien, and she's - they're having a nice, intimate conversation, but she still calls her O'Brien. And then among the servants, some are called Mr. and Mrs., those of lower rank like the kitchen maid Daisy only by their first names. There were a clear set of rules and forms of address here, huh?
FELLOWES: Well, I mean, we live in an era where there are sort of no rules for anything anymore. But of course the good thing about rules is you always know what you're doing. You always know what you should wear. You always know (unintelligible), when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there.
You know, we've lost that kind of security. I think that that is one reason why, you know, the show appeals because it seems to show a more ordered and kind of ordained world. In fact, of course, that is largely a myth. It was a world where all sorts of, as I've said, things were bubbling just beneath the surface. But nevertheless in terms of your daily life, what you wore when you got up, what you called people, what you did next, I think it was sort of easier to follow the plot than in our own time.
DAVIES: Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey." The third season is now underway and being aired on public television stations. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Julian Fellowes. He is the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey." Its third season is now on "Masterpiece on PBS."
The Maggie Smith character in "Downton Abbey" is just such a delight. Tell us who she is, how she fits into the family.
FELLOWES: Well, she really, as I've said, she's really based on my eldest great-aunt, who was quite a tough character, but she was no tougher on anyone else than she was on herself. In fact in real life she had quite a tragic life. Her husband died of wounds at the end of the First World War, and her only child drowned on active service in the second. So she had a lot to bear, poor thing.
But she was tough and funny, and some of the phrases that - you know, what's a weekend and stuff like that, come from her. I remember in "Gosford Park" one question Maggie asked me, she said: I don't understand about the marmalade. And I said, well, that was this particular aunt - because Lady Trentham in Gosford was also sort of based on her - and I said this particular aunt always thought that if a house ran out of its own jams and jellies then it was not being well-run, and it was sign of its weakness.
Oh, she said, I've got it, I've got it. And she does that line so wonderfully. I mean, she looks into the jam pot and says ooh, bought marmalade, I call that very feeble. And what I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but then never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person.
A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously or both superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman.
DAVIES: Well, we should hear one of these moments, and this is from the first season, where she and Lady Grantham, played again by Elizabeth McGovern, are sitting and discussing the difficult matter of finding a suitable husband for Lady Mary, the oldest of the Crawley daughters.
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DAME MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) How about some house parties?
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She's been asked to one next month by Lady Anne McNair.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) That's a terrible idea. She doesn't know anyone under 100.
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) I might send her over to visit my aunt. She could get to know New York.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Oh, I don't think things are quite that desperate. Poor Mary, she's been terribly down in the mouth lately.
MCGOVERN: (As Lady Grantham) She was very upset by the death of poor Mr. Pamuk.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Why? She didn't know him. One can't go to pieces at the death of every foreigner. We'd all be in a state of collapse whenever we opened a newspaper.
DAVIES: Can't get enough of Maggie Smith. That's her and Elizabeth McGovern in "Downton Abbey," created and written by our guest Julian Fellowes. Dinners are really something at the Crawleys. Lord Grantham dresses basically like an orchestra conductor. Was this done every night? I mean, didn't they ever just want to just dress down and eat leftover turkey sandwiches?
FELLOWES: It was pretty well done every night. I mean I - there's a wonderful quote when Duff-Cooper asked his brother-in-law, the Duke of Rutland, he said - when black tie was just beginning to come in, in the '20s, but still white tie was normal in the sort of great houses, and he said to the duke: Don't you ever wear black tie? And the duke thought for a moment and said: When I'm dining alone with the duchess in her bedroom.
FELLOWES: And, you know, that was his idea of letting it all hang out. But no, I mean, they were a formal people, those with the correct clothes for eating dinner. And one of the difficulties when we wear those costumes is that most of us are dressing on our own. So we're in a wrestling match with studs and pins of this and that and links and so on, whereas there you were always being helped with it, as you would be in a film or on television.
And that makes it different. I mean, in the '50s, Dior very much revived the sort of corseted, almost crinoline dress and so on, but it didn't last very long because it wasn't suited for getting into on your own.
DAVIES: In season three, an American arrives on the scene, a real American here. I mean Cora, Lady Grantham, is an American but who has spent a long time in England as the wife of Lord Grantham. But her mother, who is played by Shirley MacLaine, arrives. Tell us a little bit about her and the role that she plays.
FELLOWES: Well, what I really wanted the audience to be reminded of, really, by Martha Levinson, played by Shirley MacLaine, is that Cora is not some ancient American aristocrat. She's not a Winthrop, you know, or a Stuyvesant or one of those founding-father families. She is the product of new money, quite a lot of it, but she's - that's who she is.
But there were others, like Mary Leiter, who married Lord Curzon, who came from men who had made their own fortunes, and that is what Cora's come from. And the reason I want the audience to be sort of aware of that is Cora's story is really that she married into the system and swallowed it wholesale and got it all down, but now that the world is changing, and things are being challenged, in a funny way her original values are much more suited to the modern world than Robert's.
You know, she has the American work ethic. She is not obsessed by rank. She is kind of much more free about accepting the changes that are coming, as you will be seeing in the third series. The future doesn't frighten her. And so we have that kind of exemplified by Martha because we've got the two grandmothers now, Violet played by Maggie Smith and Martha played by Shirley MacLaine, but they're totally different.
Violet is nostalgic for the past. She thinks everything was better in 1870. Her clothes reflect this, her manners and so on, whereas Martha believes in the modern world. She likes the way it's going. She wants to wear modern clothes and modern makeup and fly on a plane and just get on with the future.
So, you know, you've got, I hope, an interesting clash there of beliefs and philosophies.
DAVIES: You know, I thought we would hear just a moment of their interaction. This is Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine, the two grandmothers, in a moment from season three.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "DOWNTON ABBEY")
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Oh dear. I'm afraid the war has made old women of us both.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Oh I wouldn't say that, but then I always keep out of the sun. How do you find Downton on your return?
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Much the same, really, probably too much the same, but then I don't want to cast a pall over all (unintelligible).
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) How could you ever do that?
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Tell me, what do you think of young Lochenbar(ph), who has so ably carried off our granddaughter and our money? Do you approve of him?
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Not as much as you will when you get to know him.
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Has he gone home to change?
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) Oh no, we won't see him again tonight. The groom never sees the bride the night before the wedding.
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Nothing ever alters for you people, does it? Revolutions erupt, and monarchies crash to the ground, and the groom still cannot see the bride before the wedding.
SMITH: (As Lady Grantham) You Americans never understand the importance of tradition.
MACLAINE: (As Martha) Yes we do. We just don't give it power over us. History and tradition took Europe into a world war. Maybe you should think about letting go of its hand.
DAVIES: That's from season three of "Downton Abbey," written and created by our guest Julian Fellowes. Season three is now on "Masterpiece on PBS. Of course one of the changes that comes to the Crawley family, the shocking development of one of the daughters, Lady Sybil, marrying the family chauffer, Tom Branson.
DAVIES: I don't know how likely this would have been to happen in 1912 or '14 or '15, but one of the things I love about the way it's portrayed here is that of course the aristocracy is shocked, and they have to come to terms with it. Some react differently. But then the chauffeur goes back to the house where he was a part of the service and has to interact with the other servants, who are so used to clear social distinctions, and he has changed.
FELLOWES: I mean, I always like to base these things on a real story, and when people say oh that would never have happened, of course it did happen, just as love affairs between servants and members of the family happened. They were very disapproved of, but they still happened. And this particular story is based on the daughter of an earl who ran off with the groom actually, it wasn't the chauffeur, it was the groom, but I don't think there's a great distinction in that.
And they had to put up with it. I think it was very difficult, and of course they rather encouraged the couple to live in Dublin because it's sort of easier if they're out of sight. But, you know, families then like families now, when your children marry someone you would not have chosen for them, there is a moment where you have to decide am I going to quarrel with my son or my daughter and literally no longer have them in my life, or am I going to find a way to get on with this person.
And I think most of us hope for the second, and that's really what the Granthams have to do.
GROSS: Dave Davies will continue his interview with Julian Fellowes in the second half of the show. Fellowes created the series "Downton Abbey," which began its third season last night on "Masterpiece on PBS." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Julian Fellowes, the creator of "Downton Abbey," the popular series about an aristocratic English family and its servants in the first part of the 20th century.
Season three, set after World War I, began last night on "Masterpiece" on PBS. The class system is a theme of "Downton Abbey" and Fellowes' award-winning screenplay for the film "Gosford Park."
DAVIES: You are the son of a diplomat and I understand you went to good schools and after Cambridge went to drama school and became an accomplished actor, although I gather there were times in your 20s when, like any other aspiring actor, you were scuffling around and getting auditions and probably not living the high life. And yet I guess you had some connections to the life of the aristocracy. Did you have, you know, one foot in each world then?
FELLOWES: I did a bit. I mean, you know, I did the season and all that kind of thing, but I was very sort of junior. You know (unintelligible) hadn't got enough men or something, which, of course, was a good position to get a look at the whole life. You know, when you're the important guest and everyone laughs at your gags, you don't have quite such a fly on the wall perception, but every now and then it was quite funny.
I was in rep in Northampton and, you know, living on 18 pounds a week which, of course, was more then than it is now, but it wasn't much. And it so happened that a school friend of mine had a mother who lived just outside the town in one of sort of England's great houses and she was very kind to me. She was absolutely lovely and she would come and see the shows and so on, and every now and then I'd be asked to dinner or to stay the night or whatever and, you know, my laundry would be done - you know, everything wrapped in tissue and I'd be having this dinner with a sort of butler and footman serving and everything.
And then I'd go back to my own cobbler's cottage in the town, where it was so damp that if you tried to get your washing dry, you had to wrap it in foil and put it in the oven and there were sort of mushrooms growing in the carpet, you know. And every now and then, the contrast that I was experiencing did rather make me laugh. But you know, people were very nice and they kind of supported me and I was grateful then and I'm grateful now.
DAVIES: What kind of research did you do for "Downton Abbey"? I mean you obviously had a lot from your - you know, from your own experience and discussions with your relatives. What kind of research did you do?
FELLOWES: You know, one just kind of reads a lot of books around it. I mean the truth is, I've always been interested in the whole setup of the old world. You know, when I was young, it had only just, for many people, come to an end. You know, I mean I was a little boy in the '50s and that was when a lot of people were chucking in the towel and selling the house and - you know, so I would see empty servants' rooms and empty cupboards in the basement lined in green baize or whatever. I can remember all that quite well.
So a certain extent, I just sort of imbibed it from the air, but I also have read quite a lot about it. I mean, one of the great advantages of the Internet, if you want to use a piece of slang or you want to use a song or anything like that, you just type in, you know, the thing and you go into the etymology dictionary and it gives you the year of first usage and so on, or first printed usage.
But on the whole, I do sort of - I mean it sounds rather pretentious, actually, but I do sort of know how this way of life worked, you know, at this point, and I take advantage of that, really.
DAVIES: You said you saw houses with empty servants' quarters because essentially that way of life had just disappeared?
FELLOWES: Yes. I mean, you know, you'd go into the stable and there were no horses and then you'd go into the old kitchens, huge old kitchens, and there'd be sort of signs for the village fate and, you know, old perambulators and broken bicycles and things, and they would have created some horrible slot kitchen in some ante-room upstairs. And, you know, all of that was very fresh.
I mean, one of the great changes now, actually, is that these houses - the ones that have survived - have essentially been reinvented by their owners, who are normally the children or grandchildren of the ones who threw in the towel, and they come to it differently. This generation doesn't, you know, long for the days of their youth when there were footmen behind every chair, because there weren't. Their youth was spent after all that had come to an end, so they just look at it differently and they have different ways of running it. And now help in the house comes in from the village instead of coming from upstairs, and everyone calls each other by their Christian names and everything else.
And it just runs on different wheels, and I like that. I like the fact that these houses have, in a sense, been reinvented and, you know, I think it's very attractive.
DAVIES: "Downton Abbey" begins in 1912, when there are all these social trends that are causing the old order to begin to unravel. Did your observation of kind of the disappearance of that way of life make you want to really explore the end of that period and the dissolution of the aristocracy?
FELLOWES: I just remember one time when I was quite young. I was - I forget now - 17 or something like that, and I was staying in a house and I got lost and I went through the wrong door and I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between - it sounded like four or five, six people shouting and yelling and this and that and the other.
And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there - not, you know, only the family who lived there, but the people who worked there were also, you know, enjoying life or hating each other or loving each other or whatever. And I suppose you could say that in that moment "Gosford Park" and "Downton Abbey" were at least conceived, whether or not they had yet been born, and that at some point I would explore that fairly simple emotional recognition that everyone's life is of 100 percent importance to them, no matter who they are. And you know, I've been sort of, in a sense, exploring it ever since.
DAVIES: Julian Fellowes is the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey." The third season is now on "Masterpiece" on PBS. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: If you're just joining us, our guest is Julian Fellowes. He's the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey." The third season is now being seen on "Masterpiece" on PBS.
I want to talk about "Gosford Park," the film by Robert Altman. It was in 2001, which you wrote and won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It was not quite like "Downton Abbey." It was set in an English aristocratic home in the '30s. You want to just talk a little bit about this and how life was different then than it was years before, when "Downton Abbey" is set?
FELLOWES: Well, in fact, "Downton" was the child of "Gosford" in that the producer, Gareth Neame, who had the idea, said to me, would you ever consider going back into "Gosford Park" territory for television? That's how it began. But apart from anything else, you know, we wanted it to have legs and so we took it back a bit to have some time before the first war and so on. But the real reason for that was that the subtext of "Gosford" was that that way of life, for most people, was on its last legs and it would be the Second World War in many, many cases that kind of polished it off.
I mean of course one can exaggerate this. There are still people with cooks and butlers and, you know, where you're sitting and where I am, but as a way of life that was essentially being lived in every village and hamlet in the land, it was the Second World War that was the kind of coup de grace for the whole thing.
And so one wanted a sense of that. In fact, there was a cut scene I was always rather sad about, when the servants were talking about what they wanted to do and all the young ones were saying, oh, I'd like to have a hairdresser and I'd like to run a garage and so on. And not one of them imagined they would be staying in service, and you know, that was very shocking to the older servants. And I was always sorry that was cut because I felt that was very much part of the message. But nevertheless, I think "Gosford" was a more shadowy place. There was a sort of deeply unhappy marriage of contempt at the heart of it, as opposed to the Grantham's marriage, which is essentially happy. I mean I know they have their problems, but I mean they're basically happy and well-suited, and that, of course, was not true of McCordle and his wife, Lady Sylvia.
DAVIES: I wanted to play a clip here, and this involves Helen Mirren's character. She's in the service here. You want to just tell us who she is, what role she plays?
FELLOWES: Helen Mirren is the housekeeper. She is the Mrs. Hughes of "Gosford Park," and just as Eileen Atkins plays the cook, you know, she is the Mrs. Patmore of "Gosford Park," and of course their relationship becomes a theme in the film.
DAVIES: Right. Well, the scene we're going to hear is very near the end, and it turns out that this character, Mrs. Wilson, the Helen Mirren character, as a young girl was one of many servants who the Lord Stockbridge, the guy who runs the manor, had sexually preyed upon. She bore his son, who was sent away to an orphanage, but it turns out now, many years later, is back at the estate as a valet of one of the guests, and he realizes his father and decides he's going to kill him, but Mrs. Wilson, the Helen Mirren character, sees this coming and instead poisons Stockbridge so that her son can't, in fact, be accused of killing him. And in the scene we're going to hear, she's discussing this with another servant, played by Kelly MacDonald. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOSFORD PARK")
KELLY MACDONALD: (as Mary Maceachran) Even if Robert is your son, how did you know that he meant to harm his father?
HELEN MIRREN: (as Mrs. Wilson) What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others? It's the gift of anticipation. And I'm a good servant. I'm better than good. I'm the best. I'm the perfect servant. I know when they will be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they'll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.
MACDONALD: (as Mary Maceachran) Are you going to tell him?
MIRREN: (as Mrs. Wilson) Why? What purpose would it possibly serve?
MACDONALD: (as Mary Maceachran) What if they find out what happened?
MIRREN: (as Mrs. Wilson) Not much of a crime to stab a dead man, is it? They can never touch him. That's what's important. His life.
MACDONALD: (as Mary Maceachran) And your life?
MIRREN: (as Mrs. Wilson) Didn't you hear me? I'm the perfect servant. I have no life.
DAVIES: And that's Helen Mirren and Kelly MacDonald in the film "Gosford Park," written by our guest, Julian Fellowes. I really was struck by that dialog when I saw it. You want to just tell us about developing that?
FELLOWES: Actually, it was very interesting because I remember Helen didn't really like the line when she said I'm the perfect servant. I have no life. She said, oh, I think that's already implicit. And I understood her point, actually, but in the end we did a kind of collaborative thing on the scene and I altered the speech before - the speech about anticipation in accordance with her ideas about it, and in return she said the I have no life. And I think between us we did create rather an extraordinary moment for that character. Of course she's a most wonderful actress and so she invests it with all that kind of emotional complication I was talking about before.
But I do feel that, you know, the one drawback of the servant life - and there are many aspects of it that are not as bad as people think now - but the drawback is that your own life is always secondary and all your concentration is going on doing your job, making them comfortable, making their clothes right, making their food right, making the room right. But it's not your clothes or your food or your room, and it requires a kind of abnegation almost like a monk to do it perfectly, and I think that that is a great sacrifice to ask and that's what that scene is about.
DAVIES: The dialog is very clear there when we hear Helen Mirren and Kelly MacDonald talking, but that's not true throughout the entire film because of Robert Altman's particular style. I mean I've seen this film three times and I still don't feel like I've gotten it all because it's so quick and there's just so much going on. And you know, as someone who's come from an English theatre background where people, you know, project and say their lines distinctly, did you find it difficult or frustrating to have this rich kind of tapestry of relationships that you had crafted being filmed in this way, where it's just so quick and kind of hard to take in?
FELLOWES: Well, you know, that was Bob's style and quite deliberately I wrote the film so that he would recognize it as one of his own films, and despite the fact that the subject matter - you know, the English, the upper classes or whatever you call them, and servants and so on - was not his natural terrain, I didn't want him to read it and think, well, I quite like this, but it's not the sort of film I make. I wanted him to read it and think this is just my kind of movie. So I can't pretend I was surprised by the dialogue running over each other and all the rest of it.
We had a very, very brilliant sound guy whose name I blush to say I forget at the moment, but he was running something like 15 radio mics simultaneously so all the overlapping dialogue would be caught. And then Bob would have the ability to bring up this line or drop this line back or bring this exchange forward and so on.
All the scripted dialogue was recorded, was spoken, and was filmed. And then under that in the big scenes they would be told, you know, say your scripted lines but then keep talking. So they would bang on. I mean, not all that much of the improvised stuff got into the final film, in fact, but what it does is it creates a tremendous sense of reality.
That the scripted dialogue is sitting on (technical difficulties) of dialogue so that you never feel that it's totally unreal, that you can only hear this couple at a crowded dinner table, you know, and that kind of thing. There is always a sort of sense of having to sort of catch what they're saying in the big group scenes much as, you know, if you're having dinner in a restaurant.
You have to sort of suddenly focus your ears to get what your neighbor is saying rather than what the next table is saying. And he wanted that.
DAVIES: Time is short but I do want to ask you - I know you've got a lot of things going. I think you're writing season four of "Downton Abbey." But I also read that you're writing a similar sort of series that's set in 19th century New York. Is this right?
FELLOWES: Well, that's my kind of next big adventure. Not doing it right now. I mean, it's been announced but it's a little time in the future. But, you know, the idea came up and I did feel quite strongly. I didn't want to just try and write another British series and kind of go into competition with myself, you know.
It's really about what Mark Twain or whoever it was called the Gilded Age. You know, that period in the '70s and '80s particularly - 1870s, 1880s - when these enormous fortunes arrived through railways, through oil, through hotels and shipping and so on.
And these new families arrived to kind of in a way almost take over New York from the old kind of Dutch families. So, I mean, Edith Wharton writes about this kind of contest for seniority in "The Age of Innocence" and in a lot of her other books. Because she very much came from the old aristocracy of America and yet of course she knew lots of kinds of Vanderbilts and so on of the new.
And she deals with the kind of struggle between the two. I mean, nothing could compete with the money of the new families and in the end I suppose you could say that they sort of won. But I think it's quite an entertaining period. And they were the spenders, you know, to end all. And so I'm rather looking forward to getting into it.
DAVIES: Well, Julian Fellowes, thanks so much for spending some time with us.
FELLOWES: Oh, I'm delighted. It was nice of you to ask me.
GROSS: Julian Fellowes created the series "Downton Abbey" which began its third season last night on "Masterpiece" on PBS. He spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Our thanks to Trevor Bevins and Andy Worth for recording Fellowes at the BBC studio in Dorset. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.