InDepth InterView: Jessica Fellowes Details THE CHRONICLES OF DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3, THE GUILDED AGE & More
Today we are talking to a talented writer and journalist who has penned the definitive book on the hottest UK crossover TV series of the new millennium, the early 20th century-set family period drama DOWNTON ABBEY, with her estimable new tome, now available, THE CHRONICLES OF DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA - Jessica Fellowes. Discussing many of the most alluring aspects of the hit Brit series, especially insofar as an international audience is concerned and how the show appeals to those of all ages and classes, as well as adding even more historical, political and social insight into the proceedings on the show over the course of its run so far, Fellowes and I assess many of the most arresting moments of the three seasons of the series as well as the comprehensive behind-the-scenes look that she provides (along with Matthew Sturgis) in THE CHRONICLES OF DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA. All of that, discussion of the third season of the series which premieres in the US on PBS January 6, speculations on what we may see in Season Four, first news on Jessica's uncle Julian's new historical series for NBC, THE GUILDED AGE - and much, much more!
More information on THE CHRONICLES OF DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA is available at the official site here.
We Have All The Time In The World
PC: Fans of DOWNTON ABBEY would also adore Julian's film FROM TIME TO TIME, which featured many DOWNTON actors and another fabulous estate. Have you ever visited that location?
JF: I haven't been there, but I have to say that Julian's knowledge of all the houses across the country is very, very good - I'm not bad, but in that case I haven't been to that one so I don't know a lot about it, unfortunately.
PC: What about Highclere Castle, where DOWNTON is filmed? You know that one well.
JF: Of course, I've been to Highclere a number of times. I first went there with my husband, who is in publishing, and, since then, I've gone back to visit when they were shooting the show there. Every time it has been a very interesting experience. I can definitely see why it was picked for this series, though - there is something about it...
PC: An allure.
JF: Yes. It was the most brilliant decision in choosing Highclere Castle for the series because it was a real move away from the sort of Jane Austen type houses that you were so used to seeing in those sort of period dramas - very Georgian.
PC: A marked departure.
JF: They wanted the viewer to understand quite quickly that this was a different house, a later house - that this was newer and more modern. It's a very Gothic, Victorian house. It's very grand.
PC: You can say that again!
JF: The thing about DOWNTON ABBEY and when it begins and how that pertains to where we are now is that that period was the very start of modern life as we know it. So, although people are wearing very different clothes and they have quite a different set of attitudes, there is quite a lot that we can recognize and relate to in terms of the kinds of technology they use and the concerns that they are beginning to have with the social changes and all of that sort of stuff going on. [Pause.] So, that's really the reason Highclere Castle was chosen - to make a really big statement.
PC: And it does.
JF: I have to say, when you come up that drive and you first set your eyes upon it, it does give you a certain feeling in real life, too. It's a lot different from Jane Austen novels, though.
PC: And the opening shot of the credits is from that low angle from the dog's perspective, so it gives a grand impression to the viewer of the house from the get-go much like it must be to experience live in person.
JF: Yes. Yes. It does.
PC: Lady Isobel and Matthew Crawley are first seen in a much more contemporary, urban household in a more urban area. What can you tell me about that location?
JF: Oh, that house is in Manchester. That house has a separate interior from what is shown as its exterior on the show, as well. I remember that the production designer made it deliberately quite modern-looking on the inside - there is quite a lot of detail in it, I think. During that time, a household in Manchester such as theirs would have been quite fashionable and modern, of course - with more fashionable things than the Crawley family in Highclere Castle, certainly.
PC: Quite a clash of styles.
JF: Of course, most of the furnishings in the Crawley house at Downton would have been passed down, generation after generation, and it would all accumulate over the years. Actually, one of the difficulties that the production designers had was that it was quite hard for them to demonstrate through the interiors that things are moving on - it's easier to reflect that in the hair and make-up and attitudes and so on, but the house itself stays relatively the same. I mean, the house that we see onscreen now is pretty much as it is in real life - as it operates in 2012 or 2013 - so, even now, over all these years, it still has not changed very much.
PC: THE CHRONICLES OF DOWNTON ABBEY is truly scholarly and you are to be highly commended on it. It's exhaustive and gorgeously designed, as well - a real feat.
JF: Oh, that's so kind of you - thank you. That's definitely what we set out to do with it. When we started and when we first met with Harper Collins in the UK and discussed having it be not just a making-of book, but also about the social history at the time and putting everything in context is... well, that's what makes it all interesting to me in doing, really.
PC: And we all can surely benefit.
JF: Also, that's a period that I've always particularly liked - I remember being a little girl and talking about that time with uncle Julian and him telling me all about it. So, growing up, I knew what all the stories were - and, also, the ones on my mother's side and my grandmother's side; in the 1920s and 1930s. My grandmother used to tell me fantastic stories about growing up then, during the era of DOWNTON ABBEY. So, for me, it was never a dry, stuffy period - it was fairly real and exciting to me. So, that's what I wanted to get across in the book. I really wanted to establish the context of the period for people viewing the series - you know, I want people to be able to explain to the people they watch it with or whatever in even greater detail and so that they can really feel everything that went into making it.
PC: Do you have any thoughts to share on BBC's DOWNTON ABBEY apparent doppelganger historical soap series, THE PARADISE?
JF: Well, I have only seen a few episodes of it here and there, so I can't really say for sure. I didn't watch it properly. I suppose I should get the box set and watch it correctly, though. You know, the BBC always does those kind of dramas very well. It looks very enjoyable - it's not a period I am that mad about, but it looks like the right kind of thing for Sundays, I think.
PC: THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE was a superb recent miniseries aping the Victorian era, as well.
JF: Oh, I've heard about that, too - I heard it was fantastic, actually. I should check that one out, as well.
PC: How do you see the dowager countess versus Cora and their different experiences as lady of the house at Downton Abbey during the vastly different eras?
JF: Well, with Violet, she is about 70 or so in the 1920s, so she was born in about 1850. Her expectations for what her future would hold must have been extraordinarily turned around, you know? It must be beyond anything she could ever have anticipated. And, of course, while a lot changed between 1750 and 1850, much stayed the same - they still were posting letters; they still rode by carriage; there was no electricity or planes in the sky or motorcars or radios or telephones. So, I think that is a lot to cope with for her since things changed so quickly from 1900 or so onwards - and, I think they showed that quite well on the show, too.
PC: It was addressed extensively in Season One, in particular, in regards to Violet.
JF: Yes. It was addressed in Season One and now by Season Three we are up to 1920 and so many changes have been brought - the war has escalated a lot of things, as well; you know, it made some things cross the finish line quicker than you might have expected them to otherwise, I think. The way to communicate that and how much changed in such a short amount of time back then during that period is to just look at how much our lives have changed in the last ten years - you know, our view of the world and how we work and how we communicate with each other; especially because of the internet and mobile telephones and satellite TV. And, also, look at medicine - all the work with DNA and genetics in that time. Then, there are the social changes, such as how we view homosexuality.
PC: It's been a progressive decade.
JF: All of these things that have happened have defined our culture and we can't go back and it was the same for them back then - you can't go back and say, "Hang on. Let's put the brakes on this and do it like we did ten years ago!" You can't do that. So, it's very exciting and at the same time it can be overwhelming, and, that's how it is with the dowager countess - she is sort of gamely keeping up, but it is nothing like she ever thought it would be.
PC: She rolls with the punches.
JF: Definitely! Definitely. I think that was definitely a mark of that kind of a woman at that time, as well. A lot of the older generations - of the upper, middle and lower classes - looked to Queen Mary as their example then and her nature was very stoic like that. It was an attitude of, "Put your chin up and go with it," you know?
JF: It was like, "There's no point in complaining!" They just got on with it. So, when you get to the daughters on the show, you see how each of the daughters deals with these changes, as well, which I find particularly interesting - you get to see the younger generation.
PC: The younger generation's perspective.
JF: Right. I mean, I am 38 years old, so, as a child, I remember the pre-technology age, and, now, in my working life, I have seen all this technology take off and how my work has changed with it. And, my expectations or my ideas of how I would sort of deal with it has changed as I have gone along. It's quite exciting, though. It depends on your personality how you adapt to the new technology of the day, I think - whether you are more retro or hip with it or what have you. So, it's really interesting to compare it to the period of change on DOWNTON - and, they all have different ideas of what needs to be done and who needs to do it. That dynamic creates a really interesting dynamic between them - between the sisters, especially.
PC: And beyond.
JF: Right. Also, between Matthew and Mary, for example - you know, he comes in as the underdog and as this slightly-underclass man with this "I can cope with this" attitude, and, by the end of Series 3, you see them all start realizing, "Oh, well, maybe we should start thinking more like Matthew in order to make this all work. Maybe we really can live a simpler sort of life." Then, there is Mary, who is more old fashioned and more like her grandmother than her mother - she wants to do it all the old fashioned way. So, how they work it all out in Series 3 is quite interesting, I think, and it's something that we see play out in our own relationships today, as well.
PC: Iain Glen's character as Lady Mary's former fiancé stood as a pseudo-metaphor for the newspaper industry today in many ways, it appeared - after all, news has changed so much in the last ten years, has it not? What are your thoughts on that?
JF: Yeah, I know - that's really interesting. But, you know, you still do have people reading newspapers anyway! I think that our period will be very interesting to people a hundred years from now to look back on because of all the changes going on now. You know, someday there will be a series about the goings-on at a house in 2012 and all that happens to the people who live there. Some read newspapers still and others say, "What are you doing? Get up with the times already!" [Laughs.] Imagine trying to write DOWNTON ABBEY 2012 in a hundred years' time. Who would be your main characters? How would you depict life now? Hmm.
PC: An intriguing idea.
JF: I think we sometimes have a tendency to patronize people or characters on the show - "Oh, you were born into this job," or, "Oh, you were born into this position," and I think that it is much more complicated than that. I think that that is what Julian really tries to get across - just because someone may be a butler doesn't mean that they think along certain lines. People are people - with broken hearts and childhoods and families and all that goes with it. It's great drama and great dramatic tension to show all of that, but, also, at the same time, it shows us what our grandparents went through at that time, so it's a great history lesson, too. Really, they were us, just on a different stage and just with different surroundings.
PC: And Shirley MacLaine's character now represents our American grandparents.
JF: Exactly! Exactly. That's exactly right.
PC: Are you aware that first lady Michelle Obama has stated DOWNTON ABBEY is her favorite TV series?
JF: Yes! We are all very aware of that - it's thrilling. Actually, that information got leaked to us a while back that she was a big fan, so we all thought that was just so splendid. I actually mailed her a signed copy of the book with a note, as well, so I hope that she gets it. I thought it was so nice she said that about the show, though.
PC: The recent riots in the UK mirror the rally attended by Lady Sybil in some ways. The episode aired not too long after, I believe. Is there a connection there, do you think?
JF: That's quite interesting you say that - I am not sure that anybody here even made that connection! But, again, that was a period of great transition just like it is now, so there was a lot of political upheaval and demonstrations. The recent riots here were not seen as organized political activity, though - we see it as it was a very unfortunate series of incidents that was sparked off by sort of a summer of desperate people during a depression.
PC: How would you compare the demonstration such as that shown on DOWNTON to what we have on these shores with Occupy Wall Street and protests of that sort?
JF: Well, I think that with all of it you have to realize that England is much smaller and more contained in general, so it is like an incubator for that sort of thing - America is much more spread out and open. So, I think it's harder for a national political activity to happen there on that sort of widespread scale.
PC: Is the death of a character in childbirth a metaphor for the death of the old ways and birth of the new ways, perchance?
JF: Well, I am going to be very careful about spoilers, but I think it could be interpreted that way. Although, I think that she is the new in a way - especially given her relationship with Branson and so on - and so I think it is more about war and the cost of it, with the death of the old ways coming at the cost of so many young lives; very young lives. [Pause.] But, I don't know for sure if that was a metaphor of Julian's, though, for that particular storyline.
PC: How do you perceive that upstairs/downstairs relationship? In America at the time it was totally accepted - as Shirley MacLaine's character humorously relates.
JF: Yeah, I think that she looks on it being not that outrageous because she doesn't believe in judging someone based on where they born and who their parents were, but, on the other hand - and we talk about this in the book, as well - given her predisposition, she would probably be more circumspect about an outsider than anybody. You know, there were quite a lot of stories in the papers at the time about rich, young American heiresses running off with their drivers or what have you and it ending quite badly for them. So, I think she would have been as concerned as anybody about her granddaughter being involved with Branson. But, I don't think it's about roles as much as it is about tribes and trust - it's about whether or not someone understands where we have come from and where we are going in life and all that. You don't necessarily have to be of the same class to share that, though - it's about having a common point of reference, if you can. So, I think that that is the cause of the tension for a lot of that storyline in the family. We still make those kind of judgments today, I think.
PC: Lady Edith and Sir Anthony have a fascinating dynamic - "an old crippled man" who doesn't want to steal her youth. First, though: what about his huge mansion?!
JF: I know! Isn't that house just amazing? I don't know where it is, actually, though, but it is incredibly pretty, isn't it? That relationship is fascinating; yes - I agree. With the wedding and everything, you see how she could have been content in that house with everything there - I mean, just look at it! But, it's interesting that the dowager countess disagrees and thinks it isn't enough. You know, they are of the same class - Sir Antony and the Crawleys - and I think that Sir Anthony was most worried Lord Grantham would think he had made his young daughter a nursemaid and it wasn't a relationship based on love. You have to remember that the big thing then was that you couldn't get divorced - there was no way out once you got into the marriage. So, a lot of it was about arranging what you wanted beforehand, otherwise you would be tied to someone and you would be stuck in this unhappy relationship forever. Marriage is never simple, but there is that feeling now that there is a way out and they didn't really have that option back then, so the father of a daughter entering a marriage would want to make sure to line up as many things as possible to make sure that that marriage was a success.
PC: As Lord Grantham is wont to do, even for Edith and Anthony - or not, as the case may be.
JF: Right. I think that for [Lord Grantham] there was a feeling of, you know, "Is she really in love with him or does she just need to get out more?" [Laughs.]
PC: And what about Patrick - was he really the soldier in Season Two or was that an intruder do you think?
JF: I know, right?! We never really find out, do we? I think that's deliberate on Julian's part.
PC: Have you discussed that with him in any detail? Will we see Patrick someday, whether again or for the first time?
JF: Well, I don't know for sure! I think that is one of the more fun storylines in Series 2, though - you know, "Did he really come back or is someone pretending to be him?" Also, I thought that it was really nice for Edith to get a little bit of unrequited love - it's such a sort of hopeless character otherwise. [Laughs.]
PC: Too true!
JF: But, she had a moment where she could feel desirable and that someone would want her, even if he is some horribly bandaged, scarred character. [Laughs.]
PC: Lady Edith has it rough.
JF: I thought it was sort of sweet, though, that relationship. I wonder if Patrick will be back, too, though.
PC: That real life incident with Laura Carmichael and Sir Peter Hall recently was so bizarre - catcalling her while she was performing onstage and all of that.
JF: Yes, it is quite strange, isn't it? I believe he has issued an apology since, though. Apparently, she was quite brilliant and just kept on acting, at any rate. He is quite an old man now, so perhaps he had fallen asleep and got a shock and thought he was somewhere else or something. [Laughs.]
PC: Rumor is Dan Stevens will not be returning for Season Four.
JF: I think that people wanted to see him and it would have been really good, and, given what happened in Season Three I thought he'd be crazy not to do it... but I just don't know.
PC: The writer is undoubtedly the king on DOWNTON ABBEY - in this case, Julian - and it seems that it shares that prime authorial placement with theatre in that regard.
JF: I think that is one of the genius things that makes the show so successful is that Julian is the main creator, doing all the scripts by himself - everything. He has been such a major part of it and that's something that the actors all enjoy, too, I think, in getting every script by him - they know it is his voice. I think it's a really wonderful cast - you have these great names like Maggie Smith and Jim Carter and Hugh Bonneville and Phyllis Logan; they have been doing it a long time and they enjoy the classical nature of the work and the team that they are with; they are very relaxed, comfortable and all quite charming. Then, you have the younger actors, many of whom were virtual unknowns when they started on the show - it's been a massive break for all of them and they find it very exciting, so they have all bonded together over it. They are so full of excitement and life. So, together, there is a real feeling of a company of actors, I think - they are all good friends and they get along quite well and I think that's important to have when you are telling a story like this about a family.
PC: No Shirley MacLaine versus Maggie Smith DYNASTY cat fight homages, then?
JF: [Laughs.] No DYNASTY. Seriously, though, they have such huge respect for each other and they are such grand dames in real life anyway. Their scenes together in Series Three are just great and you really get to see them playing off of each other so well - you just don't know which to watch.
PC: It's a shame MacLaine did not return for the Christmas episode this year.
JF: Yes, but you have to remember that it was a big thing to come over back then - it was a little before planes, so you couldn't just pop over whenever you wished it. But, it's not long before the planes start going between America and the UK, so perhaps by Season Four she will be able to hop a flight over. I know for a fact that the production just loved having her around - I can tell you that.
PC: It will be a welcome return whenever she shows up again. Did you get to speak to her onset?
JF: Yes. I interviewed her, actually, and one thing I found amusing was that she said she loved filming the dinner scenes in particular - now, most people hate filming those!
PC: Why so?
JF: Well, they take twelve hours and you have to sit there for so long eating this increasingly congealing food, you know? [Laughs.]
PC: Not too appetizing.
JF: Definitely not! But, she said that she loved filming those scenes because it was so much fun to be with everyone in one scene together. So, she was regaling the whole cast with great Hollywood stories and entertaining everybody - she was a lot of fun to have onset.
PC: So, how about Michael Caine on the show in the future, then?
JF: I don't know! I don't know! I see all these interviews now with people volunteering to do cameos on the show. I think that in America you know Maggie Smith, but not a lot of the other actors - Maggie Smith is the biggest name, but there are other names, too, here, in the show - but, because of that and the fact that there are so many unknowns, the characters just sort of leap off of the screen, I think. Also, I think that if you have too many big names in small roles it can ruin your concentration slightly as a viewer. You know, "Oh, it's so-and-so as the waiter!" I think that they are most concerned with it being an authentic piece of drama, so they want to take it seriously as much as possible - of course there is a sense of humor about it all, too, but they want the characters all given equal weight and if there are too many stars added it might outbalance it. For all I know, though, Adele will be singing the DOWNTON ABBEY theme next year! [Laughs.]
PC: And Dan Stevens will be replaced with Daniel Craig!
JF: [Big Laugh.] Exactly! Exactly.
PC: Do you suppose we will see the Crawleys in the US for a spell come Season Four?
JF: Oh, that would be brilliant! That would be great - I think we would be very interested to see that here, as well. The contrast is so great - I mean, the Crawley family is rich by British standards of the time, but nothing by American standards. The first world war drained a lot of European finances, but America had not spent all of its money on armaments and warfare in the first world war, so they came out of it better off. But, yeah - taking the Crawleys over to America would be quite something. I think it would seem even bigger and even better in many ways to them.
PC: What can you tell me about Julian's new NBC series, THE GUILDED AGE?
JF: Well, I think that it is an amazing, amazing premise for a show and that it is just a brilliant time in New York. I have spoken to him briefly about it just to confirm that it is indeed happening and he said "Yes, it is," and he is working on the pilot right now, actually. [Pause.] I mean, I went to New York recently and I looked around at the buildings and I thought, "Who was building them back then?" And, when you start to think about it, it's an enormous undertaking - buildings like that were not going up anywhere else at the time; it must have involved some egos to take on something that massive.
PC: And then some!
JF: But, yeah - I think there is a lot of excitement about that project and it will be exciting to see what happens with it.
PC: Lastly: have you and your uncle Julian discussed his screen adaptation of GYPSY that he is working on with Barbra Streisand?
JF: No. I am not fortunate enough to be a part of that inner circle. [Laughs.] He is just such a prolific writer that sometimes it is hard to keep tabs on everything Julian is doing at any given time, though. I will ask him about it next time I see it now that you have mentioned it!
PC: This book is simply marvelous in every way and I wish you all the best, Jessica.
JF: Oh, thank you so much, Pat. It's been really nice talking to you. Bye.
Photo Credit: Harper Collins, ITV, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro