Three years ago, would you have predicted British and American audiences alike would be fascinated by questions like "What are that footman Thomas and lady's maid O'Brien planning?" and "Who will inherit that large estate through British law?"?
But the TV series "Downton Abbey," which airs on ITV in the UK and on PBS in the US and addresses just such questions, has audiences on both sides of the Atlantic hooked. Fans are eagerly awaiting the season 3 premiere of the show in the States on Jan. 6, which will bring the show into the 1920s.
Impatient US fans had a bit of a consolation prize this fall with the release of the book "The Chronicles of Downton Abbey," which shared behind-the-scenes details about the show and discussed the time period in which it was set. Jessica Fellowes, the niece of "Downton" creator, writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes, wrote both "Chronicles" and a previous book, "The World of Downton Abbey" and is also the author of titles including "Is There A Psycho In Your Life?" and "Mud and The City: Do's and Don'ts for Townies in the Country."
In an interview with the Monitor, Fellowes discusses why "Downton" fascinates so many viewers, the secret to the actors getting in character, and more. Here are excerpts from the conversation.
Q: During the process of writing the two books, how often were you on the set when the seasons were being filmed?
A: When I was doing the first book, I wasn't writing it until after the first series wrapped, because obviously when the first series was being filmed, nobody had a clue [of its future success]. For the second series, I went on the set... not a huge amount, to be honest, because I was on such a tight deadline to write the book. I was at my kitchen table, typing, most of the time. I didn't really go for the third series – I had a researcher help me that time because I had to do two books in the first six months of this year.
I mean, I've been to Highclere [Castle, where the "upstairs" world is filmed]. It's a real privilege to go and see it, and Highclere is impressive, but I really like going to Ealing Studios [where the servants' rooms are filmed], because there's something amazing about the fact that they've built it all completely from scratch. They had to imagine, think and source every tiny bit that's on there, and it's so beautifully done, like Mrs. Patmore's kitchen.
There was a really funny thing about the cookbook – in those days, obviously, when you owned a copy of "Mrs. Beaton's Household Recipes," you owned a new copy. But if you put a new copy of a book in a period drama, people think it's wrong. They like it to look kind of dirty. I mean, that book did come out in the 1860s or something, I think, so you could get away with it being an older book, but it's just funny – you can't use anything that looks too new.
She's an interesting character because you have this hierarchy downstairs. [Butler] Carson and [housekeeper] Mrs. Hughes are almost a mirror reflection of Lord and Lady Grantham upstairs. You have these little dominions within kingdoms, where everybody's just trying to master what they've got. If anything, upstairs, it's more fluid than that.
Q: With other seasons coming up, would you consider writing another book on "Downton"?
A: I don't know – I think they are thinking about another book, which I will be involved in in some way, but I'm so committed to other projects at the moment... [But] I'm still very interested in keeping to the period. It's a period that I've always been interested in. All my favorite authors are from that time.
Q: What are a few of those authors?
A: Evelyn Waugh. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, Graham Greene, a couple of Ernest Hemingways. Antonia White is the latest discovery from that time – those are my comfort authors. They're always by my bed.
Q: What do you think appeals to people about "Downton"?
A: I think it's a combination of factors. It is a beautiful program and it's so well-written, obviously.
It has great actors of a caliber as well as unknowns, which I think is quite important, because you don't project anything onto them. We're able to meet them all for the first time. But then there's someone like Maggie Smith – you know who she is, and she's almost a reassuring figure and authoritative.
I think it's absolutely gorgeous to look at. You've got a real treat in store for the third season coming up, with the 1920s clothes. I think the fact that it goes out on a Sunday night is a masterstroke because it's when the whole family sits down together. You're in that kind of relaxed mood and ready to escape a little bit.
And then I think what's really clever is there's just a wide range of characters. It's very important to Julian and the producers that everyone be given equal treatment, equal weight, when it comes to story lines, whether they're above stairs or below stairs, it doesn't matter as to how they're treated on the show. I think because of that, whoever you are, you'll find somebody who you recognize. And nobody is black-and-white. There's a lot of shades in their characters, so you can find some sort of sympathy.
It does play on the issue of British class, which doesn't ever really go away and is always of interest to us, even if we're only measuring our ancestors by it.
Q: You said in your book that for a lot of the scenes, the aristocrats would be filming at Highclere Castle and the servants are on the sound stages. Did that help the dynamic between the cast, almost keeping them separate?
A: I think in a funny sort of way, it did create a sort of real-life above and below stairs sort of feeling. That house is a real castle. You can't help but sort of behave differently as soon as you walk through the doors. I think for the actors playing the family, it made a big difference for them and their performance.
And then Ealing Studios is an amazing set. And it's all in one seamless thing – you walk from the servants' hall through the hallway into the kitchen, you come off it into Carson's pantry. It is, as you say, sort of a soundstage, so very close by is the crew hanging around in their jeans and you can eat sandwiches and it's much more of a working atmosphere and it's much more relaxed.
In the first series, [Lesley Nichols, who plays cook Mrs. Patmore] was only at Highclere Castle once, and she said that she arrived and she felt genuinely kind of intimidated by the house. It is quite funny, because you see Mrs. Patmore, who's absolutely mistress of her kitchen – saucy, quick-tongued – and then she meets Lord Grantham and she's terribly sort of meek and she says she felt very cowed by the location when she got there.
It definitely helps, just like the right costumes help actors. They have to wear the right costumes all the way down to your underwear, because those corsets make you stand and sit in the right kind of way and what those people of that time were doing. When Lady Mary takes off her jeans and slips on her couture gown for the evening, I think that absolutely helps.
Q: When the show first premiered here in the States, critics worried, "Oh, Americans won't know what an entail is, they won't know these British terms" – did you worry about that?
A: It wasn't my concern, it was the producers', [but one of the] producers said the other day that PBS said, "Oh, maybe we shouldn't be using an entail," and he said, "We don't know what it is in Britain!" Which we don't. It's not a word we commonly use, it's not really a problem for more than 500 people.
But I do think it is a measure of Julian's success as a writer that he doesn't patronize his audience. He often will put in historical references that he doesn't fully explain, because he wants people to find it out for themselves. He wants to drive people to further knowledge, as it were, with the series, and I think he does do that.
Q: And the plan now is for the show to run five seasons?
A: I have no idea... I know we've confirmed the fourth series, but beyond that, they always get very cagey about confirming exactly what they're going to do.
Q: And probably same thing, but – have you heard about whether Dan Stevens will return for season four?
A: I haven't heard anything about it, but I've got my fingers crossed, because I like him so much and I think that his character, he's someone that people want to watch.