Wednesday, 28 November 2012

In which I meet Julian Fellowes, and learn some Downton Abbey secrets...

Well, my dears, the excitement! Last night I went along to the Society of Authors' offices in Drayton Gardens with my friend and fellow writer, Yang-May Ooi, to hear Julian Fellowes (who scarcely needs introducing as the man who created Downton Abbey) talk about life before and after Downton. Yang-May had had the presence of mind to bring a camera, and after the talk had finished, we boldly carved a path through the crowd of admirers to ask for a photograph. Look, here we are! It wasn't a dream!

Lord Fellowes - Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, as we should properly call him - began by saying that the breakthrough in his career had come when the director Robert Altman asked him to work on a country-house murder mystery (but 'a whocareswhodunnit, rather than a whodunnit'), set in the 1930s. This film was Gosford Park, the forerunner to Downton Abbey, which was to earn its writer an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and change his life. Before that, Julian Fellowes has described himself as 'a fifty-year-old fat balding actor', who had once waited for hours by the telephone to find out if he'd been cast as replacement dwarf in Fantasy Island. Now, post-Gosford and post-Downton, directors are beating a path to his door and he can hardly have time to breathe. A fourth series of DA has just been commissioned and there's the Christmas special to write; I read elsewhere that a series on English country houses fronted by him for ITV is in the pipeline, and that he's working with NBC on a programme about the American elite.

Success hasn't made him arrogant, however; in person, he is every bit as charming as Lord Grantham or Matthew Crawley at their most persuasive. Anyone can tell he has an actor's training: he projects his voice effortlessly to the back of the room and embarks on anecdotes with gusto. That incident when Mr Pamuk the Turk expires post-coitally in Lady Mary's bed, which some people have said stretches the bounds of credibility? Well, it really happened. The incident was inspired by the diary of an aunt of one of his friends, who related the very same thing happening along 'a corridor of women' who all realized the implications of such a scandal and dragged the corpse back to a more appropriate bedroom.

He also told us a wonderful story about Robert Altman wanting to cut one of the best lines of all in Gosford Park (delivered by Maggie Smith, of course), in which she tells the movie producer that he needn't worry about giving away the denouement of his latest murder mystery 'because none of us will ever see it'. Apparently the very idea of anyone not wanting to watch a film was so upsetting to Mr Altman that he could hardly bear to include the line; Dame Maggie had to persuade him she could somehow 'make it work'.

So what else did we learn? His wife, Emma, is his first script-reader. She is the person who suggested making Bates the valet, lame - which raises a host of interesting questions. Why would Lord G employ a handicapped servant? What is their past history which makes the one indebted to the other? (Questions that, unless I missed a crucial moment, the series has yet to answer...) Also, he reads every word of the script out loud, which shows him the repetitions that need to be deleted and whether the dialogue will work. And as to the secret of Downton Abbey's success, he believes it is because Downton is 'inclusive'. Everyone has their story to tell, from Daisy the scullery maid to Lord G himself, and each story carries the same weight.

Goodness, I think he may be right. Added to that, the casting is great, the setting is spectacular, and if the storylines are occasionally a bit bonkers, they're deliciously so. What's not to like? My one regret is that in the time allowed for questions afterwards, I didn't ask the most pressing one of all: So what is it with O'Brien and Thomas? Why did she love him to begin with and why does she hate him now?

What's the question you would have asked Lord F, had you been there? (And just so you know, he won't say anything about future plot developments...)


Monday, 19 November 2012

Delicious Dower House Chutney

Clarence House
I've been thinking about dower houses - those 'spillover' buildings where the widow of an estate-owner (the dowager) was usually dispatched on the death of her husband, to make way for the new heir. Clarence House in London was used as the dower house for Buckingham Palace when Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, moved there in 1953 after she was widowed. There's a dower house on the estate at Swallowcliffe, where Kate and Edward have been living since their marriage. When Edward's father dies, he and Kate will move into the main house and his mother will take their place in the
Dower House. Somehow I feel she won't retire gracefully and make life easy for Kate when she takes over the running of the Hall.

I haven't started writing yet, or even planning in much detail, so I'm busily looking for displacement acivities and distractions. Making Dower House Chutney feels vaguely productive, especially at this time of year when plums and apples are plentiful. (I suppose the recipe name must have come from a dower house with lots of fruit trees.) This chutney will make a great Christmas present, though it needs 2 - 3 months to mature. Eat with cheese and cold meats, and add a spoonful to your gravy for a lovely fruity taste.

You need:
11/2 lb (700g) dark-skinned plums - Victoria's if you can get them
2 lb (900g) sour green cooking apples, peeled and cored
8 oz (225g) tomatoes, skinned by soaking in boiling water and coarsely chopped
8 oz (225g) onions, peeled and cut into chunks
1 lb raisins
4 oz (110g) preserved ginger in syrup
6 - 8 cloves garlic
1 1/2 tablespoons salt
1 1/2 lb (700g) demerara sugar
2 tablespoons pickling spice, tied in a square of muslin
1 pint (570 ml/3 cups) malt vinegar

A preserving pan or large saucepan
A square of muslin
8 jam jars, sterilised in warm oven

Halve and stone the plums, cut them into rough chunks and put in the pan with the roughly-chopped skinned tomatoes. Peel, core and quarter the apples and whizz them in a food processor with the onions, preserved ginger and raisins. Add these to the pan with the chopped or minced garlic, and stir in the sugar, vinegar and salt. Lastly, add the pickling spice tied up in a square of muslin.

Cook the chutney very slowly for about 1 1/2 hours. You want most of the vinegar to evaporate, so that when you draw a wooden spoon through the chutney, it doesn't immediately fill with liquid. This is about right:

Fill the warm jars, screwing on the lids when the chutney has cooled, and leave for about 2 - 3 months for the vinegar taste to mellow.

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Taking my mind - and the dog - for a walk

Brockwell Hall, the Georgian house in my local park
Just now I'm in the fallow period before starting to write my next Swallowcliffe Hall book: Lady Catherine's Story, in which Kate Vye takes over the running of the Hall when her husband Edward inherits the title on the death of his father. I find walking really productive when mulling over ideas - a combination of being out of the house in the fresh air and moving along to a rhythm, which seems to help my mind make connections as well.

I'm trying to imagine the dilemmas Kate would face, becoming mistress of a place like Swallowcliffe: her relationship with her fearsome mother-in-law, now exiled to the Dower House (maybe even refusing to go?), her dealings with the servants, who are possibly reluctant to take orders from a young American woman, the state of her marriage to a self-centred husband, used to getting his own way. Her money has saved the Hall but Edward considers it his, to use as he likes. There's also the fact that, after 6 or 7 years of marriage, they still have no children. And always in the background is Edward's charming brother, Rory. Has Kate married the wrong man? Does he still love her? Will she ever be happy with the life she has chosen?  I must think about her upbringing and her American family, too: her relationship with her parents, and with her cousin, Julia, who has married an Englishman and settled in the country. Because I've written about the Vye family in various periods of history (and in fact Kate's ultimate fate is described in Isobel's Story), there are various facts that constrain me - the trick is to throw in a few surprises along the way.

From the collection of Patrick Lynch
I'm looking forward to getting to know Kate. Up until now, we've only seen her through other people's eyes: Polly, the servant who maids for her when she first comes to stay at the Hall in 1890; Eugenie Vye, Kate's sister-in-law, who considers her attempts to look after the tenants on the estate a waste of time and money; Grace, Polly's daughter, who works at the house during the First World War and sees Lady Vye return from an ill-fated voyage aboard the Lusitania. Now I must try to catch Kate's voice and let her speak for herself. A cover image certainly helps. After a long search, I've found this photograph, which seems to me to represent Kate perfectly: her beauty, her enthusiasm, her energy. If you've read the books, does she look like Kate to you? I'd love to know!
So it will take a few more walks in the park before I've made a start at working it all out, before the characters begin to take shape. I don't want them to be cliches. The housekeeper, for example: we're all too familiar with a Mrs Danvers figure, hovering in the corridors full of malicious intent. Yet she can't be straightforwardly wonderful, either; there must be something or someone for Kate to rub up against (although Edward fills that role very well). I'm slightly concerned that her life may be too hard. If her marriage is unhappy, will the story be overly bleak? Somehow I must find a way of bringing joy into it.

I also need to think about where to begin. I wrote Eugenie's Story in the form of a diary, so that the reader discovered events pretty much the same time as she did. The first three stories were all told retrospectively, however, with a short coda at the end in the present tense - as Polly watches Kate leave the Hall to be married, as Grace and Philip declare their feelings for each other, and as Isobel describes what Swallowcliffe Hall has become in 1939.  I think I might go back to that format. I may even have Kate starting the story by remembering her wedding, describing it quite differently from Polly. And Polly must come back into the story - she and Kate have a special bond - so I shall have to work out what's happening to her in 1900.

So much to decide! Now where's the dog lead?