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...)


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