‘Downton Abbey’ Julian Fellowes Says Misery Isn’t ‘Mandatory’ in Entertainment

NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly talks to Downton Abbey executive producer Julian Fellowes on the latest chapter in the Crawley family story, Downton Abbey: A New Era.


“Downton Abbey” is back.


KELLY: Six years after “Downton Abbey” ended on TV, nearly three years after its first spin-off movie, now comes “Downton Abbey: A New Era.” Here’s executive producer Julian Fellowes, who created “Downton Abbey” and introduced the world to the Crawley family.

JULIAN FELLOWES: I tied everything at the end of Series 5. I tied everything at the end of Series 6. I tied everything at the end of the first movie.

KELLY: So what else is left for Fellowes to tie? Well, on the one hand, the beginning of this new era for the Crawleys.


HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Robert Crawley) You move on. You are the captain now.

KELLY: Also, a family mystery involving Violet Crawley, played by Dame Maggie Smith.


MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Years ago I met a man, and now I am in possession of a village in the south of France.

MICHELLE DOCKERY: (As Mary Crowley) What?

KELLY: And Hollywood comes to Downton.


JIM CARTER: (As Mr. Carson) A moving image in Downton.

SOPHIE MCSHERA: (As Daisy Parker) Will there be movie stars, famous?

KELLY: Julian Fellowes told me that for large old properties like Downton, modernity can be a challenge.

COMPANIONS: These houses, these families where they survive – and many survive to this day – they have to make adjustments. They have to learn to live in a different way. They have to give up certain things and so on. And it is much more difficult for the older generations to abandon the older way of life than it is for the young. And I think this is reenacted in every generation of existence, that we all end up being told by our kids how to work our computers.

KELLY: If we’re lucky, yes.

FELLOWES: And that’s kind of a different version of what they were going through, really.

KELLY: I read an interview you did in which you said – and I’ll quote – “if people watch a show I wrote, had a great night and enjoyed it, that’s enough for me.” Julian Fellowes, I read that, and I thought, gee, it’s amazing how unusual it is for someone to just say, look; I’m not trying to do something terribly risky or controversial or provocative. I want people to go to the movies and – sigh – have fun.

COMPANIONS: Yes – cry a little, laugh a little. Sometimes you hope you’ve provoked a reasonably interesting thought that they’ll consider later, when they’re, you know, sitting in traffic, waiting for the light to change. I mean, I feel like a strong part of the entertainment industry is entertaining. I’m not really trying to provoke the French Revolution. You know, I just like to make people think about things, maybe change their attitude.

You know, with a character like Thomas, the lackey at the beginning, he’s a bad boy. And so, as the show goes on, I hope you realize that it was very difficult to be gay in a time when it was illegal. And gradually, you begin to understand your reservation. You know, if a grumpy old colonel from the north feels a little more lenient, then great.

KELLY: Ever since you created him, Thomas Barrow, the footman who is promoted to butler – he has a prominent storyline. He is gay. That’s something the series explored. Without revealing any plot twists, we said this is a happy movie. You are trying to give people some joy. And Barrow ends well. He ends up better than OK in this movie, which is wonderful. I asked myself, is it realistic, do you think, for that era almost a century ago?

FELLOWES: I think it’s realistic that people have to find a way in which they can have the relationship that satisfies them. And, you know, women could live together without anyone really questioning…

KELLY: Yeah.

COMPANIONS: …Rightly or wrongly. But this was not really allowed to men. They had to have a reason to live together. And I think, you know, they find their reason. And I think that’s believable, yes. And I think a lot of that sort of thing happened in the days long after that, actually, when it was still illegal.

KELLY: “Downton” has always been about upstairs, downstairs, the aristocrats and the servants who serve them. And you pursue all your stories with equal enthusiasm. I wondered, watching this, how do you think about making a movie that’s — it’s very much about privilege. It’s about rich white people walking around in their fabulous houses and their fabulous clothes. And I asked myself, is it any different doing this now than it was over a decade ago when you were first releasing “Downton”?

COMPANIONS: No, not really. I mean, we’re looking at a certain way of life. It involves some privileged people. It involves more underprivileged people. In my mind, among the servants, you have the different types. You take those who are resentful and unhappy like O’Brien. You take those who adore the family and worship them and see them as your soap opera as Carson. You take the ones for whom it was a job, which I’m sure were the vast majority, like Mrs. Hughes. And I think that’s a very true reflection of that society.

I think in the end, you know, when you’re going to make any movie, any TV show and write a book, what you’re trying to do is tell a reasonably true story about a group of people. You know, I don’t – I mean, this modern, present thing that nothing is valid that isn’t about misery – I don’t agree with that. I think misery is good for investigating and dramatizing and all that, but I don’t think it’s mandatory.

KELLY: Will “Downton” last forever? Let’s turn it into Lord Grantham’s house…


KELLY: …I don’t know – great-great-grandchildren running around the house?

COMPANIONS: I will not go on forever. So I think there would be a real difficulty in making “Downton” go on forever. Whether it came to an end or not, I couldn’t say.

You know, I mean, one of the other things is that during the lifetime of “Downton,” the whole nature of showbiz, of how you make movies, of how they’re released, the platforms — all of this is different than it was 15 years ago. – I mean quite different. Now, of course, people complain about it in a way. But I think it’s also constantly launching new opportunities, new chances, new ways of doing things. And, you know, I like that. I find it interesting. And I like being a part of it. So if “Downton” is reborn in a different shape or size, then, you know, I hope to be a part of that.

KELLY: Well, I can say I hope you’re not done yet because it was so much fun.

COMPANIONS: Well, we shall see – none of us is eternal.


KELLY: That’s “Downton” creator Julian Fellowes. Julian Fellowes, thank you.

COMPANIONS: Thank you for having me. It was very nice of you.

KELLY: The new movie is “Downton Abbey: A New Age.” Come out next week.


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