Downton Abbey creator says not easy coming up with storyline

Julian Fellowes (above) wrote the six seasons of Downton Abbey, starring Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery, and says he rarely took suggestions from the cast or fans.
Julian Fellowes (above) wrote the six seasons of Downton Abbey, starring Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery, and says he rarely took suggestions from the cast or fans.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY
Julian Fellowes wrote the six seasons of Downton Abbey, starring (above from left) Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery, and says he rarely took suggestions from the cast or fans.
Julian Fellowes wrote the six seasons of Downton Abbey, starring (above from left) Laura Carmichael, Elizabeth McGovern and Michelle Dockery, and says he rarely took suggestions from the cast or fans.PHOTO: DIVA/ NBC UNIVERSAL

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes, who wrote all 52 episodes of the British TV series, says it was a challenge to keep the characters' stories going

8Q

Julian Fellowes, the creator and screenwriter of acclaimed television series Downton Abbey, admits that it was not always easy thinking up new storylines for his hit British period drama.

In a sit-down interview with The Straits Times in Singapore recently, the 67-year-old says the "greatest challenge for anyone writing an ongoing drama was to keep the balls in the air, to keep everyone's stories going".

He adds: "As the years went on, practically everyone has ended up with everyone else - and I finally understood why, at the end of (soap opera) Dynasty, Fallon ended up in a rocket ship with aliens."

As challenging as it was, Fellowes must have done something right as his show picked up numerous awards during its six-season run from 2010 to 2015, including a 2011 Emmy for Outstanding Miniseries and a 2012 Golden Globe for the same category.

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Beyond its domestic success in the United Kingdom, the show, which depicts the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and its servants at the turn of the 20th century, also became a huge hit across North America and Asia.

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NBC Universal, a producer of the series, certainly believes in the show's enduring popularity - so much so, that it has put together a multi-million-dollar Downton- themed exhibition, even though it has been 11/2 years since the series ended.

Fellowes was in town to launch the exhibition, which is showing at Marina Bay Sands before it travels to cities such as New York and Toronto.

The studio has also said there is a possibility the cast will reunite for a Downton Abbey movie, although nothing has been confirmed.

Whether or not the film happens, Fellowes sticks by the decision to end the show on TV when it did.

The screenwriter, who has an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for writing mystery film Gosford Park (2001), says: "That's really the final challenge of being the writer - to bring the curtain down when people are still sorry to see it come down and not overstay your welcome.

"I think we did that. And if people were indeed sorry to see it go, then I'm glad."

1 What do you think was the major reason behind the immense success of Downton Abbey?

I think a big part has to do with luck. If you're lucky enough to have a big hit, you don't ever really know why. Because there are also many shows which are very, very good, but no one cares about them.

There's no science to it - it's luck. One should never expect luck. One hopes for luck, but never expects it.

2 You wrote all 52 episode of Downton Abbey, which is rare for a long-running TV show as these are usually conceived by a writer's room, which is a team of writers. Why did you choose to work this way?

We did at one point try to bring in other writers and they were extremely nice, talented and hardworking. But for some reason - I'm sure it's my fault - they couldn't get the style of the show. So I took over and we never did that again.

3 Do you think it is better if TV shows refrain from using a writer's room then?

Not at all. I loved Mad Men (2007- 2015) and (creator of the show) Matthew Weiner ran a writer's room for that. Its sense of distinctive style and sound just never wavered.

I personally find it a challenge to manage a writer's room, but it has definitely worked with success. If I have to manage a writer's room one day, I'll have to take Weiner out for lunch and ask him about it.

4 Fans have different opinions of how they want their favourite characters to end up on the show. Have you ever read their comments online and taken any of their suggestions?

Fans have actually sent me their suggestions over the years and some have been quite persistent. Someone really wanted Mary (played by Michelle Dockery) to marry Tom Branson (Allen Leech), and various other things.

I appreciate people writing to me and it's nice that they're so invested in this, but I think it would be a dangerous route to start allowing them to call the tune, so it's one that I would resist.

5 Did the Downton Abbey cast members ever try to persuade you to write a certain storyline for them?

They would, occasionally. I would listen to an actor's complaint if they didn't like a storyline or a speech, but I'm afraid to say that I wouldn't usually change anything for them. I think that if I did that, things would quickly get out of hand and you need to have one person at the control of the narrative. You've got to have someone behind the wheel, or it all comes off track.

6 You are known for writing original content, but you have adapted works as well, such as the novel Doctor Thorne for TV, and the movie School Of Rock for the stage. Which do you enjoy doing more?

To write an adaptation, you have the confidence that this story works because it has already worked either as a novel or a movie or whatever. So you have that as a structure and that makes you feel safe.

But on the other hand, with an original work, you can do what you like. You are god and you create this world and make everyone do what you want them to do.

In the end, they're both pretty good fun. I'm happy to be asked to do either, really.

7 Which TV shows do you enjoy watching?

I'm trying to watch The Good Fight, the spin-off of The Good Wife (2009-2016), which I absolutely loved. But The Good Fight has a marketing policy where you have to have a streaming membership or something and as I have difficulty even with a pencil sharpener, it has been an unbeatable hurdle.

Recently, I very much enjoyed The Crown (2017), which I thought was marvellous, and I also still dream of Mad Men and The West Wing (1999-2006).

8 How would you like to be remembered?

To be honest, I don't think it's terribly important to be remembered. If I feel I gave a lot of people a lot of fun over six years, that's enough for me. That's my reward.

In my family, I would like to be remembered by my descendants, but whether I am remembered by anyone else, I don't care much.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 03, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping the balls in the air'. Print Edition | Subscribe