Downton Abbey creator says new movie was like making bouillabaisse with family

Downton Abbey: A New Era sees a modern form of show business enter the lives of the main characters. PHOTO: UIP

SINGAPORE - Fans of the British period drama series Downton Abbey have, across six seasons and a movie, seen the story move forward in time from 1912 to 1928.

In that span, the modern age had crept into the lives of both the aristocrats - those who live upstairs in the stately home that gives the show its name - and the working-class folk downstairs who serve them.

It was time to crank up the speed, says creator and writer Julian Fellowes at an online media event for the movie Downton Abbey: A New Era.

"We had quite a strong agenda - we wanted to make a statement about the 20th century invading Downton," says Fellowes, 72.

Only after that theme was solidified did the screenplay and the new movie's title follow, he adds.

Downton Abbey: A New Era opens in cinemas on Thursday (April 28).

Along with the idea of modernity arriving with a bang, the production team felt they had to get the characters "out of England", Fellowes says.

Set in 1928, a few months after the events of the previous film, Downton Abbey (2019), A New Erasees a modern form of show business enter the lives of the main characters, when the Crawley family reluctantly agree to let a studio use their home as a film location because they need the money.

In another story thread, several members of the family travel to southern France to sort out legal issues after the Dowager Countess (played by Maggie Smith) inherits a villa there, out of the blue.

Show business, in particular the movie business, is a uniquely modern creation, as well as an industry everyone knows and fantasises about.

"It's invaded every home on the planet. What's it like being an actor? What's it like to win an Oscar? People giving acceptance speeches in the shower - it's a 20th-century phenomenon that has become part of our daily lives," says Fellowes.

The upper-crust Crawleys and their servants play host to the working-class film crew, creating tensions between the classes and revealing the attitudes the upper classes held about the movie industry while it was still in its infancy.

"We're testing the Crawleys against something we already have a feeling about," says Fellowes.

The Englishman has had a long career as a novelist, screenwriter and producer in film, television and theatre. The script he wrote for period murder mystery Gosford Park (2001) won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.

The Emmy-winning series Downton Abbey, which he created and which ran for six seasons (2010 to 2015), has been shown on various networks, including Netflix. The movie Downton Abbey picks up from the series' timeline with the same cast.

Its commercial success led to the second new movie, which features an ensemble cast and several story threads - each with its own tone, just like the series.

Fellowes says: "Every episode would have one storyline that was serious or moving, and another that was funny. It was all mixed up in a kind of bouillabaisse. We took that and put it on the big screen for an audience that was already expecting that. The Downton audience expects a few laughs and to have a slightly moist eye."

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It was not difficult to pick up from where he had left off in the first movie. After all, he has been with these characters a long time.

"You're just going on, chatting about people you know pretty well by this stage. We've been talking about and watching these people for a dozen years, so these stories evolve quite naturally."

Downton Abbey: A New Era opens in cinemas on April 28.

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