Downtown Abbey: It's the end

Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey (left). The trick of the series is for it to be very densely plotted so that there are lots of different stories going on, says creator Julian Fellowes.
Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey (above). The trick of the series is for it to be very densely plotted so that there are lots of different stories going on, says creator Julian Fellowes. PHOTOS: DIVA/NBC UNIVERSAL, REUTERS

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes wraps up series with Season 6 before ideas run out

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes remembers fondly a number of American soap operas from the 1980s. He draws attention to the final episode of The Colbys, in which a major character, Fallon, blasts off into space in a UFO. Launched as a spin-off from the hit show Dynasty, The Colbys seemingly ran out of story ideas.

"And as I always say, I completely understand why they finished with Fallon going up in an alien rocket ship because you get to the point as a writer when you ask, 'What else can I do with these guys?' and they clearly reached that point," Fellowes, 66, says when Life catches up with the celebrated screenwriter ahead of the new season of Downton Abbey.

"That is one of the main reasons we are finishing our show at this moment - we don't want to get to that point where the characters have to go up in rocket ships. This seems a good moment to say goodbye."

After five seasons, 50 shows and a host of pithy one-liners from Dame Maggie Smith et al, the immensely popular episodic British period drama is now entering its sixth and final season.

Set in a fictional aristocratic household in the north of England, it has followed the fortunes of the Crawley family and their servants from the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and into the Roaring Twenties.

  • Plenty of tears as emotions run high

  • Elizabeth McGovern (who plays Cora, Countess of Grantham)

    "Before I did my last scene, I announced that I was not going to cry after the scene was done. And then I dissolved in a flood of tears."

    Hugh Bonneville (Robert, Earl of Grantham)

    "My last scene was with Lady Mary and with Carson and Mrs Hughes and it was more reflective than a vale of tears. Michelle (who plays Lady Mary) reminded me that she had done my first scene with her back in 2010 and the principal difference between the first scene and the last scene was that I was grey in Season 1. That's what Downtown has done to me."

    Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley)

    "I had a very tricky one because everyone had gone. There was just me and the set and one other actor. All the sets were coming down and it was a very lonely hospital corridor that I had to walk along. What had been a teeming, busy studio with hundreds of people dashing about became this sort of shell. That was difficult. I shed a tear. I was sad to see it all go and that last scene was rather lonely."

    Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Crawley)

    "It was terribly emotional and I felt sick leading up to that final take, anticipating those words 'And that's the wrap' after six years. It was such a mixture of emotion. My last scene, I was actually below the stairs, which was really poignant for me. I was with Jim Carter, Phyllis Logan and Hugh Bonneville. And it was such a lovely way to end it, particularly with Jim. I liked it that Mary and Carson had their final moment together."

    Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes)

    "My last day was very emotional. I thought that I was going to keep myself under control, but I failed. I lasted through the actual scene, but it was only when some of the crew were sobbing into my neck that I wept then as well."

    Robert James-Collier (Thomas Barrow)

    "There were lots of man hugs, back-slapping and me trying not to cry. I was trying to be stoic, saying, 'No, I'm not crying. It's just the dust in Ealing Studios.' The crew were in tears as well and they have it hard. We actors just swan in for a few minutes a day."

    Michael Fox (Andy Parker)

    "I wasn't saying goodbye to it in the same way because I have had a really incredible year. It was very lovely and very humbling and I loved our final singing scene. It is Christmas and we were singing Auld Lang Syne and it was the perfect way to end it."

    Joanne Froggatt (Anna Bates)

    "Our executive producer popped in to do a little speech and, as soon as he started talking, I was crying. I tried to thank everybody and to say how amazing it all had been for the last six years, but I burst into tears. It all hit me in one go. But it was a joyous emotion as well. It was an overwhelming feeling of pride, that we had done all these things together."

    Raquel Cassidy (Phyllis Baxter)

    "We were singing a song (Auld Lang Syne) which is traditionally quite upsetting. It can be quite a moving song and you can't keep your emotions in if you are singing. I tried to sing the last line, but I couldn't, I was too choked. Jim (Carter, who plays Charles Carson) tried to thank the crew for us all and he started to cry. We were all sobbing, really crying. It was messy."

Asked to consider the show's legacy, Fellowes says: "We made a good show that a lot of people enjoyed. That's enough for me and I hope people remember it with affection.

"Certainly, I will. It is unlikely that I will again be involved in anything as successful, so it has a kind of aura in my life. But, for me, it is enough to think that we gave a lot of people a lot of pleasure."

Fans of the show are spread across more than 100 countries, from America to South Korea to China, all revelling in the immaculate acting, opulent sets, impeccable costumes and riveting storylines, which have culminated in a clutch of awards.

Downton was recognised in 2011 by Guinness World Records as the most critically acclaimed English- language television series - it earned the most nominations of any international television series in the history of the Primetime Emmy Awards, scooping 27 in total after just the first two series.

A whole host of cast members, meanwhile, from Dan Stevens to Jessica Brown Findlay and Lily James, have found success in Hollywood.

The producers believe that the show has resonated so deeply with viewers because of the universality of its narrative - the importance of social status, its unabashed romance and the multitude of characters that provide so many different points of entry for the viewer.

"The trick of Downton is for it to be very, very densely plotted so that there are lots of different stories going," explains Fellowes. "There is one big story, several little stories, funny stories, sad stories, and, over six years, you have an enormous amount of narrative. Practically everything has happened to all the characters."

At his home, he says he has a sign that reads: "As far as anyone knows we are a normal family." And that, he notes, applies to Downton. "It is something which you explore in this kind of drama. You explore a family and everybody in some way has a connection to that. There is always something."

Another "trick of the show", he says, is that while it looks like a traditional, British period drama with plenty of stiff upper lips and even stiffer corsets, "the structure is much closer to The West Wing or ER or Mad Men or any other of those American shows".

"That is quite deliberate. America, to a very large degree, reinvented television narrative and made it seem very exciting, spicy and dynamic. We are in that tradition rather than in the tradition of British shows of the 1970s, which moved much more slowly," he says.

Next up for Fellowes: a TV drama set in 1870s New York, "which is a little bit earlier than Downton and is about the great fortunes that came out of the American Civil War landing in New York at that time and there is this battle between new money and old established money".

Later this year, he will oversee a musical on Broadway that is based on the 2003 Jack Black movie School Of Rock. "That seems to me to be quite a long way away from my usual diet of ladies' maids and intrigue," he says with a chuckle. "I am very lucky being asked to do different stuff."

As for the future of the Downton franchise, there will be a final Christmas special, of course, but what about a movie?

"There is talk of a movie and I think a movie would be fun because we could open the whole thing up in a way that you can't on television," says Fellowes.

"Suddenly, you have the power to tell the story in a completely different way, visually, and it would be interesting. But, for it to happen, the cast would have to be on board and the studio would have to want to make it. We will see.

"But this is the end of the television show. That is one thing we can say definitely."

• Downton Abbey Season 6 premieres in Singapore on Diva (StarHub TV Channel 513 or Singtel TV Channel 303) on Monday at 10.20pm, same-day telecast as Britain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 17, 2015, with the headline 'IT'S THE END'. Print Edition | Subscribe