Creator Julian Fellowes on the Success of Downton Abbey

Creator Julian Fellowes on the Success of Downton Abbey

As the sixth season of Downton Abbey plays out — hopefully to a happy conclusion for all our favorite characters — fans are curious about the creator, Julian Fellowes. What exactly IS the secret to his success?

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He answered it a while back in a UK’s Daily Mail article several years ago. “Julian Fellowes, the Oscar-winning creator of Downton Abbey and Gosford Park, says the real secret to his success is his wife, Lady Emma Kitchener, who cured him of his insecurities and allowed his career to flourish.”

Julian Alexander Fellowes was born in Cairo, Egypt, on August 17th in 1949 (sharing the same birthday with Meg, by the way, if not the year — under the sign of Leo), and the youngest of four sons. His father served in the Foreign Office before returning the family to Wetherby Place, South Kensington, and Chiddingly in East Sussex. Fellowes attended private Catholic schools before earning an MA from his studies at Magdelene College, Cambridge. But Julian admits his grandmother Emily fostered his love of upper class living with stories of serving at Penybont Hall in Powys, Wales, where his great-grandfather acted as agent — which no doubt inspired the successful films and series in his career.

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Fellowes is also a late bloomer — a trait shared by the team of D.E. Ireland, by the way. Julian (we may call him that, I hope, given how Anglophiles have adopted him into the “family”)  had thirty years of limited success in minor television and film roles, including portraying the Prince of Wales (not Bertie, but the future King George IV) in the1982  Anthony Andrews and Jane Seymour vehicle The Scarlet Pimpernel. Fellowes returned to Britain and his roots in 1983. Five years later, he met his future wife — a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and a niece of the third Earl Kitchener — which no doubt gave Julian an “eye” and “ear” into the privileged world of the upper class.

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Above is Stafford House, West Stafford, Dorset, England, which was utilized as the setting for Jane Austen’s Emma starring Gwyneth Paltrow (1996). Julian bought it, since the village and church have a strong link to the novelist Thomas Hardy (a favorite of ours, too). Mud has been flung on the poor fellow (pun intended) citing Julian’s so-called snobbery, and how his family belonged in the kitchen instead of the drawing room. But Americans don’t mind. And the team of D.E. Ireland has roots in European peasantry, so we’d be the last to sling insults — perhaps bread would be more apropos. We applaud Julian’s success which wasn’t instant either (similar to the two of us). After writing a number of failed scripts, he came up with gold — Gosford Park, which netted him an Oscar in 2002.

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We’ve always believed that getting a major nod really opens up doors. Plus Gosford Park, set in 1932, is a murder mystery so that’s an extra bonus. It also boasts Maggie Smith (the current Lady Violet Crawley, of course) and Michael Gambon, among others.

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Julian’s rejected novel, Snobs, hit the bestseller list after publication in 2004, and he also wrote the screenplay for the film Vanity Fair. Next on the agenda? In autumn of that year, Julian wrote and hosted a five-part docu-drama for BBC One, Julian Fellowes Investigates: A Most Mysterious Murder. Each of the five episodes focused on an unsolved murder in British history. The series did have detractors, however, claiming guesswork and speculation, but lots of fun. Shades of what was to come.

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His screenplay, The Young Victoria, portraying the teenage Princess Victoria’s (Emily Blunt) ascent to the throne after her father’s death, and her courtship / wedding to her beloved Prince Albert (Rupert Friend), became a film in 2009. It’s a wonderful period drama with accurate historical costumes and details, by the way, so make sure you see it.

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Already in the works for Julian — Downton Abbey, which debuted in September of 2010. No one guessed how popular the series would be at the time, especially after the episodes aired in America on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. The team of D.E. Ireland, long-time Anglo-philes, knew it would soar on the viewing charts. Julian set the the fictional country manor of Downton Abbey in Yorkshire, although they used the Jacobethan style architecture of Highclere Castle, the 5,000 acre estate of Lord and Lady Carnarvon, which includes a park designed by Capability Brown — considered “England’s greatest gardener” in the 1700s.

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Downton Abbey is “Upstairs, Downstairs” version for the 21st century. It follows the lives of the Crawley family and their servants, beginning from the days following the Titanic disaster — in which the male heir, a nephew of Lord Grantham, is lost at sea. The film Titanic was such a hit, how could anyone not love this series? And the post-Edwardian era, as D.E. Ireland knows well, is fascinating. But of course, naysayers eventually surfaced claiming the relationships between aristocrats and the domestic help are wrong, that anti-Catholic emotions of the time would have prevented Lord Grantham from hiring an Irish Catholic chauffeur — much less accept his daughter’s marriage to Branson — and so on. Ah, well. Critics always come out of the polished woodwork.

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Remember those stories Julian’s grandmother told him, which inspired Downton Abbey? There’s a great article about the mini-manor house in Wales — click here. Not quite on the same scale as Highclere Castle, but still. Interesting, nonetheless. Julian also wrote the four-part television miniseries, Titanic, which came out in 2012, plus the screenplays for both the 2013 films Romeo and Juliet and Gypsy (the remake of the Ethel Merman classic), as well as the script adaptation of the Agatha Christie-based mystery novel Crooked House for film. But Great Houses, below, is closest to our hearts.

Julian took on this new series, in which he tours some of the great houses of Britain, in late 2015. Julian even claims a link to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Spymaster. Hey, sounds cool to us, true or not. He’s a great storyteller on camera, charming and kind, but the houses and their former occupants really make the show.

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What’s next for Julian? Well, despite the news that he’s at work on an American Gilded Age drama for television, we’re hoping the fellow will consider our books. Wouldn’t they make a great show? The team of D.E. Ireland certainly thinks so. We’re awaiting his call.

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