With the second series of Downton Abbey well underway, the people who bring it to our screens every Sunday spoke at Cheltenham festival about the programme that the nation has taken into its heart
Julian Fellowes is the man behind the plan to broadcast original costume drama onto primetime TV to the X Factor audience – and so far it’s going very well indeed. Downton’s first series attracted 10 million viewers, disproving anyone’s presumptions that people are tired of costume dramas. But the second series, although still pulling in the millions, is proving not quite as popular – the first episode had 1.3million viewers tune out before it ended.
Fellowes was interviewed by Mark Lawson at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival, along with his niece and author of The World of Downton Abbey Jessica Fellowes, Downton executive producer Gareth Neame, and Dan Stevens, who plays Matthew Crawley.
Questions raised by Lawson and audience members in the sold-out event asked Fellowes whether he thought the drama was turning into a soap opera, why large time gaps are skimmed over, and ‘those’ Aviva adverts.
“The original concept in my optimistic head was for the first series to start towards the end of the Edwardian era, the second to be set during World War One and the third in the 1920s,” Fellowes explained. He said he perhaps would have slowed the pace slightly had he known how successful the first series was going to be. “But the problem with not having a gap is there is no back story. The characters won’t have moved on.”
The audience seemed concerned about how swiftly the series was moving, citing is as more soap than drama with all the storylines, but Fellowes said that any criticism was a good thing as it shows the audience is “engaging”. “People want to take ownership of this show. I used to get affronted, but now I understand that it’s people engaging. Everybody wants an opinion.”
Fellowes said he “loved” the parody Downturn Abbey front cover Private Eye did in November 2010, which replaced the actors’ heads with those of politicians. Dan Stevens said the cover caused some confusion in his house – he framed the cover and hung it on the wall, and one day walked past it holding his two-year-old daughter, who pointed at Nick Clegg’s head on Stevens’ body and said “Daddy!” Stevens said of playing the heartthrob heir: “I said I wouldn’t do another costume drama (he has appeared in TV adaptations of Sense and Sensibility and Turn of the Screw), but this one slipped through the net.”
But Downton nearly didn’t happen at all with or without Dan Stevens – Gareth Neame said it was “unbelievable” that ITV commissioned the show in 2008 because it was the channel’s worst financial year in history. The odds were stacked against Downton from the start – there was “no novel, no book, nothing to guarantee anything at all.” He also acknowledged “not many people in this room would have expected to find it on ITV1.”
Fellowes said he writes some of the storylines from real life inspiration. In the second episode of series one, the sudden death of the Turkish diplomat during a midnight petticoat fumble with Lady Mary was taken from a friend’s great aunt’s diary. Fellowes’ friend came across the account, written in the late 19th century, recalling the ‘incident’ at a country house gathering. “They had a passage that was only for single women or young girls, and one of them had smuggled this foreign diplomat into her room and he died – in the middle.” The lady remembered all the female guests being woken up along the corridor and they carried him along to his bedroom. “And they got away with it!” Until 120 years later when it was scripted into a drama watched by millions.
Fellowes addressed a complaint about the advertisements, in particular the Aviva ones before and after every break that seemed to disgruntle so many audience members. "It would be ideal to watch Downton without the adverts, but without them it wouldn't exist," he said. "It's not great that the narrative is broken up by ads but it has become part of the phenomenon. We have no control of them, or the Aviva deal. I have to be careful about what I say here, but we gave them some feedback and I noticed a change in them last week."
He vaguely confirmed a third series (“I don’t want to divulge but I would hope so”) and said there will be a Christmas Day special. “There is something incredible about everybody sitting down together and watching a programme. The authenticity; the fact they can engage with these characters; the fact that it’s history but not that far away” seem to be the recipe to Fellowes’ Sunday night success.