Downton creator Julian Fellowes reveals his love for Lady Mary, answers the critics and declares his passion for a woman's right to inherit
Beware of meeting your heroes, they say, to which I would add a new warning - beware of visiting the set of your favourite television series, which in my case is Downton Abbey. As the taxi takes you up the long drive, through a thousand acres of sheep-dotted parkland, and you suddenly catch sight of Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey), you understand why the Earl of Grantham (aka Hugh Bonneville) is possibly more attached to his ancestral home than to his beloved wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and his three daughters.
But the mystique is shattered as soon as you are deposited in front of vans, cables and men in jeans and puffa jackets who are camped around the entrance. Once inside the Great Hall, it only gets worse - with production, make-up and wardrobe people crammed into rows of chairs staring at half-a-dozen TV monitors. And what is this? The Countess of Grantham, in one of her fragrant trailing frocks, talking into a mobile phone. Ye gods!
There are compensations; Jim Carter, who plays Carson, the butler, is every bit as gracious and aimiable as he is on screen (I have to restrain myself from hugging him), and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) is far more good-looking in the flesh, his features chiseled, without any of that boyish plumpness around the cheeks. Standing in the library, where so many memorable scenes have taken place - the weeping, blind cook; the dignity-denting revelation of Carson's vaudeville past - Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, sails past. I smile at Dame Maggie Smith, she inclines her head and smiles back, whereupon foolishly emboldened, I stammer about being a fan, and am promptly chastized by that classic Maggie Smith look of frozen horror, as she quickens her step and wafts awf.
When I repeat my invisible-hat-doffing faux-pas to Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton he is sweetly reassuring: "I'm sure she was very flattered. One of the funny things about fame - and I don't think I'm particularly famous, but I'm a little bit famous - is that people have a sort of relationship with you but you don't know them.
"So you often find that a conversation with a stranger starts at a slightly inappropriate level because, of course, they 'know' you so well. And you sort of think, 'My God... how did we get here so quickly!' I think fame, like April love, is really for the very young."
We are talking in a tatty room up in the back stairs, probably in the old servants' quarters. Fellowes requests a cup of tea, only to be told that a no-food and drink rule is in operation. "What, not even in here?" he says, sounding mildly put-upon. His voice has a naturally aggrieved tone to it and is theatrical-posh ("mahhhd" for mad; "orphan" for often) with a speech rhythm that resembles the whoosh and retreat of waves ("too much info-MAYYSHun").
He is dressed in different shades of brown: fawn chinos, check shirt, dust-coloured jacket and loafers with tassels. Beyond his spectacles, he has tiny raisin-coloured eyes. Something about his air of wistful jolliness and the way he sits, roundly, in his chair, makes me think of a character from The Wind in the Willows. Toad, with his puffed up self-importance, conforms more to the image I had of him from everything I had read but, in person, he is a gentler, more Mole-like character with occasional flashes of Rat-like mischief.
The last episode of the first series of Downton ended with the bombshell of Britain's declaration of war on Germany, Mary and Matthew's blossoming romance having seemingly ended and the mystery of Mr Bates' past deepening. I really don't want Fellowes to spoil my enjoyment of the second series by giving too much away but he's so excited that he has to stop himself from blurting out key details.
So are you a bit in love with Mary? "Yes." You like strong women? "I like strong, good-looking women and there's something about - not coldness, exactly, but there's something about the lack of needing to be liked which, when it's coupled with very good looks and confidence, is I think, tremendously attractive."
Mary has yet to win me over entirely. It is obviously unforgivable that Lady Edith attempted to ruin her beautiful older sister's life by informing the Turkish ambassador that his dead attaché, Mr Kemal Pamuk, had been found in Lady Mary's bed (based, incidentally, on a true story Fellowes was told) but for Mary to sabotage plain Edith's only prospect of a happy marriage was undeniably cruel. Fellowes is having none of it: "But Edith had it coming to her!"
Are you killing anyone off? Silence. You can't possibly kill of Matthew? Julian?! Long pause; then laughter. He's going off to war and then he'll go missing and you'll play with our affections, won't you? "It is - I mean - I really mustn't tell you anything..." What he will say is that both sisters are redeemed in this series and Edith "becomes nicer because she finds a sort of kindness in her, as well as a role in life."
What of Bates? "Love him." But what about the tie that links Bates and the Earl? Does that get explained? "Well, I'm sort of deferring clarifying their shared past because I'm enjoying that." Is it significant? "Yes." Sinister? "No, more touching that sinister." Oooh, the mind boggles.
What about the Dowager Countess? How is she going to cope with the war? "She's a little too old to strap on a nurse's uniform but she's very... I shouldn't really tell you this part of the plot... but she is very supportive of the war effort, I will say that." How about Bates and Anna? "Oh yes - lots for them! The main thing is the war and how war changes them all, even those at home, and they all develop as people and become more self-aware." Have you left an opening for a third series? "Unless you have a nuclear bomb go off, there's always an opening."
The first series of Downton had the biggest ratings of any ITV costume drama since Brideshead Revisited back in 1981, attracting 11 million viewers for the last episode, and has gone global having sold to more than 100 countries including America, Japan, Australia, Israel and Albania. Fellowes won an Oscar for his screenplay of the late Robert Altman's upstairs-downstairs film, Gosford Park, but did he anticipate Downton Abbey's popularity? "I thought we'd made a good show and people would enjoy it, but it was extraordinary. We were playing to something like a third of the adult population," he says. "I mean, nobody could expect that level of success, except for Simon Cowell. It was completely mad."
One of the interesting patterns was that even the young, more accustomed to catch-up services like the BBC iPlayer and the ITV player, would stay in to watch Downton on Sunday evenings: "They had to watch it as it was going out and ring each other at the end. It was a sort of communal family event."
What were the demographics like? "Very wide backgrounds, very wide social grouping, very wide age grouping and ethnic backgrounds. And I've had every type come up to be about Downton - taxi drivers, shop assistants, not just people having lunch at Fortnums."
He tells a story about his son, Peregrine, 20, who's studying history of art at Goldsmith's, University of London, who was travelling on the top deck of a bus in the early hours, "and this huge bouncer-type came up [affects oikish swagger] and Peregrine thought, 'Oh Christ!' Anyway, he sits down and says, 'Did you watch Downton Abbey... so do you think Mary and Matthew are going to get it on?' Peregrine was going to say, 'My father wrote it' [if things turned out nasty] but he didn't need to. I love all that."
Part of the fun of Downton for critics and viewers was spotting the anachronisms. As an executive producer, as well as the writer, Fellowes had specified that a television aerial that had slipped into a shot should be removed, "but somehow it fell through the system, which was sloppy, and I was annoyed about that." What also irritated him was that when newspapers printed letters about other details, it was always assumed that the complainant was correct and the programme was wrong. Boyfriend, for instance, he says, was in print in 1889, so was presumably in parlance before that. "I thought I behaved rather badly by getting the hump," he says. "So this time round, I thought we should get a newspaper to do a 'This week's mistakes on Downton' column and we would have the right to reply. Don't you think that would be good? [I shall post his responses to some complaints in a separate post]
Fellowes married Emma Kitchener in 1990, when he was 40. She is a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and the great-great niece of the first Earl Kitchener. I saw her downstairs with Peregrine (named after Julian's father) and was struck by her theatrical presence; a strong, resolute jaw, arresting gaze, in capri pants, her hair tucked under a white turban.
He says that he never lived with any of his girlfriends before his marriage, although he did have some significant relationships at university and drama school. One of the reasons he didn't marry young, he says, is that he was concerned that his lack of good looks might prevent him from making a living as an actor, his first profession.
"I was very unfashionable," he says, "and they weren't looking for my type at all then. It was all cockneys and northerners and Tom Courtenay. And once you settle down and marry and have a child and everything else, you can't be broke."
He agrees that it's curious, given his "great dissatisfaction with my appearance that I chose such a lookist business. I mean, how odd is it that I quite deliberately went for the profession where looks will be very important?"
Was your rationale that you could become a terrific actor? "I wasn't a complete halfwit - I mean, I didn't think I was going to be Romeo - but I wasn't good looking at all. People always think you're being modest."
Fellowes says that although he was a young man in the 1960s, "I was never much of a raver. The whole one-night-stand culture passed me by because it took me longer to get anywhere with a woman. I had to get to know them and talk to them and all that stuff, whereas if you were gorgeous in 1969, in that atmosphere, that was just about as complicated as it got." It didn't help his cause that he had a brother who closely resembled the gorgeous actor, Terence Stamp.
He is vexed, to put it mildly, about the idea that his wife's family title - the Earldom of Kitchener - will be extinct in the future, because the current Earl has no children. This, of course, is very much the driving theme of Downton Abbey; the unfairness of the middle-class cousin Matthew Crawley being the heir to the estate rather than aristocratic eldest daughter Lady Mary. "If you're asking me if I find it ridiculous that in 2011, a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title, I think it's outrageous actually.
"The point is not whether or not you approve of hereditary titles, but given the fact that they do exist, the exclusion of women from them under English law is absolutely bizarre. This is the most famous imperial title of that particular period of our history. So if they do change the succession to the crown, which is much talked of - I don't know anything you don't know - I think around that time someone should look into this too. Either you've got to get rid of the system or you've got to let women into it. I don't think you can keep it "men only".
In future, we may hear more about this issue, I suspect, from Felllowes, who as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford (he was ennobled in January) has a seat on the Conservative benches in the House of Lords. He and his wife are often lampooned as hideous snobs, but I certainly saw glimpses of a larger, more complex humanity. He tells a story that suggest that the mostly confident person he presents, these days, is as much of an artful creation as his dramas. As a boy, he been "rather shy in company. The moment I left my family, nobody wanted to dance with me. I was the one who made up the numbers."
When he was 18, he was sent on a boat to visit a "mad" aunt in Cartagena, Colombia, whose husband had died. Her response was to transform her finca and land into a summer camp, and young Julian's job was to help her. "And I remember thinking on the boat, 'This isn't who I am and this isn't who I want to be... and when I get off the boat, I'm going to be the life and soul of the party and full of confidence and I'm going to do everything. I am not going to be that shy little person standing at the back of the group any more.' And, I think, to be honest, the person I am now was born when I stepped off that boat in Cartagena."
We finish on that note and Fellowes prepares for the next interview: an Australian journalist and film crew who are fanning the advance publicity for the next stop in Downton's global journey. I, for one, can't wait for Sunday evenings to rejoin the congregation of the church of Julian Fellowes.
The Radio Times interview by Ginny Dougary