One last visit to Downton Abbey before fans say goodbye

March 6, 2016 at 8:40 PM EDT
For the past five years, the Crawley family and their household of servants have entertained audiences with comedic one-liners from the Dowager Countess and dramatic calamity befalling nearly every character. Now the top-rated PBS drama of all time is drawing to a close. Judy Woodruff talks with creator Julian Fellowes, actress Elizabeth McGovern and others about the show.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The blockbuster successful British TV series, “Downton Abbey” begins its sixth and final season here on PBS next month. We got an inside look at the show, its creator and explore why so many Americans love it.

JUDY WOODRUFF:: The music is instantly recognizable, as is the tail — that’s Isis, the dog — both part of the opening credits to the blockbuster British television drama, “Downton Abbey.” For the past five years, the Crawley family and their servants have entertained us, and in January, the drama begins its sixth and final season on PBS.

The last chance for a few more one-liners from the dowager countess of Grantham, played exquisitely by Dame Maggie Smith.

And surely, one final calamity to beset lady’s maid Anna and her butler husband Bates.

The mastermind of this runaway success is Sir Julian Fellowes; also an actor, film director, and, in his spare time, a conservative member of Britain’s House of Lords.

So, “Downton Abbey” coming to an end, is this — are you saying goodbye to a dear friend? Or is it just — have you already moved on?

JULIAN FELLOWES, Creator: No, I wouldn’t say I have moved on. I mean, “Downton” has been an extraordinary milestone. You’ve spent a lot of time in this industry, working very hard on things that don’t do terribly well, the public doesn’t get them or whatever, and then you suddenly ring the bell. It’s been fantastic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Fantastic beyond belief, becoming the top-rated PBS drama of all time.

Globally, “Downton” airs in over 220 countries with a worldwide audience of 120 million people.

JULIAN FELLOWES: I never think it’s a good idea to outstay your welcome. And it seems right to leave, so, I don’t think we’re doing the wrong thing, but it’s been a happy time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A happy time with roots in a book by American historian Carol Wallace, author of “To Marry an English Lord,” Sir Julian’s inspiration for the series.

CAROL WALLACE, Author, “To Marry an English Lord”: When he had been asked by the producers to write a series about English aristocrats, he had been reading “To Marry an English Lord.” And he said he thought it was all very well for these heiresses to marry, but then what happened to them 20 years later when they were — I think he put it — “freezing in a house in Cheshire, aching for Long Island”? And that, of course, Cora Grantham’s dilemma, there she is right there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wallace’s book tells the true stories of young American heiresses who left the U.S. in the late 1800s to shop for husbands in England. Their money attracted down at the heels aristocrats who had titles and little else.

What would he have seen in these stories, in this history?

CAROL WALLACE: I think what Julian saw, the source of the drama is exactly the asymmetry of expectation — what these American girls thought marriage was going to be and what it turned out to be, and how their American expectations kind of, trailed along with them and formed their relationships and their ideas of marriage as they would 2030 years later.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The American girl of “Downton Abbey”, Cora Crawley, countess of Grantham, is played by Elizabeth McGovern.

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN, Actor: I am shocked at how sad I do feel to say goodbye to people and houses and the family. It’s been a definite life-changing kind of time for all of us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In what way?

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Well, we’ve all been through something that just felt it’s had a big impact on our personal lives and we have been in it together.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The drama began in 1912, the day after the sinking of the Titanic, and has proceeded through World War I, the Spanish flu and the jazz age. Season six is set in 1925 and opens to find many formerly rich families abandoning the life “Downton” epitomizes, unable to afford the expanse. Like the character she plays, McGovern is married to an Englishman and lives in the U.K.

How is it different from other television series?

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: Well, the one extraordinary difference is that every word is written by one man. I don’t know of any other television show that works that way. And I, to this day, find it absolutely mindboggling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Julian Fellowes did not intend on being the sole writer.

JULIAN FELLOWES: I was actually thrilled to get other people to do it, but, for some reason which I can’t really explain, the series seem to have quite a distinctive voice. And we did try, at the beginning, to see if we could get other people to replicate that voice. And we tried with very good people. But it seemed that if we wanted to sustain this particular voice, it had to be me.

REBECCA EATON, Masterpiece: It’s coming from his heart, his experience, his passion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: PBS’ Masterpiece presents “Downton Abbey” in the United States, and Rebecca Eaton is the program’s executive producer.

REBECCA EATON: There’s a lot of heart in it. There’s a lot of generosity. These are characters who are taking care of each other. And that is a lot of who Julian is.

JULIAN FELLOWES: We dealt with all the characters very evenly.

We didn’t say, “The family are the important characters and the servants are the comic relief, or servants are gallant on suffering but the family is horrible,” all of which would have been a treatment in an earlier period.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You give equal time to everyone, so, in a way you’re looking at that age old struggle that we are dealing with today in 2015 about inequality, discrimination and the rest of it. And you bring your own set of views to that.

JULIAN FELLOWES: It’s this business of entitlement, that a child of the middle or upper caste is brought up to believe that certain things are sort of their right, that this is the way they will live. Whereas other people are brought up to feel like outsiders — “oh, you’re overreaching, so that’s not for the likes of us”, and all this stuff still goes on.

It does interests me. It shocks me and it drives me mad when people try to pretend it doesn’t exist, because, of course, it doesn’t exist for them. There are millions of people who are being cheated of their proper destiny because it does still exist.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think “Downton” contributes to the conversation, to the discussion of that?

JULIAN FELLOWES: I hope it contributes. I mean, I think in our society, particularly for the “me-me-me generation,” there is a kind of underlined solipsism in so many of us that the only life that’s really happening is our own. And everyone else’s life is sort of dependent on our life.

One of the important things about drama is to remind the viewer that everyone is 100 percent at the center of their own life. That there is no life being lived under that roof that is more or less important; that Mary or Daisy, what happens to them is just as important. And that’s why we have equal dramatic weight for all the stories, to show that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you think will give people great joy and excitement and surprise, in a good way? And what do you think will leave people sad or devastated or disappointed?

JULIAN FELLOWES: I adore these questions because they’re always asked in such optimism, as if there is any chance that I’ll answer. I mean, of course, there are some things in the season that will make people sad and there are other things that will make them happy. And Maggie will say some things that I hope will make them laugh.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What should fans expect, the audience expect?

ELIZABETH MCGOVERN: I would say that the audience will feel satisfied that they’ve had a chance to say goodbye to every character in a gratifying way. I think they’ll feel full and not shortchanged.

JULIAN FELLOWES: It’s enough for me that people enjoyed it, and they had a thing on Sunday night and they would say to each other, hurry up, “Downton” is starting in five minutes or whatever. I love that.

And I think that if we all manage to produce a show that families could watch together and argue over the water cooler in the office the next day, that’s enough of an achievement for me. I don’t need to feel that the world will never be the same again after “Downton,” because it will.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And beginning the first Sunday in January, fans can lose themselves in the lives of the people they have come to know as friends.