From a tease of what to expect -- courtesy of the Downton cast -- to an in-depth conversation with Downton's creator, sole writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes, we'll help you to face March 6, and the end of the show.
Jace: MASTERPIECE Studio is brought to you by Audible. For a free trial, go to Audible.com/Masterpiece.
Robert: If I could stop history in its tracks, maybe I would. But I can't, Carson. Nor you, nor I can hold back time.
Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.
As much as we wish we could stop time and prolong this final season, the end of Downton Abbey is upon us.
Remember how it all began? Back when the sinking of the Titanic was front-page news.
Lady Edith: I thought it was supposed to be unsinkable.
Jace: And Lady Mary’s life was upended for the first time.
Gwen: Well, but I thought Lady Mary was the heir.
O’Brien: She's a girl, stupid. Girls can't inherit. But now Mr. Crawley's dead, and Mr. Patrick was his only son. So, what happens next?
Jace: We’ve come a long way in these six seasons. Now, with one episode left, Lady Mary is a newlywed once again.
Mary: Well done, Mr. Talbot. You have swept me off my feet.
Henry: I promise you won’t be sorry.
Mary: I’d better not be.
Jace: And it’s Edith who has yet to find her happy ending.
Edith: I doubt we’ll meet again so I want to say good luck, and everything else that goes with it.
Bertie: Good luck to you too.
Jace: This week, Downton creator, sole writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes joins us to look back on six wonderful years and to get us ready to watch the finale.
Julian Fellowes: Well, I think a handkerchief is always useful in Downton. There's normally one or two moments where you need to dab your eyes, but on the whole I would open a bottle of champagne and just sit back and enjoy it.
Jace: We’ll also answer some of the great questions about Downton Abbey that YOU sent in!
But first, the cast of Downton sums up the series’ finale.
Jace: What can viewers expect from the finale?
Lesley: Well, I'd love to tell you, but I haven't seen it.
Phyllis: Well, you know, the film Four Weddings and a Funeral?
Phyllis: It's nothing like that.
Jim: ...the way television works people watch and they get excited about the story but if you have told them, some idiot from Yorkshire's told them the story beforehand, it ruins that pleasure. And then they come looking for that idiot and persecute him. So I don't want to be in that position. So I am just going to say it will be a--
Joanne: --lovely finale.
Michelle: It's a real number and--
Lesley: --lots of very touching things will be happening.
Jace: Is there any chance that Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, Mr. Mason, and Andy end up as a happy family at Yew Tree Farm?
Lesley: Well, wouldn't that be a lovely thought? Can't tell you, Jace.
Jace: How would you sum up the finale in three words?
Hugh: Just about right.
Michelle: Love conquers all.
Joanne : Heartwarming -- is that two words?
Joanne: Does that count as one? Fun and sad.
Kevin: Tears, tears, tears.
Elizabeth: Goodbye, celebration and closure.
Jace: Closure, I like that.
Julian: How would I sum up the finale? Well, in a way the whole of the last series was about resolution, was about telling the audience where Downton was going. I suppose the finale is the kind of wrap up of all of that. And you know, I think that's the way it should be. We've been with these people a long time.
Jace: Julian Fellowes, or as he’s known by his title, Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, is a British screenwriter, novelist, director, and actor. In 2002, he won an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park. But of course, we know him best as the creator, sole writer and executive producer of Downton Abbey. He joins us now from London.
Jace: Welcome, Lord Fellowes.
Julian: It's nice to be here.
Jace: Part of the inspiration for Downton came from conversations you had had with older family members. What do you think that they or your ancestors would have made of the fictional Downton?
Julian: I think they would have enjoyed it on the whole. I mean, what I got from them was that sense with some servants of that kind of interdependence and sort of friendship that some people deny ever existed. "Oh this is so sentimental; nobody was ever nice to their lady's maid," but of course that's nonsense. I mean, how could you be dressed and undressed every day of your life by someone you disliked? You wouldn't. You'd get rid of them because the situation is too intimate.
I particularly remember my Aunt Isie, who was my grandfather's eldest sister who was born in 1880 so she was ten years older than Mary. When she was first married she was young, you know, and she'd married quite a rich man. And they hired this butler and he helped her with everything. He would tell her what she was supposed to do. He would give her tips. He would guide her. He would guide her through choices of table and everything. And she remembered this man in her 80s. She would talk of him with such affection because he really got her through an endless series of potential embarrassments.
I thought then, “That's the side of it that everyone doesn't know about, that thinks never took place.” It did. These relationships could be very warm. I mean, they weren't all and I was always careful to make it clear that Cora, for instance, didn't know the name of the kitchen maid and that kind of thing. I hope it wasn't over sentimentalized but these people were in your house. You didn't want people in your house you didn't like.
Jace: And of course it's not as though they are sort of openly embracing one another.
Julian: Oh sure, there were rules. Everyone knew what was what. That moment I always rather enjoyed -- although I shouldn't say that should I, because I wrote it -- but when Branson came down to the kitchen and talked about Mary.
O'Brien: He's settled into his new life.
Mr. Carson: "Mary keeps us informed"?
Mrs. Hughes: Well, he knows her now.
Mr. Carson: What's that got to do with it? His Lordship would never call her “Mary” when talking to me. Never. If he wants to play their game, he better learn their rules.
Julian: The mere non-observance of the formality, far from appealing to Carson, he found absolutely ridiculous because Branson didn't know the rules.
Jace: Likewise there's that moment in series three when Violet touches Carson after Sybil's death.
It's almost shocking to see some level of physicality between these two characters.
Violet: Oh, Carson.
Carson: Good afternoon, my Lady.
Violet: We've seen some troubles, you and I. Nothing worse than this.
Carson: Nothing could be worse than this, my Lady.
Julian: I wanted something in that moment that told the audience how enormous this was, that this was a great tragedy and in a way touched both these different people very, very deeply. And I felt that by Violet touching him, that said it all, really, because we couldn't imagine another circumstance where she would ever touch him, unless he was sort of helping her out of a car or something.
It just said it, and then she walked away across the hall and had that wonderful moment when she sort of sagged and then pulled herself up straight again because one of the things Violet would have thought was that it would be very vulgar to impose her grief on the others and to go in sobbing about, “Our darling Sybil,” because the others had enough trouble controlling their own grief. So they were all feeling the emotion but living within the rules and I, again, you know I can't praise the cast too much. I mean they got that sort of moment very, very well, I mean very precisely.
Jace: Now, one of the highlights of this show has of course been Dame Maggie Smith's portrayal of Violet. Is she a representation of your Aunt Isie, or a stand in for yourself as the author, or both?
Julian: She is quite like my Aunt Isie. I mean, my Aunt Isie actually had a very tragic life. Her husband died of wounds at the end of the First World War and she nursed him. She was told he was coming back on such-and-such a ship but no one told her he was dying so she went to the dock to meet him, all sort of gussied up, and he was carried off on a stretcher.
But she was very strong. She was a very strong woman, and funny, and she had that kind of dry wit, and that toughness, but also under the toughness, a kind heart and all of that is in Violet really. So yes, I think she was the principal inspiration although every now and then I lifted something from someone else, you know?
Jace: Now, when I interviewed you before the first season of Downton launched in the US, you said that The West Wing was a major inspiration. Now that we're at the end of Downton can we say definitively now that this is the The West Wing of costume dramas?
Julian: I mean I would say there are several shows -- Madmen, The Good Wife -- these shows told me, but I mean they also told everyone else, what television could be.
Also in West Wing, pretty well all the characters, pretty well all the principal characters were decent people and West Wing showed me that you could have that with a wide variety of characters and never be boring. You could develop them all. But again, I think Mad Men did that and you know you you loved Jon Hamm, you know, who was a sort of scoundrel but in some way, you sort of understood why he got to that place.
As I hope I did with Thomas, that by the end you understood why he was defensive because he'd been through a lot, you know? He'd been through a very, very tough time and being gay at that time was very, very difficult and you had to live internally, and you couldn't trust anyone, and one drink too many in a pub and suddenly you're arrested and your life is in ruins. I mean, that was all horrible, and I feel that we eventually became fond of him and I suppose I like all that.
Jace: Which character surprised you the most?
Julian: I did have some surprises in the sense that I would start a character off maybe in quite a minor key. I mean Molesley was one of the ones who I got a lot of enjoyment out of. When Kevin joined, Molesley was quite a modest character. He was just the valet who'd been hired to run Isobel's house and when Matthew moved into the main house, you know he might have gone. But by then Kevin had made this wonderfully poignant figure. I got a lot of pleasure out of him and gave him sort of philosophy to say in a way that some of the characters didn't have. You know, when he talked about, to his father once, about how he just felt he'd lost his way and he didn't know where he was going.
William: What's the matter, lad? Are you not feeling well?
Molesley: No, it's not that. Oh, I don't know, Dad. It's just... It's just lately I... I can't seem to see where I'm going, I'm...
William: You've had a shock, and no wonder. You should have been working for Mr. Matthew until you were old, maybe been butler at the Abbey before you were done. Now all that's gone.
Julian: I always feel it's very important when you have characters, kitchen maids, or you know, call boys, or footmen, or whatever, to remind the audience that these are lives. These are lives being lived by people and people are trying to decide what to do best, and how their life should shape, you know? It isn't only major characters sitting upstairs in white tie who have these decisions to make. It's everyone. I think that was part of the emotional punch of the show really.
Jace: You wrote all fifty-two episodes of Downton Abbey, which is a huge accomplishment. Was there anything that you wanted to cover within these six seasons that you never got a chance to do?
Julian: I don't know that there was. I mean, obviously if we'd gone on we would have found other things but I was interested in the whole changing role of women in society as a result of the war and I think we got a lot of mileage out of that. I'm always interested in education, not just because it's important to be educated to get a good job or whatever, but because education helps you to know who you are and I did that with Daisy.
I'd always wanted to do a rape story where someone had not brought it on themselves in any way at all, as I felt that was quite a useful thing. And I got a lot of letters, actually, from women who had been raped and who had felt, they said in their letters, had felt in some way some kind of responsibility, “Had they been stupid; had they behaved in some stupid way,” and they got a lot of, these women who wrote, got a lot of reassurance and comfort from the story because clearly Anna had done nothing wrong. And I was very moved by that really. I was very touched by that.
Then I had letters after Sybil's death. One from a woman whose daughter had died in childbirth. And all that stuff is very, I keep saying moving because there aren't, we don't have that many words for it, but you do feel like you've touched people's lives in a way that you hope is helpful. You hope you've helped them to put these experiences into some kind of place where something positive can come out of it, in a way. And I was allowed to feel that with several of the stories, actually, and you know that was very, very rewarding, a real bonus for writers, and producers, and actors who can get that feeling that they've been useful to strangers.
Jace: Looking back, Dan Stevens and Jessica Brown Findlay left the show in season three. At the time were you concerned about whether the show could overcome their departures as Matthew and Sybil were both such beloved characters?
Julian: Well, I think you always feel that a bit, you know? You hope that you'll be able to sort of pick up the slack when they've gone. Those two instances where slightly different because Jessica had made it quite clear for a long time that she was going to leave at the end of her contract and in England you can only get three years. So we, you know, I did all this research and I came up with eclampsia as a way of killing her because a family member has to die. If a servant leaves they just go and they get another job, but if a family member leaves and you're never going to see them again, then they have to die.
We did ask her if she'd do two episodes a year and live in Dublin and be happy, but she didn't want to do that. She wanted to be out and on to the next thing, which is fine, which is great, you know? I'd not say this if I disagreed with her. Good luck to her. But we knew she had to die so I came up with eclampsia because in fact it was still a fatal condition throughout the 20s. You only began to survive it in the 30s.
But it was different with Matthew because Dan hadn't really decided to leave until the read through. By then, I'd written the first five episodes including Jessica's. Now, if I'd known they were both going to die probably would have had a different route and I would probably have killed them together in some way but I couldn't and so I had to kill a second one.
Eventually, you know I said to Dan, "Would you come back, and you know, we'll have the happy ending, and the baby, and then come back, and we'll kill you in episode one of next year," but again he didn't want-- You know it was very difficult. He'd been offered a play on Broadway and he'd had other offers. In the end we had to kill him at the very end. And that worked for us because it allowed us to have a time jump of six months between the series so the next series could begin with Mary beginning to pull herself together and get her life back on track, which was actually a much more interesting curve for Michelle to play than just lying on a bed sobbing.
The problem with it was that in England the final episode was on Christmas night so they'd all settled down with that mince pie and a glass of port and suddenly, boff, there's Matthew dead. I can tell you that produced some letters and a half, blimey. But I couldn't see any way around it you know, without a very big repetition of all that stuff. That was a bit more of a problem, but I think that if the show has enough reality then it can lose a few of its cast members and still go on.
Jace: Were you concerned at all with how viewers might react to Henry Talbot given the centrality of that Mary-Matthew dynamic?
Julian: No, I don't think I was. I think we'd all accompanied Mary in her grief. He died at the end of series three and we'd gone through four, five, and six of her falling in love, and then falling out of love, and then finally meeting Henry and being almost frightened by how right it was. All of this, I think, is a process that many of us have gone through at one time or another in our lives. But death is a big marker. I don't think people mind characters moving on as long as some time has passed.
I wanted Henry not to be a completely standard Mary-type guy with a title, and an estate, and a this, and a that, again because that, I think, would in a sense almost cast doubt on her motives. As it happens, Matthew was very eligible and Henry is not particularly. I mean, he's a gentlemen but he hasn't really got any money and he hasn't got a great position. And that, for me, was a way of telling the audience that she really was in love with him and finally she knew she'd met a man she could be happy with and it would be silly to let him go.
Jace: Are you ultimately satisfied with where the narrative has gone?
Julian: You know it's always quite difficult to answer that sort of question because you feel, you know, vain if you say you are pleased with it. But I mean it's been a very happy experience for me. I enjoyed the show. I enjoyed writing it. I thought we had a wonderful cast who added an enormous amount to anything I could do. We had terrific directors. We had a very warm team at the heart of it.
I mean, someone said to me, you know, "What did you regret? There must be some nagging," you know, and I mean all I could think of was the fact that in the very first episode of the first series we have the Duke shaking hands with Cora with his glove on. And that was wrong; he should have taken it off. And we somehow were stuck with that shot. I feel that if my one complaint after six years is that someone shook hands with his glove on, then I'm in pretty good shape. My relationship with this show is happy and I think when I'm old and breathing my last I will be glad I made Downton Abbey.
Jace: We’ve been asking for your questions about the making of Downton Abbey and now, straight from the mouths of Downton experts including Lord Fellowes, director Minkie Spiro, and actor Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, we’ve got your answers.
Elizabeth H. wants to know, "I've hear from various interviews that the show is filmed more or less in order, but how chronologically is everything shot?
Minkie: I can shatter all her dreams, it isn't at all. Everything is literally topsy-turvy. I wish we could, for the sake of my sanity and those of the artists, shoot in sequence, and shoot scene 1 through to scene 70, but sadly, we don't shoot anything in order.
Jace: Listener Kathy asks, "How did you research the historical events, and real life people that showed up on the series, that the characters encounter?”
Julian: Well, I knew quite a lot about the period I was writing in. I mean I, you know, I studied it for quite a long time, and of course Titanic I knew a lot about. But with others, I would get lists of events. If I was writing about 1922, I would have a list of events and then I would be able to look them up. I would say, "I want a scandal for 1923," or whatever it was and then I would be given the Teapot Dome scandal, which was, you know, the one we used for Robert to have to go back to America.
Robert: "Robert must be there." Why? My being there won't make a difference.
Cora: They obviously feel it will. Maybe they don't want the Senate Committee to think Harold's some kind of wildcat driller.
Robert: An earl as a brother-in-law will make him respectable?
Cora: They seem to think so.
Robert: I know plenty of relatives of English earls who belong in jail!
Julian: So we lost Robert for two episodes. It was actually because Hugh was making a film with George Clooney so he needed time away, and so I needed a big American scandal that would take him over there. That was how we would do it. You just want to put the odd marker in that places it in the period, the Mowbray divorce, whatever it is that just says, “This is where we are now.” And I felt it worked pretty well actually.
Jace: We have another viewer question. This time from Claire, from New York wants to know.
Allen: Hi, Claire.
Jace: If Sybil had lived, where do you think their lives would have taken them?
Allen: I imagine that-- There was a great sense of adventure with those two characters and I don’t think they would have stayed there at all. I think the sense of excitement and adventure that Jess Brown Findlay played Sybil with probably would have seen Julian write them going further afield than within the walls of the house. So, thank God she died or else I would have been out of a job.
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