Tavis Smiley: Good evening. From Los Angeles, I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with Oscar winner Julian Fellowes, the creator of “Downton Abbey,” and one of the stars of that phenomenally successful PBS series, Elizabeth McGovern.
She of course plays Cora Crawley, the American-born countess of Grantham, but before we get to that conversation, as this is our 10th season here on PBS, we continue to introduce you to some of the folk who make this program possible every night.
So joining me now is my man, Mark Engel. He’s our lighting director, and he’s the reason why thankfully I am not standing here in the dark welcoming you to our show tonight. So Mark, I’m delighted to have you on our team.
Mark Engel: Thank you, Tavis.
Engel: Been with the show now for 10 years, off and on, been a full-time member of the team for the last two. It’s a great spot to be in, every day at work is informative and entertaining. You always attract an interesting array of guests. I’m sure today’s no exception.
Tavis: You make us look good because we are in the light. So now that you’re in – come over here. Now that you’re in your light, tell me who we got coming up tonight.
Engel: We’re glad you’ve joined us – a conversation with Julian Fellowes and Elizabeth McGovern, coming up right now.
Tavis: The emotional ups and downs of the Crawley family, the dynastic inhabitants of Downton Abbey, have, to say the least, captured the imaginations of viewers both here and in the UK, and so Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for “Gosford Park,” created this successful series.
Elizabeth McGovern plays the American-born countess of Grantham, Cora Crawley. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Downton Abbey.”
Tavis: See, that gives a whole new meaning to “for better or for worse.” (Laughter)
Elizabeth McGovern: I’ll say. Whoa.
Tavis: So he’s telling you that he lost all the money. All the money.
McGovern: You handed me the (blank) sandwich.
Tavis: Yeah. He lost all the money and you’re just – you’re okay with that.
McGovern: That – yeah. (Laughter) That took me a bit of distance to travel as an actress, but I got there in the end.
Julian Fellowes: Well there’s no point in complaining once it’s gone. (Laughter)
McGovern: Well, yes.
Tavis: But the spirit in which you accepted that was awfully kind. I know you’ve been asked this question, I suspect, a thousand times, but not by me. So let me ask, Julian, what is it that has made this such a phenomenal hit in the UK and in the U.S.?
Fellowes: We were talking about this on the way here.
Fellowes: Do you know, I don’t really know. Obviously we got something right.
Tavis: To say the least, yeah.
Fellowes: I think what it is is that everyone in it, the family, the servants, the people in the village, whatever, are all treated equally in terms of their emotional narrative. We’re involved with all of their stories.
We don’t point the audience at one group and say these are the main guys; these are just the supporting cast. We don’t do that. Whether it’s Edith’s hopeless love life or Daisy in the kitchen, they’re all somehow presented to the audience in the same way, with the same strength. That’s all I can think of, really.
Tavis: What about timing? They say timing is everything. I have to believe, and maybe I’m out on a limb here, that there’s something that’s happening right about now that makes a project like this work on PBS.
Fellowes: I’m sure that’s 100 percent correct.
Fellowes: Timing, timing is everything, whether it’s in your work or your love life or anything else.
Fellowes: You’ve got to be lucky with timing, and I think we were lucky. There is something about this period that seems secure, seems settled, despite its injustices, despite its inequalities; it somehow seems a protected place, rather than the very unprotected and rather random world we’re living in now, where a lot of people are in a lot of trouble.
A lot of people are going through a great deal of difficulty, very serious difficult, financial and everything else. Of course it’s a false image. Really, this period was the beginning of organized labor, the great battle about women’s rights; all sorts of things were changing.
But there was a kind of superficial order that I think people turn to in times of trouble, yeah.
Tavis: Before I go to Elizabeth here, to your point now, this list of things that were, in fact, happening in that period, without giving too much away, is it your sense or is it your knowledge that as this series goes on, you’re going to start to wrestle with more of what really was happening during that era?
Fellowes: Well, we very deliberately started in 1912 so that if the show had any legs and went anywhere we were going to have the second series in the war, and then from then on we were going to be after the war.
I think the ’20s is a very interesting period, because it was strange. It was febrile. At the beginning, people weren’t quite sure how much had changed. Maybe most of it would come back; maybe most of it would be the same as it was before.
Then as the decade wore on it became clearer and clearer that actually, there had been a fundamental shift, and the world was not the same place and society was a different place with different rules.
We do explore that in the show, that “Downton,” when we started, was just sort of traveling along like a great steamer on the sea, but now there are troubles. There are risks. The government withdraws the agricultural subsidies in 1921.
Suddenly all these estates were in crisis, and we have our characters having to deal with that. One of the most fundamental things is do they want to deal with it? Do they want to go on with it?
Is it a big headache? They have to resolve all that. So yes, I think it does inform, particularly this coming series (unintelligible).
Tavis: One quick follow-up here – since we’re talking about timing and how important timing is, to your point, Julian, for everything in our lives, timing matters, but so does place.
It’s about being in the right place at the right time. This is not a question, it’s not a softball for a big, fat, wet kiss to PBS, although feel free to do that, but there’ve been – I’ve had so many conversations on this set over the last few years with directors and actors and producers who understand now what cable television offers them as this emerging landscape.
Everybody’s going to cable, all these hit shows are going on to cable, and yet here’s something that’s become a huge hit on public television. Again, so it’s not about kissing up to PBS, but I’m asking what it is it you think about this series that has made it so successful, not on pay cable, but on public television.
Fellowes: Well, I think you have to start with its success in Britain, actually, where we were very lucky. We took it to ITV at a time when the received truth was that this kind of period show was dead.
The audience was gone; there was nothing there, and so on. But we went to ITV and we had Peter Fincham, who’s head of drama there, and Laura Mackie and Sally Haynes, and they just have a kind of gut thing, exactly what you’ve said, that the timing was right for this kind of show, and they let us make it.
They didn’t interfere all the time. You didn’t have a committee of 58 people sticking their 10 cents in. Really, Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge and I were allowed to make this show.
So you get a kind of un-watered-down vision, as opposed to something trying to please everyone and ending up pleasing no one. I think that was part of it, and we have exactly the same from PBS with Rebecca Eaton.
They didn’t constantly fiddle. They just took the show as it was and were very supportive of it, and I think it paid off for them.
Tavis: Yeah. Elizabeth, I could have – as a matter of fact, I thought about this – I could have put together a sizzle reel just over the last couple of years of major Hollywood stars who’ve been on this program who at some point in time have referenced in the conversation “Downton Abbey.”
Tavis: How much they love it, how much they love to be on it. Just regular people, regular guests coming through the program, and somehow in the conversation, “Downton Abbey” comes up.
So I suspect you realize that you are the envy of a whole lot of folk in Hollywood, given that you are a part of this, when everybody else seems to be – you just go through Twitter on any given day and just the cultural references to the show -
McGovern: What is funny, we were saying in the green room before we walked in that I think it’s a lot of Americans’ secret dream to live in that house and have those servants.
I remember when I was – speaking of public television – when I was seven, eight, nine, 10, sitting with my granny and my mom on little folding chairs in the kitchen, watching “Upstairs, Downstairs,” and thinking I’ll never, ever, ever, ever be a part of that life.
It’s just such a miracle, through no achievement of my own particularly, except I think I live quite conveniently to Ealing Studios and I’m American, that I found myself in this situation.
I really am on my hands and knees with gratitude every single day. I really didn’t really plan it.
McGovern: It’s just amazing.
Fellowes: But of course the advantage of watching it on television is that it’s history lite, in the sense that you can enjoy it but you don’t have to get up at 4:00 and make the fire.
Fellowes: So if you’re upstairs, you don’t have to change your clothes five times a day and sit in a corset from the moment you get out of bed. So in a way, you can enjoy all the order and the calm and the grace and the loveliness, but you don’t have to go down and black the stove and all the rest of it.
Fellowes: So I think in a way, that’s why it’s history from a very enjoyable position, really.
Tavis: Yeah. Elizabeth, your story, your fans know this, your story is interesting in terms of how it kind of parallels, or it certainly intertwines with this story, given that you are American-born but moved to England.
McGovern: I did.
Tavis: Tell me about that.
McGovern: Well, I’ve been there 20 years, and I, like my character on the show, have raised daughters that are talking to me in an English accent.
McGovern: So I understand what it is to have children who come from a different cultural background to your own, which I think is part of Cora, my character’s, story.
She has to understand children who are educated and raised in a completely different fashion to herself. So it’s an interesting conundrum.
Fellowes: So that was a big appeal for us with Elizabeth, is that you didn’t have to explain why Cora had felt initially she had to fit in with the English way of life and have these English children.
But as events unfurl, the world becomes more sympathetic to her American viewpoint and her American education and all the rest of it, and actually, by now, by the early ’20s, she’s more in tune with what’s going on outside the walls of Downton than Robert is.
But Elizabeth has lived this, exactly as you say, has lived this life, and you have your children saying, “That’s so American, Mummy,” and all the rest of it, exactly as Cora does.
Tavis: I’m curious as to what you’re hearing from specifically the PBS audience, and I ask that because since I do this every night on PBS, I know that the PBS audience will tell you what they think, whether you want to hear it or not. (Laughter)
They are very willing to share their critique with you. So what are you hearing form the American audience about – and I don’t want to color the question any more than that – about the future, about what’s already aired, about the present. What are you hearing from the PBS audience?
Fellowes: Well, we heard quite a lot about Matthew dying. (Laughter)
Fellowes: I was afraid to go out without bodyguards.
Fellowes: I was very interested by that. People didn’t understand that we weren’t – we’re not in control of that kind of stuff, if an actor wants to leave the show. I love Dan. I wish him nothing but good things. But he felt he’d done his three years, and that was the end of that, and he wanted to go on.
Of course we couldn’t suddenly make him unhappy and hating Mary and never wanting to see his son again. It just wasn’t believable. So I’m afraid it was looking bad for him.
But that was extraordinary. We did get an absolute barrage of criticism for that. It’s calmed down a bit now, actually, but I don’t know. What I’m always rather touched by is the way these people become real to the audience.
I had one woman who came up and said, “I always pray for the Crawleys and the people who work at Downton. I pray for them every day,” and I said, “You really don’t have to. Those actors have never had it so good.” (Laughter) “They’ve all got movie contracts; they’re all going making pictures.” She said, “No, I know all that, but still, I worry about Cora.”
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter)
McGovern: So she should. (Laughter)
Fellowes: It is -
Tavis: You get that same kind of response, same kind of reaction?
McGovern: Whether people worry about my character?
Tavis: Yeah, or just people who are just engrossed in the character, and when they see you want to engage in conversation about it.
McGovern: Yeah, I must admit I get letters from people who have noticed details that hitherto in my career I’ve never actually experience this feeling that you think about a lot of the detail when you’re working and the nuance.
But you just come to accept that an audience isn’t going to ever pick up on it, and for whatever reason, they do in this show.
Tavis: It’s a very smart audience, that’s why. That’s why I was asking about PBS. It’s a very – it’s a great audience, but it’s a different kind of – it’s a very, very smart audience that’s very attentive, very curious, and so it doesn’t surprise me to hear that they’re paying attention to all those (unintelligible) details.
Fellowes: But they do also sometimes read into details.
Fellowes: Why did you call the dog something, and -
McGovern: That’s (unintelligible) too, yeah.
Fellowes: – I think it’s because on the 14th of June in (laughter) 1959 you fell over or something.
Fellowes: You think, where do they get this? That, I found rather extraordinary – and why people, characters, have names. Although I know why Cora is called Cora, because when we were filming “Gosford Park” at a house called Wrotham, just on the edge of London.
At the bottom of the staircase was this wonderful sergeant and this beautiful woman who’d been a great American heiress who’d saved the family, and she was called Cora, Countess of Stafford.
So when I was thinking about it, I thought that’s who we’ll name her for, because she’d been such a success.
McGovern: Then we were later in that house and the owner showed me the picture of her (unintelligible).
Fellowes: Oh, I didn’t know that. It’s a wonderful painting.
McGovern: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: I wonder whether or not it’s your sense, either of you, that the success of this – not that Hollywood is ever bereft of period pieces – but I wonder whether or not you have any reason to believe that the success of “Downton Abbey” might call for an explosion in Hollywood of period pieces, because you know how this game works.
One of them succeeds; everybody wants to do something like it. Any sense we’re going to see, you think, more of these period pieces?
Fellowes: Well, I think we’ve taken the curse off period pieces.
Fellowes: There was a time when everyone was afraid of it because it was supposed to be finished and done.
Fellowes: I remember when one of those chaps who teaches you how to write scripts said, “The one thing you mustn’t have is voiceover,” and then Clint Eastwood came up with that extraordinary film about the woman boxer, do you remember, with Hilary Swank.
That was all voiceover, and it was a huge success and won the Oscar. Suddenly, every film had voiceover. It was practically impossible to hear any dialogue. (Laughter)
I think that hopefully, we have, in a sense, allowed people to make period if that’s what they want to do, but whether they’ll ring the bell again, it’s our business, as you know, as well as we all do, none of us really knows what the ingredients are for a success, because otherwise none of us would do anything but big successes. You just have to hope.
Tavis: Is there a particular joy for you in being able to be in a period piece, as opposed to the contemporary stuff that I suspect you get offered?
McGovern: I’m quite enjoying being in a hit. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah. That helps
McGovern: I don’t care what I’m wearing.
Fellowes: (Unintelligible) too.
Tavis: Yeah, period or not.
McGovern: Put a wig on me, take it off.
Tavis: Yeah. If it’s a hit, yeah, I guess, yeah. I guess that does help, yeah. Since you went there, what is the mood like when you all are filming this, because it’s like we’re in the midst of the NBA playoffs right now, and there’s nothing that succeeds like winning. That’s true of any sport or anything in life.
When you win, everybody on the team, everybody’s happy and everybody’s jovial. What’s it like when you’re filming this project and everybody knows that we’re part of a hit?
McGovern: I’ll be perfectly honest with you.
McGovern: On the set, it’s really just work as per usual, and it’s a tough job to do. We have to shoot a lot in a day. It’s every day you feel we are just never going to make it, because we’ve got to cover 15 people – thank you, Julian – in one scene. (Laughter)
We’ve got six of them to do. So I think that there’s a confidence that it’s given all of us, which is just nice. It’s relaxing. We don’t agonize about everything quite as much as we probably did the first season.
Fellowes: They sit playing this word game all the time, what’s it called?
Tavis: Oh, yeah.
Fellowes: Bananagrams. (Laughter)
McGovern: I highly recommend it if you’re ever on “Downton Abbey.”
Fellowes: And you see them, and they’re all in their tiaras and white tie and everything else, (laughter) and all they’re doing is playing bananagram morning, noon, and night. It always makes me laugh, that.
Fellowes: But it is fun. The old success has many parents; failure is an orphan.
When you’re in a success everyone kind of wants to be part of it and near it and everything else. I think it’s great. I’ve done the other, and this is more fun. (Laughter)
Tavis: This will not surprise you, and I say this, of course, with all due respect. Everybody in America is talking about “Downton Abbey” except in the Black barbershops, except in the Black beauty salons. I know I’ll get mail about this from persons of color in this audience on PBS who love “Downton Abbey.”
I suspect that might be not because people of color don’t like period pieces, Julian, but because it’d be nice to see yourself represented on the screen at some point.
McGovern: Well, watch this space.
Fellowes: We, no, we have a good Black character coming up in the fourth series, played by Gary Carr. He’s a chap called Jack Ross. He’s kind of a fairly major storyline.
I was very keen that he should be a positive character. I think – I feel this quite strongly, so you must stop me if it’s boring – but so many Black characters in television drama are victims and things are not going well for them and even when they’re positive, even when they’re sympathetic, everything’s terrible.
I feel for Black young men and women it’s very important that you see people on the screen who are not victims. It’s not all going badly. Because you just want to get in there, and this guy is not a victim.
He’s a very successful entertainer, he’s a very positive guy, he’s very attractive, and there is no negative side to him, and that was quite important to me, actually.
He’s a very nice chap.
McGovern: I know.
Fellowes: I’m very pleased with the way it’s come out.
Tavis: What can you tell us about – I know you won’t tell us much. (Laughter) But what can you tell us about where we’re headed next season?
Fellowes: Well, I can tell you one thing.
Fellowes: That is that initially, when Dan didn’t want to come back at the beginning of this show, because I had this idea of Christmas would be happy, and the baby, and ha, ha, ha, the gurgling in its cot, and then he’d come back next year and die. (Laughter)
But when that wasn’t going to happen, I realized that it allowed us to have a time jump. So we start six months after Matthew has died, when the others are beginning to – of course Mary’s not got over it, it takes much, much longer than that, but they’re beginning to feel it’s time for her to rejoin real life and to start functioning again and everything.
They differ about it. Robert thinks she ought to be more protected; Cora thinks it’s time that she started to wake up and all the rest of it. So we have the business of Mary initially coming away socially, and then gradually she is taken into real life more, and a couple of men turn up and everything.
Nothing is resolved in this series, because it’s all too soon, but you do see her coming alive again and the different responses of the members of her family to that. That is, in a way, the spinal story, I would say, wouldn’t you?
Fellowes: Of the series.
McGovern: Yes. Yes, I’m going to concur with the director on this one. (Laughter)
Tavis: Always (unintelligible).
McGovern: I think it’s a good idea.
Fellowes: Well there are other, there are other big stories that go through it, but her coming back to life is quite big, and they all have different views. Violet disagrees completely with Robert and so on, and so it’s quite a good – talking about problems and tension and everything else.
Fellowes: Which you’re always trying to get into the show. It’s quite a good thing. When everyone’s behaving well – one of the features of “Downton” is that in the arguments what we try to do is we make it so each position is reasonable, so that there isn’t a bad guy and a good guy.
They both take positions which are defensible, and hopefully then everyone has an argument over the water cooler the next day in the office as to which one was right. There are no bad characters in that sense.
There are some who are more gossipy or malicious or whatever, but they’re none of them bad people in that way, and that’s (unintelligible).
Tavis: What has the success of “Downton” said to you personally, Julian, about your own creative choices?
Fellowes: Ooh, that’s rather a big one, Tavis.
McGovern: We had this conversation – we’ve had the best conversation (unintelligible).
Fellowes: Yes (unintelligible).
McGovern: Which we keep referring to.
McGovern: If only we took a camera. (Laughter)
Fellowes: (Unintelligible) Elizabeth, you’re late. I think my belief that it is possible to make entertainment that is not offensive, is not horrible, that can be watched by all age groups, but is not simple and can still be complicated and intelligent and involving, I think I’m vindicated by “Downton,” because a lot of times people say oh, if you’re not pushing the boundaries, if you’re not something that you’ve got to shock your audience.
I don’t think that. I think you have to make your audience think. I think you have to make them examine their own values. I think you have to make them look at their own situations.
But you can do that in a way that the whole family can enjoy. I know that sounds rather soppy, but I believe that.
Tavis: Nope, doesn’t sound soppy at all, and you have been vindicated. (Laughter) I think the success of “Downton Abbey” speaks to that. So Julian, congratulations, good to have you on.
Fellowes: Thank you.
Tavis: And Elizabeth, congrats to you as well.
McGovern: Thanks very much.
Tavis: Good to have you here as well. “Downton Abbey” and of course you know where to find it – PBS. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor video]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.