Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.
Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through September 3, 2018.
I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio, Uncut.
It’s been three months since Downton Abbey came to a close, but we’re still reeling over everything that happened in those final episodes…
There were fights five seasons in the making…
Edith: I know you to be a nasty, jealous, scheming bitch!
Mary: Now listen you pathetic…
Edith: You’re a bitch!
Jace: …Followed by several tearful reconciliations and two highly-anticipated weddings — Mary and Henry’s and Edith and Bertie’s…
Bertie: What a wonderful life we’re all going to have.
Edith: I suppose this is all really happening.
Shrimpie: Edith and Bertie! Bride and groom!
Jace: …and there was even a baby to boot.
Bates: I am a father and I have a son.
Anna: We have a son, John.
Jace: In this episode, we’re reliving all of those final moments…and looking back on six seasons of Downton magic with creator, sole writer, and executive producer Julian Fellowes.
We’ve released most of this interview already — in two different parts on our podcast — but now you can hear it in one place.
Jace: Welcome, Lord Fellowes.
Julian Fellowes (Julian): It’s nice to be here.
Jace: Now, 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, you know, that some people deny ever existed. They’re, “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. 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. 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. 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 — Mad Men, 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 even 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 know, 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: Can you discuss why you chose to end the series with a focus on Edith?
Julian: I like Edith’s character very much. I always have from the beginning and that’s a lot to do with Laura’s performance because I do believe that some people seem to be unlucky, and she was one of those people that it never quite came right for. They always missed the train. They don’t just catch it, you know?
Yet, what Laura injected into the character, and eventually I started to write for, was this sort of gallantry, the fact that she would take all these knocks but she wouldn’t accept that she was a loser; she wouldn’t accept defeat.
In the end, I think, she became rather an admirable character and I felt she had earned a happy ending. I think to have an unhappy ending after going through all that for six years just wouldn’t have been acceptable. I enjoyed the irony that Mary, who is the ambitious one and the snobbish one and also, of course, the lucky one…I mean the one who apart from Matthew dying everything else fell into her lap and certainly went her way. And it amused me that in the end Edith makes a much greater marriage and becomes a greater personage than Lady Mary Talbot will be. I sort of enjoyed the comedy of that really.
Jace: Now, Edith– I grew to love to love Edith after loving to hate Edith. She could marry Bertie without telling the very frightful Mrs. Pelham about Marigold but she chooses to come clean to her future mother-in-law.
Edith: There’s something I feel you ought to be aware of. Before the announce of the engagement this evening.
Mrs. Pelham: Does Bertie know you are here?
Mrs. Pelham: But he knows what you are about to tell me?
Edith: Yes. He knows everything.
Mrs. Pelham: Well, you’d better begin.
Jace: Is there a sense here that Edith is looking to live an authentic life or that she’s ultimately the most honest character on the show?
Julian: With Edith I think there had been so many lies, you know, lies about the child, and giving it away, and pretending to adopt it…And she just thought with Bertie, “I’ve done enough of all that. I’m just going to tell the truth. I’m not going to go on into some other situation where I can be found out further down the line.”
Also remember she’d made a big mistake with Bertie by not telling him the truth and that almost lost him — I mean did lose him for a bit until he came back — and she saw herself that it was a mistake. And I think it was, to me anyway and I hope to the audience, it was believable that she didn’t want to make that mistake again.
Jace: Now, Edith ends the series with a husband, an elevated title, a career, and a daughter. Does she have it all in the end?
Julian: Well, I don’t know that anyone ever “has it all,” but I think she has quite a lot of it. Probably, I always feel that, if the first World War had never happened, you know, Edith would have sat there going to the races, and married a local landowner, and had children, and that’s the end of it. But the war changed her and made her want more things. Her introduction to the working world of the magazine, and Michael, and all of that made her want more from life. For me the real happiness of being Lady Hexham is not that she is a Marchioness and lives in a castle but that it is a life full of expectations, and demands, and will ask a lot of her. She will never know a day that isn’t busy and, you know, I think that’s a great fate.
Jace: Now Lady Mary and Edith promised to do better in the future with each other.
Edith: You’re such a paradox. You make me miserable for years and then you give me my life back.
Mary: Look. We’re blood, and we’re stuck with it. So let’s try and do a little better in future.
Jace: Are we left with a sense that these two might find, if not sisterly friendship, respect at least for one another in the end?
Julian: Yes, I think that’s right. I don’t think they’re ever going to adore each other because that’s not the relationship they have, but I think they both, in the end, came to see the point of the other one — if you know what I mean — that Mary was a good, competent business woman. She wasn’t lazy — whatever she might be — she wasn’t at all lazy, and she clearly was going to run the estate well and eventually run it with her son and make a good job of it. And Edith has become a competent woman. She’s a publisher; she’s now going to be doing all sorts of things, you know; she’s going to be running the estate with Bertie. I mean not a very dissimilar job. And in that I think they both came to have substance whereas when they were younger all they could see was their rivalry, and their differences, and their sniping.
For me, I am always a little bit unbelieving how sisters and brothers in movies always adore each other because that hasn’t really been my experience in real life. I wanted to dramatize that, because one of the things about not getting on with either one or all of your siblings is that you are stuck with them. It’s not like in the real world — you know the outside world — when you don’t get on with someone you eventually leave the job, or you just break with them, you don’t see them anymore, but with your family when you don’t get on you’re stuck with them and that was really the kind of motivation behind that plot really.
Jace: In the end you just send a letter to the Turkish ambassador and that’s that.
Julian: Well, you know she’d had to put up with a lot before she did that, although I do think it was mean.
Jace: She did. I will say, Edith has become probably my favorite character, which if you asked me if that were possible in season one I would have said you were mad, but now I adore Edith.
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: Now 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, you know? 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.
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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, of course, 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, you know, 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.
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, you know, with their 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 Marry-Matthew dynamic?
Julian: No, I don’t think I was. I mean 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, you know, 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 gentleman, 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: Now, Anna and Bates finally get their much, much deserved happy ending, the birth of a son, which happens of all places in Lady Mary’s room. Looking back, why did you put these two through so, so much?
Julian: Well, their dramas had a sort of continuum. I mean this drama would lead to that drama and that drama led to the other drama except the last drama, which was not being able to hold a child. That was, I suppose, an extra burden just when they thought they were finally free.
I do think drama sort of — I mean it sounds rather unfair to say it — but some people have a lot of terrible things to put up with whereas others just seem to skate through life with barely grazing a knee as they go. The sufferers in this show were the Bateses and Edith, but I do believe that in the end your luck can change. It is possible that you can go from being an unlucky person to having some luck.
I suppose I gave that to both the Bateses and to Edith. I mean of course the end — the final episode — is a very happy episode. Everyone, well pretty well everyone, has a happy ending. And I might be accused of a certain sentimentality in that but you know I got very fond of them all and I felt that I wanted them to have nice lives in the ether or wherever television characters go after the end of their shows.
Jace: I personally thought it was great that we did get happy endings for a lot of people; there were romances left unresolved at the end, and Mary’s pregnancy, and Tom and Henry’s new business is sort of new possibilities. Did you strive to leave one or two knots untied?
Julian: I didn’t want it too tidy. I didn’t want, you know, Tom Branson walking up the aisle as well, and Mrs. Patmore and Mason… I didn’t want to confirm all of that partly, I suppose, in case there’s a movie, which there might be, but I did want a sense of warmth. I wanted a sense of generosity towards these people we’ve come to know so well. I wanted everyone to kind of go to bed that night feeling content. Because in a way you watch the final episode in a slightly different mood; you watch it to say, “Goodbye” to them, because you know it’s the end. I felt I wanted that atmosphere where people around the world were sort of raising a glass as they bid them farewell.
Mr. Carson: I don’t want to force your hand, Mr. Barrow.
Barrow: And I don’t want to twist your arm, Mr. Carson.
Mrs. Hughes: I think his lordship has found a solution. So we should be glad of that.
Jace: Another signal of shifting times, Carson steps down as head butler to be replaced by Thomas Barrow. Is this the changing of the guard as it were at Downton?
Julian: Well, I think Cora at one point says, “We’re going to be all right if we stay flexible,” and that was really true. During these decades of transition– I mean the late 40s, 50s, and 60s probably the worst period of all for those houses and estates and everything else. The ones that hung on were the imaginative ones, the ones who could find business potential and income potential in the different uses of the houses, just staying loose.
Really, that’s what the whole, you know, provoked by Anna having her baby in Mary’s bedroom, that conversation was about, was this family going to be one of those that stay loose and can adjust to the changes.
Cora: I think the more adaptable we are, the more chance we have of getting through.
Robert: We’ll do it. The estate’s safe in Mary’s hands with Henry and Tom to help her. Edith has risen from the cinders in the hearth to be kissed by her very own Prince Charming. What more can we ask?
Cora: A long and happy life together, just we two, to watch the children grow. That’s all I want.
Robert: And why not? We never know what’s coming, of course. Who does? But, I’d say we have a good chance.
Julian: In my head, George is now at Downton. He’s getting on a bit and he’s probably handed it on to his son, and he’s living there and they’re there and they’ve got past the difficult years and now these houses have regained their value.
When I was a boy you couldn’t give those houses away. They were being demolished every week and there’s one famous story of a huge house in the Midlands that was offered to the local counsel for one pound and they turned it down. Now that’s all over; they’ve recovered their value. They sell, if they do sell, for twenty, thirty million. These families are back on top, but it took a certain tenacity and imagination for them to negotiate the difficult years. I suppose I want the audience to believe that the Crawleys are one of those families who have those qualities.
Jace: Now you’ve recently said there’s a quote, “64.5% chance that a Downton movie will happen.” Has that percentage changed at all in recent weeks?
Julian: No, I think it’s pretty accurate.
I think a film would be fun and I’m completely up for it, but there are various elements. One is whether or not, I should think, they can get enough of the cast because all of the cast are very sought after now, as they deserve to be, and I think that is quite an interesting period, and so we would be assembling them while everyone else wants them. But I hope we can do it. I hope we can get them together. I think it’d be fun.
Jace: Fingers crossed.
You chose midnight on New Year’s Day, 1926 as the ending point for Downton; did you always have this final scene in mind for the series?
Julian: Yes, I did, yes. Normally I would say, “Oh, I’m not sure,” but I did know I wanted to end it in resolution and in a sense of the future, and the one day of the year when we all drink a toast to the future is New Year’s Eve and so that did feel right, actually, yeah.
Jace: Now, the final lines of the entire series fittingly go to Violet and Isobel — Isobel says, “We’re going to the future not back to the past,” and Violet says, “If only we had the choice.” Would you say that that’s ultimately the appeal of Downton that these people may not be able to go back in time but we can relive it for them through the show?
Julian: Yes, I mean, I think there were elements of that period that seemed more secure than our own. In some ways that’s a false perception because, as we tried to show, you know everything was changing. Yet, between the wars they held on to that sense of ritual and order, and so they had one foot in the 19th century, which does feel stable and comforting in a way. I think that was part of the show’s appeal, because at the moment we’ve sort of turned our back on ritual and order; we are a much more disordered generation and sometimes I think it leaves us feeling a bit bewildered, you know? Rather like invitations that say “casual chic” and you just think, “What is that?” And our rules of courtship, and our, I don’t know– There are areas of behavior where we just don’t quite know what’s expected of us anymore. I think that does create a certain nostalgia for elements of the past. Not all of it.
You must remember that history on television or in the movies is history light. We watch it, we enjoy it, but we don’t have to live it. We don’t have to get up at four in the morning and go and start scrubbing the grates, you know? We can enjoy it without getting involved in its injustices, but nevertheless I think you’re right; I think that was part of its appeal.
Jace: Now, Robert’s death would have signified a real end of life as we know it at Downton. Why did you opt to keep the Earl alive even after the ulcer rupture and did you ever contemplate killing him off?
Julian: No, I don’t think so. We’d had one premature death…Well two if you count William the footman and Sybil, three. I think that’s enough…
Jace: And Lavinia.
Julian: Oh, Lavinia. Poor old Lavinia. Forgot her for a moment.
Four premature deaths, I think that’s enough. And anyway Robert is quite a sort of vital character and very central.
For a start I wouldn’t have wanted to do the movie without Robert because you know there are certain characters that seem very reliable and sort of tent pole-ish. I wouldn’t want to do the movie without Carson. I wouldn’t want to do it without three or four of them. No, it felt right to keep him alive, but I mean I hope people thought he might die because I always like a little bit of brinkmanship in those things.
Jace: Now, how should viewers read the final shot of the show with Downton standing in the snow?
Julian: I think that’s it. I think the house is still standing. The cast, the characters, or at least the staff, is being cut down. We understand that that is a process that will continue and eventually there will be a sort of skeleton staff by the standards of those days. But the house is still standing. It’s still going. It’s still keeping out the snow. And we hope that that will go on through the reigns of Mary and George.
Jace: Do you have any regrets about not putting the Crawley’s through the stock market crash of 1929 or regrets in general?
Julian: The only– I mean the main reason I wouldn’t have put the Crawley’s through the stock market crash is that, in the end, I didn’t want them to have to age too much. The whole show covered — whatever it was — thirteen years over six years, so they were only aging slightly more than they were again in real life, but if we’d gone through to ‘29 and ‘30, or as some people wanted us to do, the Second World War, then they would be covered in latex and talcum powder, and I never think that’s a very good look.
That was part of it, but you know, the other part was, we’d have an interesting investigation of life before the first war, the war-life after the first war, the changes of the 20s, it just felt like the right time to go.
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.
Violet: It makes me smile the way we drink every year we drink to the future whatever it may bring.
Isobel: What else could we drink to? We’re going forward to the future not back into the past.
Violet: If only we had the choice.
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Jace: Now, there are still fans who wonder about the identity of the bandaged Canadian soldier in Season 2. Can you definitely clarify whether that man was an impostor or actually Patrick Crawley?
Julian Fellowes: I’m not sure. I don’t really– I’m not completely sure. I mean maybe that’s, you know, that’s the film.