Fellowes says he doesn’t know why the show has resonated but he has pet theories. One is that the show’s upper and lower classes deal with universal issues, despite their differences in dress. Also, he feels that viewers like the way he has taken a period drama and made it “pacy,” as he puts it, like so much American TV. “I think American television changed world television in its reinvention of the series,” he says, referring to the way the single-plot shows of the ’70s gave way to brisker multi-narratives such as “ER.” “We look like a traditional British period show of lords and footmen and people coming in to dinner, but the actual pace of it is modern.”
Fellowes says he first experimented with this hybrid form when he wrote the 2001 Oscar-winning “Gosford Park” script for Robert Altman, a director famous for crowding together many characters with interlocking story lines. “I was absolutely determined to write a script that he would feel at home in,” he says.
Fellowes, by the way, is in love with houses. The morning before we met, Fellowes had traveled to The Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, and he still seemed intoxicated by it, calling it “ravishing” and “grand but quite intimate.” He said he felt that Wharton, who, along with Anthony Trollope, is one of his favorite authors, did not build The Mount “to be an ego proclamation.” The Mount was the reason for Fellowes’s visit to Boston; the historic site presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, noting not only “Downton” but his two novels and his script for the stage production of “Mary Poppins.”
Fellowes’s sensitivity to houses is obvious in “Downton Abbey,” and he says that finding the right location is always critical. “The house is a character to me,” he says. “I’m aware of the fact that you can go into a house and it is telling you its own story and the story of the people who live there.”
In the PBS classic “Brideshead Revisited,” which Fellowes greatly admires, the house needed to be beautiful, to reflect Charles Ryder’s love affair with the aristocracy. For “Downton,” the house needs to help viewers understand why the Crawleys are willing to make endless sacrifices to stay there — a story line that will grow across season 3. He says, “Initially audiences would think, ‘Why jump through all these hoops? Just sell it. Buy a rectory and have a nice life.’ You need a house with a compelling presence to make them think, ‘God, if I owned this, I would have to do all this.’ ”
He and the other “Downton” producers found that house in Highclere Castle, an hour outside of London. “You come down the drive and it looks like a piece of sculpture,” he says.
Fellowes was a moderately successful actor for decades, and occasionally he does feel the urge again. He went up for “The Hobbit” but lost the role to Stephen Fry. Eaton calls Fellowes’s acting work his “secret sauce”: “He writes lines that can be delivered. He knows how much fun it would be as an actor to play any one of these parts.”
Fellowes’s secret sauce also includes his knowledge of the British upper class; his wife, Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, is an aristocrat by birth. This connection, along with the perception by some that “Downton,” as A.N. Wilson put it, “glorifies an ordering of society that was hateful in reality,” has led to hostility toward Fellowes in England.
He doesn’t like the personal nature of the attacks, which portray him as a snob. “It’s obviously bollocks,” he says. “If I were tremendously snobbish, why would I constantly be examining the injustice of this way of life, why would I be writing about the servants, why would I be exposing the prejudices and intellectual indolence of that way of life? It’s like saying Edith Wharton is a snob. You couldn’t be a snob and write ‘House of Mirth.’ I’ve given up on that, really. It’s what people project onto you in the end.”