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Julian Fellowes On The Rules Of 'Downton'

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This interview was originally broadcast on Dec. 11, 2012.

Julian Fellowes may be the Lord Fellowes of West Stafford, but the English screenwriter, director and novelist says his background "was much more ordinary than the newspapers have made it." What he means is that he did not grow up with servants waiting on him hand and foot, as people have seen done for the Crawley family on Downton Abbey, the hit television series Fellowes created.

The series details the lives of the Crawleys and the people who serve them in an upstairs-downstairs examination of social class in the first half of the 20th century. The world the Crawleys have always known is fast becoming anachronistic.

By the time Fellowes, who also wrote the screenplay for Robert Altman's 2001 film Gosford Park, was growing up as a boy in the '50s, the bulk of the social upheaval dramatized in the series had already happened. This is one of the reasons he says his title does not necessarily indicate the grandness of his lifestyle. That said, much of what he knows of that life he learned from relatives who both lived it and lived through the world events that changed it. His oldest great aunt, for example, is the model for Violet Grantham, played by Maggie Smith.

"[My aunt] was born in 1880, you know," he tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, "and she was presented in 1898 and married before the first war and all of that, and I knew her perfectly well. She only died when I was 21, so I was able to hear a lot of this stuff firsthand."

It's the juxtaposition of the lives of the aristocratic family against the lives of the servants that defines Fellowes' work. Class is a defining and longstanding fascination for him. It began, he says, with his mother and father.

"My parents came from different backgrounds," he tells Davies. "My father's was grander than my mother's, so my mother had ... to put up with the disapproval of my father's relations. And ... I saw it as a child when I didn't really understand what was going on, and I saw it later as an adult when I did. ... From that grew a kind of interest, in a way, of the unfairness of class, the fact that it is so arbitrary in its selection ... and yet it shapes a life and creates entitlement."

Interview Highlights

On rules

"We don't really like rules. We think, in some way, they are an infringement of liberty. But of course the good thing about rules is that you always know what you're doing, you always know what you should wear, you always know where you're supposed to be, when you're supposed to get there, what you're supposed to do when you do get there, and, you know, we've lost that kind of security."

On working with Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess in Downton Abbey

"What I love about Maggie is that she has this extraordinary skill to bring many different aspects of a character into her delineation, but they never seem contradictory. She never turns into a different person. A lesser actor would, you know, find it difficult to be kind and cruel simultaneously, or superficial here but quite deep here. But she manages to synthesize all these elements into a believable woman and, of course, she's very, very funny, so whatever you write for her always sounds much funnier than it was when you thought of it and, you know, all of those reasons make her very rewarding to write for."

On writing Gosford Park for director Robert Altman

"I went out and got every single Altman film I could find and gave myself a kind of weeklong Altman fest, and I understood his style and, quite deliberately, I wrote the film so that he would recognize it as one of his own films, despite the fact that the subject matter — you know, the English, the upper class, whatever you call them, and the servants and so on — was not his natural terrain. Nevertheless, the style of the film, the way it was constructed, the multiplot thing, interlocking one scene which promotes maybe three or four stories and so on, that was all designed so that he would feel at home in this script."

On the first time he became aware of the upstairs-downstairs dynamic

"I remember one time when I was quite young ... I was staying in a house and I got lost and I went through the wrong door, and I was standing at the top of the staircase that led down into the kitchens and everything. And there was a tremendous row going on between what sounded like four or five, six people shouting. ... And I suddenly had such a powerful sense of the lives that were being lived by the people who worked there. Not, you know, only the family who lived there, but people who worked there were also, you know, enjoying life or hating each other or loving each other or whatever."

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