The Genesis of Downtown Abbey
When Gareth Neame, (CEO, Carnival Films and Executive Producer on Downton
Abbey), began talking
to Julian Fellowes about developing a new television drama series, it was an
adaptation of Julian's
acclaimed novel Snobs that he had in mind. Discussions quickly turned to a
subject that Gareth had
been mulling over for some time and, as luck would have it, Julian had been
thinking along similar lines.
"It was while working on an adaptation of Julian's novel Snobs that I first
thought we should really work
on an episodic series set in an Edwardian country house," says Neame. "Firstly,
because it is a setting
that is uniquely English and we haven't had an original programme like this in
many years and secondly,
Julian and I both thought it was good territory to revisit."
"I couldn't think of anyone in the world better to write it than Julian and
obviously there was a very big
nod towards Gosford Park, which had made such a huge impact on defining the
English country house
genre," he explains.
"I thought, if you could just take that period and put it into a prime-time
series, you could have something
really special," he continues.
For Gareth there are a few television genres that are uniquely American and
some that are uniquely
British of which Downton Abbey is one.
"When I read Julian's initial treatment it had such a confidant command of
this period and grasp of this
world, the family, the servants, and the entire setting that it was clear this
was something he had wanted
to write for a long time."
For Julian, Gosford Park struck a chord with audiences everywhere and it was
a period he was keen to
"I had never written a television series before and I found you have such
tremendous freedom to develop
the characters. The way of life of these fully staffed houses had always
interested me, long before I wrote
Gosford Park. There is something intriguing about a group of people living in
such close proximity and
yet with such different expectations."
In these country houses, Julian talks of families living within "a curious
universe, alongside their servants
who are, on the whole, living a different life but are just as strongly graded
as their masters so that, within
their world, the butler is King and the housekeeper is Queen, with all their own
hopes and dreams."
"It always intrigues me how did people deal with it, did they retain a sense
of self? I hope in Downton we
have a very balanced set up as both Gareth and I wanted it to be something
recognisable and identifiable
The Edwardian period is not often portrayed in television drama, with
dramatists and writers favouring
the regency period of Jane Austen instead.
"This is a time that perhaps our parents, but more likely our grandparents,
would have lived in, so it's not
a completely foreign country," explains Gareth. "The modern era began at the end
of the 19th Century
and this was something Julian and I discussed a lot. By the late 19th century,
electricity came in and
then gradually motor-cars, telephones, people commuting to work on the London
Underground or on
a bus and then came mortgages and pensions and are all things that modern
audiences recognise and
"My father was born in 1912," adds Julian, "So 1912, which is the year the
television series began, is
a period that many people alive today have heard about from their immediate
family members; it's still
relatively recent history."
Crucial to the look and feel of the show was for Gareth to bring modernity to
the design without
compromising the period.
"We wanted the show to have a contemporary feel to it without losing any of
the glorious elements that
made the era unique. I think this is helped by it being an original script
allowing the audience to enjoy all
the trappings associated with period drama."
Julian was also keen to portray what it was like to live and work in service
during this time and for women,
particularly young women, service was the only option.
"When the economic system changed, people, and most particularly women, began
to be offered jobs
where they could have a free evening instead of being on duty until they went to
bed. It was clearly a
better option. Remember during this time we saw the rise of women's rights, the
organisation of labour,
the changing status of the worker, the massive increase of productivity in the
Midlands, so the modern
world was pushing though and in fact the First World War would release all of
that energy," explains Julian
The ambition of Downton Abbey was realised, not only in the script, but in the
design, the location, the
production values, and ultimately the casting. For Gareth, the excitement of
being a producer is to watch
these elements come together.
"I enjoy the whole process of filming from beginning to end," he says, "It's
a process that's made of a
lot of different talents and skills and seeing each of them come together is
hugely rewarding; I mean the
whole operation, including working very closely on the development and at that
point its very much about
the script; then at a certain point it becomes about the casting, locations,
costumes, make-up and hair,
then editing and suddenly the most important thing you're working on is music
and finally the publicity. I
really do enjoy all of those aspects of production," he explains.
"Ultimately for me as a producer it's seeing the finished product coming
together. You create something
of value that has a purpose and will entertain."
Before any of these elements can come together, getting the right producer on
board is vital to the
success of any production.
"I asked Liz (Trubridge) to be the series producer, not least because of her
track record, but mainly
because of her relationship with Julian I knew that would work very well for us.
She's been a great
blessing for me and runs such a tight ship. Nigel Marchant is an excellent
producer, who I have enjoyed
working with in the past. It really makes my life a thousand times easier having
such a great team on the
For Gareth, casting was also crucial for Downton Abbey but what can often be
difficult and arduous
process was in fact very straightforward.
"It was a joy to cast this drama purely because it wasn't hard to find the
actors you would want to play
this part and we were blessed that pretty much everyone we went to came
One of Julian's many considerable achievements with the scripts is to create
many characters, introduce
them all in the first episode and give them storylines.
"Julian has got a great command of every single one of those characters and
the journeys they go on and
that really gives the actors something they can get their teeth into."
"The modern audiences' viewing habits are much more sophisticated now and
viewers are able to handle
lots of information simultaneously, most likely as a result of the increasing
pace of television dramas such
as Chicago Hope and The West Wing," says Julian.
One of the most important characters in the script was the house itself and
despite visiting Highclere
Castle first, Gareth, Julian and the production team spent six months visiting
many different houses
eventually returning to Highclere Castle. With its 1,000 acres of grounds,
landscaped by Capability
Brown, the Castle provided the perfect backdrop for Downton Abbey.
"Finding the hero location was a funny journey because from day one Julian
said the house he had in
mind was Highclere. When the show was greenlit I came down to have a look
around," recalls Gareth.
"Initially, it seemed wrong to just tick the box without exploring other options
because it was such a key
factor in the show and probably the singular most important character," he adds.
"One of the reasons we
came back to Highclere was that our production designer (Donald Woods), made a
point that the show
was set in Edwardian England and many period dramas over the last few years have
tended to be set in
"Highclere's gothic look felt so different to other period dramas and we were
keen to make a fresh
statement so the show could stand out."
Julian's passion for great houses is well documented and for him the choice
of Highclere Castle as the
location for Downton Abbey was an easy one. However, with a huge ensemble cast,
and a crew of over 100 it was important from a logistical point of view that the
house was accessible.
"I love Highclere and wanted Gosford to be at Highclere. But Bob Altman very
much wanted people to
be able to sleep in their beds and so we had to move nearer to London to
Wrotham, (another wonderful
house). To me, Highclere is a unique architectural statement and tells us so
much more about the
wonderful confidence of the late Victorians and the confidence of high Empire,"
Highclere Castle is home to the Earl and Countess of Carnavon and their family
and is undoubtedly one
of England's most beautiful castles set amidst spectacular parkland. The
Carnavons' ancestors have
lived at Highclere since 1679.
"The Castle has some wonderful interiors especially the library which is an
absolutely marvellous room.
It's a very quintessential English Library and the Great Hall is wonderful",
It was always the plan to film the state rooms and public rooms on location,
however, over the years
the kitchens and the bedrooms of large country houses have changed dramatically
therefore it was
necessary to build the servants quarters, kitchen, and bedrooms in a studio.
"The thing about filming in these great houses is that if you were to start
from scratch, you simply couldn't
build this and if you did you would have used up all your budget in one room."
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