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DOWNTON ABBEY

The Making of the Downtown Abbey Film
By Julian Fellowes

The return to Downton Abbey has been a rather extraordinary, at times almost surreal, experience. We finished filming the last season in 2015, made sure that all the characters were safely tucked up in their lives, said goodbye to them, marked the moment with a wonderful wrap party in the Ivy Club, and that, I thought, was that. But it seemed the public was not yet quite prepared to be parted from the Crawleys and their servants and the rumours of a film grew and grew until Gareth Neame and the rest of the team felt unable to resist them. And so the film was born.

For me, the desire for a film of a series is an expression of how much people miss the show, itself, and, besides, in Downton Abbey the house was the main character in the drama. It was the demands of the house that drove storyline after storyline and their love of the house that made the family stand by it. So I knew from the start that we would be back at Highclere for a lot of the time.

A long-running series is quite unlike any other kind of dramatic form, certainly for the writer but I think for everyone involved. It is the only time that you are writing for (or directing) performances you are already familiar with, played by actors you know and enjoy in the roles. With a play or a musical or most movies, you write and (usually) finish the script before it is cast. But, with Downton, I was looking at the episode cuts by the time I was writing Episode Four of the first series. I had got to know these characters; I had got to see what the actors could do with them, and I started to write to their strengths of which this wonderful cast had many. Their performances shaped the narrative as much as anything and, after six years of that process, unsurprisingly, you do get very involved with these invented but very real-feeling people. I'm always being asked which character was my favourite, but the truth is, they were all my favourites. They were my children. I created them and the actors and I grew up in the roles, in the world of Downton Abbey, together.

I have been lucky in the years since Downton finished, with musicals in the West End and on Broadway, two movies out this year and two television shows now in pre-production, so I have no grounds for complaint, but of course I rather miss the sort of security that the world of Downton gave me. It is a marvellously unhurried form of drama. You can hint and suggest and choose the moment to kick off a new story, but no one's in a hurry. So of course I miss it and, in that way, it was fun to be back in their fictional lives. But writing the film wasn't the same as working on the show had been. In a television episode, you will normally give strong stories to four or maybe five characters and the others will simply participate in one of them. Then the following week a different four or five will get their stories and the rest of the cast will support them. But in a film everyone must have their tale to tell and all of them must be resolved, which meant quite a bit of plaiting. We chose to make the Royal visit the central strand. King George V and Queen Mary would tour Yorkshire and spend a night at Downton, and all the different narratives, some happy, some less so, would be tangential to this main event. This was not too much of a stretch, in terms of reality. Their eldest daughter, Princess Mary, the Princess Royal after 1932, would later live at Harewood with her husband and, at the date of the film, was living at Goldsborough Hall and so Yorkshire was not at all off the beaten track for her parents. Making the film gave us the opportunity to manage things on a grander scale than we could have done on television and the Royal couple (brilliantly played by Simon Jones and Geraldine James) provide us with the excuse to fill the screen with pomp and pageantry. Added to which, we would explore how our old friends would react to the honour, and the answer is, not all of them favourably. But you will have to see the film to learn the different responses on display.

We had a read through at Twickenham Studios, before shooting began, and suddenly there we were, all the faces that had dominated my waking hours from ten years previously, sitting side by side round a vast square of tables, scripts open before them, ready to get back into the skins of the Downton regulars. Writing is a funny business. You spend so much time alone, staring at a computer screen, waiting for ideas, and then suddenly - or it feels like suddenly - it becomes real and there are recces and fittings and a crew working feverishly to get everything ready and your words aren't yours any more. They belong to the actors and the director and, finally, the public. But it is always a strange moment when you hear them read, or acted, for the first time and somehow seeing this cast, which had dispersed with farewells and kisses three years earlier, made it stranger still. During the filming I would visit the set at Shepperton Studios where, years before, my life had changed with the making of Gosford Park, and there I would wonder at the skills on display from every brilliant department and the ease with which the actors reassumed their roles, and now it is time to step back and to let the audience into our secret. I hope you enjoy the finished product as much as I do.

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