Michele Manelis talks with actor, director, novelist Julian Fellowes, who wrote the screenplay and produced Downton Abbey
In all the television episodes and now the film, did you ever consider sneaking yourself into a scene? You're also an actor, after all.
No, I was never even an extra or a footman or a guest at a ball. I feel that Hitchcock did that, really, and it's difficult to imitate him. I did once, years ago, write myself into a children's series and actually I found it very schizophrenic. One minute you're standing there with all the grown-ups behind the camera talking about framing and then the next minute you're worrying about your mascara.
So much of the show is about British protocol but in the film you also explore some of the social mores of the time, particularly gay relationships. what was it like back in the late-1920s? Were there bars that people clandestinely had to go to?
No, they tended to be movable so that they could get out very quickly. Those kinds of gay bars that you're thinking about with plush walls and padded bars and all that kind of thing, that was all much later. That was really all the kind of late-40s, 50s. In the 20s you would use a space to meet people, to have a dance, to have a drink, whatever but as soon as the police got on to it then it had to move around, so it was very, very difficult. This was a very difficult way of life for people. Presumably there was no smaller percentage of people who were gay then than there are now, The difference was that most of them had to live a lie.
How do you write? with a laptop? With a pen? Do you need a cognac or a brandy for inspiration?
I probably need a glass of whiskey at the end of the day to recover but no, I write directly on a laptop. I write in Final Draft, which I find is very helpful to me to see it looking like a script right off. It sort of makes me believe in it more if it looks like a script and that's how I do it.
Do you need to be in the mood?
I don't want to sound as if I'm blowing my own trumpet but I think you've got to be reasonably disciplined and stick at it, because if you only write when you're in the mood, you're never going to get anything done. I'm never in the mood. I'm in the mood for lying on my bed reading a book. So I have to get up from the breakfast table and sit down and be in front of the screen and get on with it. I'm fairly tough about doing that. I know some writers need things like a little stuffed rabbit looking at them or a particular mug but I don't have any of that. I write wherever I am.
Do you show your work to your wife before anyone else?
Yes, I show my work to my wife first. She gets first look at everything and she's quite a severe critic. You know, she writes on the back, "This bit is very boring!" Or things like, "How would we know she's his sister?"
Maggie Smith is the jewel in the Downton crown. What do you love about her the most?
She can be funny and touching simultaneously. She can make you roar with laughter one minute and cry three minutes later. It's very relaxing in a way, for a writer, because you know that she's going to meet the challenge of whatever you give her. And also, you never have to explain why a line is funny.
What is it about past eras in history you connect to so well?
The thing about our world that for me makes it harder to dramatise, is that we have no rules really anymore. There's no particular ruling on what women should do or what men should do or what they should wear or how they should express themselves or what their position demands from them or how they can marry who they want and they can do what they want. I like character narratives that are driven by tension and people overcoming difficulties and overcoming limits. Women, particularly in period dramas, can be very, very interesting characters. They can be so roped-in and hemmed-in with all these rules of etiquette and custom and limitation - and in every class.
But the upper class have it easier, of course?
Yes, but on the other hand, upper-class women are no less tied to the rules than the rest. There's no job they could do that is acceptable socially, it's very difficult for them to marry outside of their own kind and all of these things. You get some brave adventurers who break the rules and go off on their own. However, most people stay within the rules. I like exploring the ways women somehow manage to get what they want. And it puts a kind of fundamental tautness, a kind of tension into the story and that works for me really.
What's the most fun part of writing?
It's pretty good when I finish. I like that bit.
Downton Abbey is in cinemas now.