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Behind the Scenes at Downtown Abbey
By Emma Rowley, Nick Briggs
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 HarperCollins
All rights reserved.
Behind the Scripts
Behind the Scripts
The story of Downton Abbey began with a dinner and an idea. The idea quickly became a concept for a television series, which was snapped up by ITV. Gareth Neame commissioned Julian Fellowes to write the first episode, and from the opening scene the script caught the imagination of the TV bosses who read it and recognised that they had something special.
'When I first read the script I couldn't put it down. I could see each character in my head when I had finished reading. That doesn't happen very often.'
ROBERT, EARL OF GRANTHAM
ITV is the show's natural home, Fellowes believes. There, he and Neame feel they are better able to present the house's inhabitants as they envisage them, rather than getting mired in the social politics of a century ago, as might be the case at a more 'interventionist' rival.
'For me, the contention that everything was horrible for everyone except for a few rather unpleasant aristocrats is as untrue as saying everything was marvellous for absolutely everyone,' Fellowes says. 'The truth, as always, lies somewhere between the two.
'We were presenting this very structured, class-conscious society, but at the same time we would deal with all the characters within it with equal weight. We would make an assumption that most of them were trying to live the best lives they could, given the hand they had been dealt. I think that that sense of ordinary, non-heroic characters nevertheless being decent people who are trying to do their best is the central philosophy of Downton,' he adds.
For Fellowes, the world of Downton Abbey had begun to take shape in his mind; from the large country house that embodied it to the people who inhabited it, from the major plotlines to the smaller events that they would experience along the way.
In order to create the scripts for this first series, Fellowes carefully mapped out, character by character, a community and the interactions between its members that would tell their story: the rivalry, jealousy, love, hatred, births, marriages and deaths. It was his attention to detail and his vision that has inspired cast and crew alike to become involved in the project.
'When I first read the script I couldn't put it down,' remembers Hugh Bonneville, who went on to play Robert, Earl of Grantham. 'I could see each character in my head when I had finished reading. That doesn't happen very often.'
For Fellowes, the first character to take on life was Cora, Countess of Grantham. At the time he had been reading To Marry an English Lord, a book about the young American heiresses who had flocked to marry into the old English families during the Victorian era, to exchange their parents' newly made wealth for a title and status. 'But what was it like after that?' he asked himself. 'Many of these women were here for years after the way of life they had arrived to preserve had almost become history. What was it like living in a freezing house in Staffordshire which was hideously uncomfortable and far from their roots? The next generation, even the younger sisters of a lot of those women, would not succumb to the fashion for European titles. The sea receded, leaving these women stranded in an alien culture, with English or Scottish children. So I started to play with that.'
Once he had developed the characters of Cora and her husband, Robert, others began to take shape, each with their own dramatic function. The mysterious new valet Mr Bates provided a spur to the action with his sudden arrival at the house – 'a very simple dramatic catalyst,' says Neame. Anna, then head housemaid, emerged as the show's moral compass, guiding the audience as to how we should view other characters and developments, while remaining far from saccharine. 'When I read the first episode, straightaway I fell in love with Anna because I thought she was beautifully written,' actress Joanne Froggatt remembers. 'A really nice person, but not boring.' Phyllis Logan (Mrs Hughes) agrees that for her the characters and their characterisation are an important element of the script's appeal. 'All the characters are, to my mind, well rounded and intriguing. There's lots of light and shade to them. They are not one-dimensional and are fascinating to play.'
'All the characters are, to my mind, well rounded and intriguing. There's lots of light and shade to them. They are not one-dimensional and are fascinating to play.'
The eldest daughter of the house, meanwhile, acted as the focus of its hopes and fears, as she still does. 'You invest in all the characters, but if I had to come down to it, I would say my favourite is Mary,' says Neame. 'The overall dynamic of the show has always been about her future, whether it's the succession issue in the first series, who was going to be the right man for her to marry, or the ups and downs in her relationship with Matthew. And knowing, as I do, where the story goes in the future, she will be at the heart of it.'
It is the storyline that brings the audience back for more, series after series, and this carefully managed plot is still very much the work of the show's creators, Gareth Neame and Julian Fellowes. Since that first historic dinner, the pair have maintained a strong working partnership, with clearly defined roles in the creation of the show. Together they discuss the storylines and establish a broad overview of where they want to take each series, before Fellowes produces a first draft of every episode. Having started writing for the screen when he was a working actor, Fellowes has trained himself to write wherever he can, which has helped him to shoulder the writing single-handedly.
'I wasn't really allowed the luxury of, "I must write in this room, I can only write in these hours, I have to have my little [lucky] rabbit there,"' he says. 'That was forbidden me, so I had to work when I had two hours off and I was sitting in my dressing room or in a trailer or in a terrible hotel. I'm grateful for that, because today I can work on a train or stuck in an airport.'
On each draft script, Neame gives his notes – 'what should be accented, what should be held back, "I like this storyline but I think we've missed this key scene"' – and thus they work through the scripts until they are happy with them. It is a surprisingly intimate process for a show that is now so big. 'By the time we finish series four, Julian and I will have discussed, debated and agreed every story in around 40 episodes,' he says. 'A lot of shows have more input from a wide group of people, and in those cases the writer can get stifled by myriad different opinions. This way, I can ensure the stories he wants to tell are brought to the screen.'
Through their partnership, Neame has discovered the sheer breadth of Fellowes' talent as a writer. 'I knew he could bring that world to life like nobody else,' he says. 'A massive part of the show's success has been his extraordinary ability to write romance, hatred, rivalry, love, jealousy, laugh-out-loud humour and tragedy.'
The balance of all these elements within the scripts is delicately judged. 'In a sense, we go for chuckles rather than guffaws,' says Fellowes. 'Once you are making a comedy, you've gone into a different place in people's minds. We have to stop at the threshold.' As he sees it, the humour has to fit with the reality of the stories and the characters. 'We have established that Violet, for instance, is quite a witty woman and so we can give her cracks to make without disturbing her reality, because that is who she is. You could say the same for Mrs Patmore. So we've got two women above and below stairs who provide a lot of the humour.'
'Inevitably there is going to be male interest in this eligible, beautiful young widow. How she reacts to that, how people respond to her and how we see her move on in her life without Matthew is going to be very interesting.'
Certainly, some of their comic lines are now firmly established in popular culture, from Violet's withering 'Don't be defeatist dear, it's very middle class' to Mrs Patmore's complaint that a ringing phone is 'like the cry of a banshee' – just one of her choice phrases.
'She relishes a good line,' says Lesley Nicol, who plays the cook. 'I think she's just one of those women who picks up and connects to language, and uses it. She's got some rather learned phrases. We are all a fan of contra mundi [against the world] – we'd never heard that phrase before!' It is this light touch that offers some much-needed relief for the emotion played out on screen.
Among most period dramas, Downton stands out in that it is not a literary adaptation, allowing for some delicious tension around the 'will they, won't they?' romances of Mary and Matthew, Sybil and Branson, Anna and Mr Bates. (These relationships have now been resolved, but these will surely not be the last couples we will see come together on screen.)
A sizeable chunk of the audience seems to suspect that tender feelings linger in the most unlikely of places. 'I enjoy the relationship with Mrs Hughes,' says Jim Carter (Mr Carson). 'And I love the fact that people who watch the programme speculate as to whether there is a romantic link between Carson and Mrs Hughes.' But will they ever get together? 'Everybody wants to dredge up a romance!' says Phyllis Logan. 'I like their relationship the way it is, and I know they are very fond of each other. Who knows what may occur?'
Romance aside, the show's originality means it can offer up true shocks to the audience – notably the deaths of William, Sybil and Matthew. Downton's fourth series opens six months after a car crash claimed the life of Matthew Crawley just as he had become a father. As Matthew's widow, Mary now faces the challenge of building a life for herself and her baby, George.
'That was the hook we left the audience with at the end of series three, with that very long-held shot of her with her newborn baby, not even knowing that she's a widow,' says Neame. 'Inevitably, there is going to be male interest in this eligible, beautiful young widow. How she reacts to that, how people respond to her and how we see her move on in her life without Matthew is going to be very interesting.'
There was a clear decision to reflect the emotional impact of the loss on all members of the family, says David Evans, who, as lead director for series four, directed its opening episode. 'It was exciting to work on this because it starts so firmly with the household as grief-stricken as they were when Matthew died,' he says. 'I was struck by its emotional honesty. It's the first episode of a new series, but Julian has not flinched from reintroducing us to the characters at their lowest.'
Penelope Wilton (Isobel) was particularly relieved to find this was the case for her character, who has been left grieving for her son. 'The death knocked her sideways, as it would any mother,' she says. 'In a lot of series, when someone dies everyone gets over it immediately. What Julian's done very well is that he's left Mary and myself having a very difficult time, which is much more realistic.'
A shadow has fallen over the whole house. Filming the opening episode, Evans had a note for the cast to remind them to have the loss in mind. 'The advice was to keep the tone sombre,' remembers Ed Speleers (Jimmy). 'Everyone is just a little bit quieter.'
Yet while the tragedy might loom foremost as series four begins, the show remains, as always, a multi-strand story, with a plot that cannot be predicted. Some members of the cast love this unknown element in the development of their character's storylines and deliberately try to avoid getting advance notice of the twists and turns of the plot to come. Others, however, are honest about their desire to uncover spoilers at every opportunity! 'I'm terrible, I want to know everyone's storyline,' Laura Carmichael (Edith) says. 'It's like gossip, "Have you heard what is happening to this character?" But Phyllis doesn't want to know. She's always hushing people if they're reading the scripts on set!'
The show involves a large ensemble of characters, which means that there is always much to learn about those living above and below stairs – for the audience but also for the cast. Even four series in, for some of the actors there are details of the lives of their characters which are still being revealed through each new script. 'I don't know what's around the corner,' says Charles Edwards, returning as Edith's love interest Michael Gregson. 'Very occasionally, you will receive a script for an episode and there's a new piece of information for the character which is a surprise to you. It's rather exciting.' Elizabeth McGovern found the visit of Cora's mother, Martha, played by Hollywood legend Shirley MacLaine, a particular revelation in series three. 'She's a hoofer, a kind of dancer and chorus girl who made good. That taught me a lot about Cora,' she says. 'I was never sure if she was a blueblood American or just the daughter of a very, very rich guy. It became clear to me that Cora's fortune was not one that goes back to the Mayflower!'
Even Mr Carson, always correct as butler, was revealed to have had a slightly racier past spent treading the boards. 'It broadens the scope of the character,' says Jim Carter. 'I'm a fixture of the house. Unlike Anna or Thomas, who've had varied love lives and excitement, Carson doesn't have much of that. It was nice to explore.'
Yet there is always an internal logic to the decisions the characters make and the paths they follow. 'When Julian takes a character in a different direction, it's not really a new direction, it's just another layer of onion skin being peeled off,' says Hugh Bonneville. For instance, Michelle Dockery believes that Mary has strengthened before our eyes from 'quite a spoilt, petulant young girl' to a softer, yet stronger woman. At the same time, her character retains her bite. 'Mary still has that incredibly snobbish edge to her,' she says. 'As much as she's grown and become more vulnerable as the series has gone on Julian never leaves out that side of her that's still a bit of a snob. I like seeing that.'
As Lesley Nicol puts it, 'What's nice about Julian's writing is that he has allowed everyone to develop a side of their character that was there to begin with, but which becomes more evident with every series.'
Crucially, it is always easy for the viewer to connect with these people who lived the best part of a century ago. 'Ultimately, the show is about relationships, and a lot of the issues in Downton are ones that we face today: somebody falling in love, or falling in love with the wrong person, or experiencing rivalry at work,' says Joanne Froggatt. 'I think the period that it's set in is near enough to our time that it feels familiar to us, as well as being very different. There's a real array of characters too, so there's somebody to love – or to love to hate. It ticks a lot of boxes. It's a period script, but in a very modern way.'
The script, of course, is just words on a page until it is brought to life by these flesh-and-blood people. The hard work to achieve this was over before an episode had ever aired, with the creators working with the casting director, Jill Trevellick, to assemble the cast.
Some parts were decided through straight offers to the more established names, such as Hugh Bonneville and Dame Maggie Smith. 'It was one of those funny things when, for most of the roles that are played by established recognisable actors, we got our first choice,' says Fellowes. 'Maggie signed up, Hugh signed up, Elizabeth signed up and then the momentum was going. We were incredibly lucky.'
As much thought went into casting the junior roles, but the actors were chosen through auditions. 'We spent a few months trying to get the dynamic right between all of them,' says Brian Percival, lead director on the first series. For him, Sophie McShera – attending her audition in a maid-like outfit of a black cardigan with a white lace collar – stood out among the would-be Daisies. 'We'd seen a lot of people and they were fine but they just weren't right,' he says. 'She was fantastic straightaway. And Jo [Froggatt] too. She has all the right qualities for Anna, very sympathetic, but at the same time very beautiful, with an honest and trust-worthy feel about the way that she plays the character.'
Excerpted from Behind the Scenes at Downtown Abbey by Emma Rowley, Nick Briggs. Copyright © 2013 HarperCollins. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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