Another helping of 'Downton,' m'lord? Julian Fellowes on viewer criticism and 'Downton Abbey's' future
Nick Briggs/Carnival Film & Television for Masterpiece
Julian Fellowes, standing, with actress Michelle Dockery on the “Downton” set.
By Dave Itzkoff
c.2014 New York Times News Service
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The fourth season of “Downton Abbey” concluded on Sunday with the servants Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson joining hands on a beach as they walked into the water together.
It was a serene image that belied a year on this PBS “Masterpiece” period drama that was filled with tumultuous events — a character's rape and the fallout from it, the introduction of race as a plot point — and, at times, tumultuous audience reaction.
All of which, said Julian Fellowes, the “Downton Abbey” creator and writer, makes it no different from any other season of this series about British aristocrats and their household staff. It reliably stirs up its audience once or twice a year, but is otherwise as notable for a lack of action as for when it occurs.
“'Downton' is, God knows, a slow burn of a show,” Mr. Fellowes said in a recent telephone interview from London, where he was revising scripts for its coming fifth season.
"If there is any formula, he said, it's that “we have these fairly lilac-covered, gentle narratives, interweaving.
"And every now and then — poof — something huge happens.”
That could surely be said about the episode in which the lady's maid Anna (played by Joanne Froggatt) was raped by a visiting nobleman's valet.
While the repercussions of the rape played out over several installments, it also angered many viewers, who complained that this dark incident did not fit the tone of
“Downton Abbey” and that it had overwhelmed other subplots.
Mr. Fellowes countered that Anna's rape was not “much less of an event” than other dire circumstances that have befallen the Crawley family in the past, like the death of Lady Sybil in childbirth or the car accident that killed Matthew, a new father.
“It was very important that it should be completely clear that it is not the victim's fault at all,” Mr. Fellowes said. “This was a chance to make the argument for the innocent rape victim who has done nothing to deserve it.”
“It created this mammoth thing that she and Bates had to get through,” he added, referring to her husband, “and Bates's response is that he doesn't love her less. He says himself: If anything, he loves her more.”
Love also created complications for young Lady Rose (Lily James), a Crawley family member who fell into a romance with a black jazz singer, Jack Ross (Gary Carr), that scandalized some family members.
Despite viewers' criticism that Jack Ross was too easily embraced in rigidly divided 1920s Britain, Mr. Fellowes countered that the character and his treatment accurately reflected that country's history.
Attitudes toward race were comparatively more liberal than in America, he said, because Britain had its own black communities earlier and abolished slavery sooner, and its upper-class citizens were more accustomed to encountering nonwhites throughout the British Empire.
By the 1920s, Mr. Fellowes said, there would have been “a hell of a lot” of black jazz singers working in London — even those who had affairs with dames and debutantes — but none who would have been allowed to marry into white society.
“However much people were polite and perfectly happy to have all sorts of people at their parties, there was a rule governing who you settled down with,” he said. “I don't think we tried to whitewash that.”
Gareth Neame, an executive producer of “Downton Abbey” and the managing director of Carnival Films, the British studio that produces it, said that Mr. Fellowes has wide latitude to shape each season as he wishes.
Before Mr. Fellowes delves into new episodes, “we'll sit down and debate and discuss at great length all of the characters and the journeys they might take,” Mr. Neame said. “By the time he starts writing, we've established the building blocks of where the main characters are going.”
Though the rape story line generated substantial controversy when it was broadcast in Britain last fall, Mr. Neame said this “was really rather whipped up by the British press.”
If anything, he said, reaction was more muted in the United States, where the “Downton” episode was shown opposite the Golden Globes, and “we didn't get quite the sort of copy space that we did in the U.K.”
Not all the “Downton” characters suffered needlessly, and some even grew from their adversities, like the hapless Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael), who showed a previously untapped resolve when her lover disappeared, and she found herself unexpectedly pregnant.
“These people have to find a way of adapting to the world as it was changing,” Mr. Fellowes said.
Lady Edith in particular, he said, is based on women like his great-aunts, who, for their era, “were fairly conventional in their aspirations.”
Had Lady Edith been born a generation earlier, he said, she “would just have married a baronet and stayed in Yorkshire.”
Mr. Fellowes said he drew encouragement from American television shows like “Mad Men,” which he has been consuming “in huge, boxlike helpings,” and which balance mordant humor and comic subplots with more serious matters.
“One minute, some secretary's driving a lawn mower over an executive's foot,” he said. “And the next, Don Draper's brother is hanging himself.”
Mr. Fellowes has also noticed that American serials like “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad” have tended to run about five to seven seasons before reaching their natural conclusions.
Asked if he was starting to contemplate an end game for “Downton Abbey,” Mr. Fellowes said, “I think you have to.”
“It's not like a soap opera that can go on for 27 years,” he added.
Mr. Neame said he would like “to eventually end the show just before people want us to.” He added, “We won't be around for 10 years, and we're doing Year 5 now. So we're going to be somewhere between 5 and 10.”
However “Downton Abbey” ends — and he is not yet saying when — Mr. Fellowes said it would be on his terms.
“It would be unlikely that I would suddenly find, 'What, we're not doing it anymore?' ” he said with mock astonishment. “I think we'd know before. We'll know in time.”
Last modified: February 24. 2014 5:05PM