Behind the scenes at Downton Abbey
Jessica Fellowes loved everything about the hit television show Downton Abbey: the costumes, the characters, the time period. Some may argue that she had to. Her uncle, Julian Fellowes, wrote it.
“While he was writing it, I remember him telling me about it twice, which was unusual,” Ms Fellowes said. “There’s a superstition in the TV and film world that you don’t talk about something until it’s in the can, as things are always vulnerable to cancellation or not working. So I knew he was excited about it. And I was thrilled for him as soon as I saw the first episode. I’m very proud of my uncle.”
She is the author of five books about the show. The latest is Downton Abbey: A Celebration — The Official Companion to All Six Seasons.
“I was asked to write the books, partly because I was deputy editor of Country Life magazine,” she said. “Each season seemed to warrant it. Given that three of the five books ended up on the New York Times bestseller lists, I think we were right. The fans wanted them.”
Ms Fellowes will give a talk on Downton Abbey here, on October 18. She and her husband Simon were invited by a friend, John Williams.
“He and his wife, Fiona, help to organise events for the BUEI,” Ms Fellows said. “She suggested it would be fun to do a Downton Abbey event. We couldn’t say no.”
It will be her first time in Bermuda.
The British drama series ran for five years. Its final episode aired on Christmas Day last year.
The show, which followed the wealthy Crawley family and their servants from 1912 to 1925, was followed by more than 120 million people.
Ms Fellowes struggled to explain the international appeal but said it might be because the storyline was about families going through a time of enormous change.
“The show’s reach is phenomenal,” she said. “If I knew exactly what it was I’d write another television series myself. Each of the characters either embraces change or resists it. Today, we are also living through huge technological change. There’s change in how we conduct our relationships and everything.”
She said she shares an interest in the time period with her uncle, who also wrote the 2001 Academy Award-winning movie Gosford Park.
“It was the period that ended the Victorian way of life and began the one we have now,” she said. “Technology, gender equality, social mobility, the changing of the classes — that is when it all began.”
Her family connection gave her opportunities to experience life at Downton Abbey although she’s glad she wasn’t alive for that period.
“The lack of dentistry and medical care, and the way women were treated — never!” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time on set. I even got to do a walk on in season 3, episode 7. I was just an extra. You can barely see me. I spent the day in costume — a 1920s dress and coat. I didn’t look great, to be honest. I didn’t have any lines.”
She does not identify with any particular character but likes Lady Edith Crawley the most. In the show, she’s hit with one heartbreak after another.
“Lots of women found it very difficult in the period between the wars,” Ms Fellowes said.
“There were fewer men because so many were killed in the First World War. They had been brought up to expect nothing but marriage and suddenly they had to go out to work and fend for themselves.
“Edith comes through it very well. I like rooting for the underdog. I would like to think I would be as brave as her in a similar situation.”
Ms Fellowes said when you watch period dramas it is important not to judge the characters with modern values.
“It’s about people behaving badly within the context of the period,” she said.
According to her book, The World of Downton Abbey, every episode cost $1 million to shoot.
“Every episode of that was like making a movie,” she said. “There were 60 or 70 crew on the set every day.
“If you were shooting a soap opera you’d probably do 15 minutes of shooting a day. With Downton Abbey they did five or six minutes.”
She found the attention to detail incredible.
“There were so many layers and details,” she said. “For example, every letter the characters read in the script was written specifically so you could read it on the screen. It had to have the right kind of address for the period; the ink had to be correct. The attention to detail made things feel very authentic.”
Ms Fellowes is now working on a novel set in the 1920s.
Family inspiration behind plotlines
Many plotlines in Downton Abbey are based on the Fellowes family history.
Jessica Fellowes’s grandfather, Peregrine Fellowes, was brought up in a grand house.
“His father was killed in the First World War when he was just 2 years old,” Ms Fellowes said. “His mother was left alone to bring him up, with not a small amount of interference from all the snobbish aunts.”
One of the aunts, Isie Stephenson, lived a privileged life that was also tragic. Her husband was also killed in the First World War and their only child, a son, was killed in the Second World War.
“She told my uncle Julian [Fellowes] stories of life before the First World War,” Ms Fellowes said.
“Women like her were only educated as preparation for marriage. They were taught dance steps and French.
Her governess would take her for a walk around the garden, and they would pause at each shrub. At each shrub, Isie would have to spontaneously introduce a new topic of conversation.
“The idea was that you could always keep the conversation going at a party even if the guests had the social abilities of a plant — perfect marriage training!”
• Read more about Jessica Fellowes at jessicafellowes.wordpress.com. The Downton Abbey talk begins at 7.30pm. Tickets, $20 for BUEI members, $25 for non-members and $10 for students, are available from the BUEI gift shop or on 292-7219.