September 9, 2011


Behind the Scenes With the Creator of 'Downton Abbey' (ALEX WITCHEL, 9/08/11, NY Times Magazine)

Pulling into the driveway of Julian Fellowes's manor house in Dorset, in the west country of England, with its 50 acres of grass rippling and trees swaying, as if a director had just called "Action!" to the scenery (indeed, one massive tree was featured in the film "Emma," starring Gwyneth Paltrow), I recalled the advice Fellowes once said his father gave him: "If you have the misfortune to be born into a generation which must earn its living, you might as well do something amusing."

Inside the house ("Two houses, really. This side was built in 1633, this new bit in 1840," he said) with its double-height foyer lined with family portraits, a dining room with a mile-long banquet table and a morning room where Thomas Hardy is said to have written, you might think it doesn't get more amusing than this. Fellowes has lived here only nine years. The decades before that were often fraught with anxiety, even despair. He toiled as a midlevel character actor for 30 years with 12 rejected screenplays to his name until, incredibly, at age 52, he won an Academy Award for his first produced screenplay, Robert Altman's "Gosford Park," in 2002. But Fellowes, now 62, is the rare sort who, having won a life lottery, did not kick up his heels and make a fool of himself. He has worked like the proverbial dog -- or American -- for his continued success, and if that means he is more to the manner bought than born, that is fine with him.

He followed his unexpected screenwriting breakthrough with more films -- "Vanity Fair," with Reese Witherspoon, "Young Victoria," with Emily Blunt, and "The Tourist," with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, among them. He also wrote the book for the musical-theater adaptation of "Mary Poppins" and the best-selling novel "Snobs." Most recently, he created and wrote the wildly successful miniseries "Downton Abbey." The multi­generational family costume drama kicks off during the final days of aristocratic England before the First World War, and stars Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith and Elizabeth McGovern. It drew record ratings on British television last season; the rights have been sold in more than 100 countries. It scored big here too, when it ran on PBS's Masterpiece last winter (the second season will begin on Jan. 8). The show received 11 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie and Outstanding Writing, for Fellowes.

I was ushered into Stafford House, as it is called, amid waves of apologies about lunch being cold, not cooked. A few days earlier, a bird's nest that was lodged in the kitchen chimney caught fire, disabling the stove and filling the house with black smoke. Fellowes was joined by his wife, Emma, who is 15 years his junior, nearly six feet tall and bursting with energetic goodwill. It's easy to see how Fellowes, at 39, fell in love at first sight, why he agreed to her wishes to have only one child, a son, Peregrine, now 20, because she herself was an only child, and why he stoically allows Emma's mother to call him Evelyn, not Julian. It seems she had her heart set on her daughter marrying a man called Evelyn, so Evelyn he is. There are worse things.

Posted by at September 9, 2011 8:55 AM

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