I was joined at my usual perch at Michael’s yesterday by Downton Abbey‘s executive producer Gareth Neame and Hope Dellon, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press whose new book, Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey, is the “official” and definitive behind-the-scenes look at the wildly popular series. Unless you’ve been living under rock, you have undoubtedly heard that series creator Julian Fellowes writes every word of each episode that Downton addicts devour every season, but you may not know it was Gareth who is truly responsible for bringing the series to the small screen.
Having worked in British television for over two decades, Gareth was, as he writes in the book’s foreward in which he chronicles the backstory of the creation of the series, “familiar with maids, footmen and aristocrats and historic houses that serve as inspiration for drama.” He was also a fan of Gosford Park, the film that earned Fellowes an Academy Award. Gareth approached Fellowes with the idea to do a television series set in a grand house during the Edwardian era, focusing equally on the lives of the servants and the aristocrats, but, as Gareth told me, “Julian was resistant at first to do it. He didn’t think lightning would strike twice.” Still, Fellowes sent an email a few days later outlining all the major characters and the plot revolving around an inheritance issue with a distant cousin, a male heir (Matthew Crawley), who comes into the world of a family living in a great house staffed with servants. “We didn’t know whether it would work,” Gareth told me. “But everything was there on the page.”
What a difference a few years make. Since its January 2011 debut in the states, the show’s ratings have increased each season with Downton Abbey season three ranking as the highest-rated drama in PBS history. Last season, the show’s finale was the country’s most-watched show during its Sunday-night broadcast. “We’ve rebooted the quaint English period drama,” said Gareth. I’ll say. This week, the show’s cast, along with Gareth and Fellowes are in town making the rounds on television (Note to interviewers: it’s just plain dumb to call the actors by their characters’ names and stop asking about Dan Stevens’ departure already — it’s old news! ) and for several fan events. They’ve been greeted like rock stars everywhere they go. I can attest to this first-hand having attended a BAFTA event earlier this week, where the first 40 minutes of episode one of the new season was screened, followed by a panel discussion with the cast. Even though I arrived an hour early, I was lucky to find a seat on the very upper tier of the Hudson Theatre. Afterwards, the cast was mobbed by fans and I witnessed Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) being surrounded by more security detail than President Obama. For the record, the entire cast was very game to sign autographs and pose for selfies with fans even though their handlers seemed less than thrilled by all the attention.
Suffice to say, faithful fans are eager for every morsel of information about Downton Abbey as we await the January 5 premiere of season four, and the new book delivers and then some. Dellon, a “fanatical fan” of the series was responsible for having St. Martin’s snap up the rights from HarperCollins UK for the first two books on the show, The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, which went on to become New York Times best sellers as well as the latest tome. “I remember with the first book was not met with enthusiasm,” she told me. “They said, ‘It’s PBS’ and ‘TV tie-ins don’t work. My buyer asked, ‘What’s Downton Abbey?’”
The answer to that question today is, besides being a monster international hit, Downton has become a bonafide brand with its own line of Downton Abbey wines, jewelry and fabrics. (I’d be the first to sign up for the fantasy camp week at Highcleere!) The books, said Gareth, give viewers a chance to delve into even the smallest details about the making of the series.
“When you feel you’ve invested in the series, you want to have a piece of it,” said Gareth. “To me, this book is a direct extension of the show.” I can only tell you I devoured it over two nights, poring over the never-before-seen photographs (“I went over every one — and the text,” said Gareth) from the set. I particularly love those of the scenes where the entire cast is present and chatting with each other over the dining room table while makeup and wardrobe fuss over them as well as those that depict all the personnel it takes behind the cameras to film even a single scene. The meticulous attention paid to every detail of the production is evident on every page that chronicles the making of the costumes, the stunning sets, locations and even props. There are also some dishy interviews with the actors about how they get into character.
I told Gareth while I loved every character, my personal favorite is Tom Branson (Allen Leech) because he’s the lone Irishman among the Brits whose storyline of love, loss and reinvention has been so compelling, particularly during last season after Lady Sybil’s (Jessica Brown Findlay) heartbreaking death. “He really is trapped between two worlds,” said Gareth. “It’s funny that no matter who you talk to everyone has their favorite character but always winds up saying they love all of them. With 22-plus characters and only 46 minutes of screen time, Julian has written them in such a way that they all feel completely developed.”
(If you don’t want to know anything about the new season, stop reading now) This season, there have been several “recurring” cast members added to the canvas to complicate things. As much as I tried to pry it out of him, Gareth was giving up little information. “It’s like being a child on Christmas. You want to open all your presents early, but then after you have, you spoil it.” He does have a point. Here’s what I was able to find out:
The series begins six months after Matthew’s death and Lady Mary is still very much in mourning. “Mary turning from death to life is the spine of the fourth season,” said Gareth. Suffice to say Matthew’s version of a softer, loving Mary has been replaced by a brittle, furious young widow who lashes out at everyone, especially Charles Blake (Julian Ovenden), “a government man” who comes on the scene when the family is faced with yet another financial crisis. But an old family friend, the dashing Lord Gillingham (Tom Cullen), is trying to soften Mary’s hardened exterior. Lest you think Mary will fall into the arms of a new suitor any time soon, Gareth dashes those hopes warning, ”Mary believes she’ll never find love again.” Trust me, I’ve seen the first episode and everyone is doing everything they can — and then some — to get her to return to the land of the living and be a proper mother to adorable Baby George but it’s going to take a while.
Although the main storyline revolves around Mary’s new life, look for a juicy storyline for the perpetually unlucky-in-love Lady Edith (Laura Caramichael). “It’s a big season for Edith,” reveals Gareth. So, it seems her affair with Michael Gregson is going to continue and Lord Grantham’s middle daughter is finally going to come into her own as a modern woman and a writer. Shirley MacLaine will be back for the last episode where Paul Giamatti will play Lady Cora’s (Elizabeth McGovern‘s) brother. There’s also a new valet, Mr. Green (Nigel Harman). From the looks of the clips I’ve seen, the series’ first black character, nightclub singer Jack Ross (Gary Carr) seems primed to set hearts a flutter.
I asked Gareth if he and Fellowes had any misgivings about having such a well-known star like MacLaine join the show since the move could be perceived by some critics as stunt casting. “Stunt casting has its place and I’m not opposed to it, but this wasn’t that. The part existed for an American actress to play Cora’s mother, and we needed someone who could hold her own opposite Maggie Smith. They are both uniquely talented and Shirley has been brilliant.”
With the show’s surging popularity and the casting of MacLaine, I wondered if he’d been deluged with requests from other American actors looking to burnish their resumes. “We have, and we have to tell them in the nicest possible way that we’re not looking to create cameos just because someone wants to be on the show.” And, yes, I tried to wrestle a few names of the hopefuls that came knocking, to no avail.
The Downton phenomenon shows no signs of slowing down. This week, the show snagged nominations for best television drama from the Screen Actors Guild and the Golden Globes; the cast scored a SAG nomination for outstanding performance by an ensemble and Smith earned yet another nom for best actress. “Nothing is a shoo-in,” said Gareth. It has just been announced that there will be a fifth season of Downton. Production begins in February. And beyond that? “We will have a fifth season, but I know we can’t be on for ten years, so it’s something between that. We’ve had various anchor points in the 1920s for the show, but things do evolve. We did have an idea where we were going when we started, but we had no idea it would turn out to be the hit that it has become. I feel good about season four — it’s one of our best.”