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Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes hobnobs with the wealthy and titled. His social status, however, wasn’t always so polished. By Susan Chenery.

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes
Credit: LEONARDO CENDAMO/LEEMAGE

And so, after years of desperation, the short plain bald guy got everything he ever wanted. And so much more. But it was late. First he had to endure the 49 years of being unpromising that kept him on the periphery; the glittering prizes far from his grasp. Gazing into the gilded rooms of the golden few but never quite having the wherewithal to settle on the antique sofas. The keys to the castles belonged to other luckier products of generations of careful breeding.

“I became the honorary president of the last-chance saloon,” says Julian Fellowes, now 66, with the gleeful snort of outrageous fortune.

And he wanted it. Oh, how he wanted it. He watched, he noted, he learned.

Like Evelyn Waugh and his character Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited Fellowes was posh enough to be invited to the weekends at the grand country houses – his father was a diplomat who become an executive at Shell, he had been to the toff Catholic school Ampleforth in Yorkshire and to Cambridge – but not quite enough to be one of them. “The bottom of the top,” he once called it. The perfect position for the chronicler as it has turned out.

The scions of Britain’s upper classes discretely sniggered at how hard he tried and tried. Ironic then that he would come to embody them.

Having been in Footlights at Cambridge and at drama school and intending to be an actor, the smell of failure followed him to Los Angeles where he futilely hoped that “posh vowels” would get him somewhere. In his 2008 novel Past Imperfect, based on his own life, his narrator reflects on the trials of being plain. “I had been rather overshadowed by handsome and witty cousins, and since I possessed neither looks nor a trace of charisma to offset this, there wasn’t much I could do to make my presence felt.” Fellowes has often spoken about being in the shadow of his far more agreeable older brother, Rory. And after the ignominy of not getting the part of the butler in the TV series Fantasy Island he was forced to retreat. Not even a butler. Now, of course, he probably has one of his own. Rejected but not quite resigned Fellowes was a “jobbing actor” and lower-tier television writer until he appeared in five seasons of Monarch of the Glen in his late 40s.

When the maverick director Robert Altman arrived looking for a writer for a film called Gosford Park, Fellowes was ready. When it came to the codes, the nuances, the fractions between whether manners are correct or fatally flawed in the closed world of the aristocracy, he was an unassailable expert. He had had
12 screenplays rejected. When his chance came there was no way he was going to blow it.

“When I heard Robert Altman was interested in talking to me about writing this film,” he says from London, “and I knew about houses and whatever, I was absolutely determined that when I wrote a script, Altman would see it as an Altman film. He would instantly recognise it as a film he would like to make. As a result I went out and rented every Altman film I could find and spent about five days watching nothing but Altman movies. I constructed a multi-story multi-character script so that he would feel recognition when he was reading it. I admit that freely.”

In doing this he found the form that he would employ again and again, most notably for Downton Abbey. “When I do sometimes go back to a straight linear narrative I find it quite narrow really. I prefer that kind of multi-arc structure.”

Altman – who Fellowes says could be “frightening; I mean Altman in a rage was a sight to see, I can tell you” – was the making of Fellowes. The studio was nervous. “They had never heard of me. They were determined to bring on other writers to give it what they call a polish but really would have been a rewrite.” Altman would not allow it. “Very, very few people in the film industry would have done that. Normally they would take you out for a drink with a sad smile and say, ‘If it was up to me this wouldn’t be happening; I am so sorry.’ They would not have denied the studio the power to sack me. I literally owe him everything.”

And then there was the portly gent in 2002, at the age of 52, breathlessly accepting his Oscar in the town that had spurned him. “It seemed like a miracle to me. Who hasn’t accepted an Oscar with a shampoo bottle in the shower? Suddenly here I was doing it for real. I loved the whole thing. I can’t tell you how much.”

He has said he was glad success came later in his life. But now he qualifies that. “I think I was putting a good shine on it. I mean, everyone says, ‘Wouldn’t you have rather made it when you were 30 rather than 50?’ And the answer is yes, but I would rather make it at 50 than never.” And then he quotes himself word for word from Past Imperfect. “You have a sort of schizophrenic reaction to it. Part of you is saying, ‘My god, for me? Are you sure? There must be some mistake’, and the other part of you is saying, ‘What took you so long?’”

And so to Downton Abbey and the rise and rise of Julian Fellowes.

But his social ascendancy had already begun. At the age of 39, “after years of desultory affairs”, he had met the imposingly tall Emma, great-grandniece of the first Earl Kitchener and lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. He famously proposed to her 20 minutes after they met at a party, “having spent 19 minutes getting up the nerve”. That night she wrote in her diary, “A funny little man asked me to marry him.” He has since said it was a kind of “recognition; I had absolute clarity of vision about it”. But you can’t help wondering if there was an agenda other than love at first sight. Anyway, in his dogged way he pursued her until he married into the upper classes in 1990, scaling the Mount Everest of English society. “It was a shock to a lot of people; including her mother, that she would marry outside the establishment,” he has said. Clearly a woman of considerable foresight, Emma Kitchener saw the potential in him so many others had failed to notice. “She saw what was coming, and she thought it would be interesting,” he told The Guardian. They have a son Peregrine, 25, named for Fellowes’ father.

He has said that after he married Emma, “I smelt different”.

In Past Imperfect, about the debutante season of 1968 and how those people’s lives played out, he writes about how much happier his aristocratic female characters might have been if they had married enterprising young men (like him) instead of being pressured into merging with entitled dolts to preserve their own class. The book’s parsing of the layers, gradations and mores of that world are acute. He had been a sort of spare man during that 1968 season. “Evelyn Waugh said that writers don’t make much up and I think on the whole what one is doing is scanning every situation, seeing if there is something in it you can use. And listening to people’s stories.”

A native of the milieu, Emma is the first to read his scripts. She gives him “whole tiers” of notes and he usually acts on her suggestions.

He has lamented that because of primogeniture and the lack of an heir, her family’s title died out rather than passing to a female. “I find it ridiculous that a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title – I think it’s outrageous actually,” he told the London Telegraph.

But it’s alright though because then he got a pretty fancy title himself. He was made a Tory peer in 2011. He is now Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, properly addressed as Lord Fellowes, a title that came with a seat in the House of Lords.

Needless to say he is absolutely delighted to outrank quite a few people in the grand storied world he had so aspired to join – even if he had to gauchely earn it himself. “Well, I was very, very flattered. I have always been quite political. I am very interested in politics so the chance to participate in the political life of the country is a great privilege to me.”

A committed conservative who rigorously upholds tradition, he believes this had worked against him in the left-leaning world of acting. He may have a point – he was doing it in a tie.

Downton Abbey for which he is creator, co-executive producer and writer with its sometimes preposterous plots – the war-crippled Matthew Crawley leaping out of a wheelchair, for example – has of course been a global sensation. Gentle escapist melodrama about the Crawley family and their servants that screened for 52 episodes over six years, it was loved by millions. From the opening sequence of a bell ringing for a servant, a table being laid with silver, a yellow rose shedding a petal in a vase, a chandelier being dusted, the urgent piano notes, it drew you into an Edwardian world of fabulous costumes and the glorious Highclere Castle and its landscape with a kind of yearning for something you could never know or be part of.

What is that about, I ask Fellowes, this obsession with a bygone era of English aristocracy? Is it perhaps because it is a world where wit and words are more powerful than guns and violence?

“I can’t really explain it because if I could I would write nothing but world blockbusters. But I think it has something to do with the fact that the British upper classes, because there are lots of different layers of it, have a very strong sense of personal identity. They know what they are supposed to think and have very rigorous and quite specific methods of behaviour. And I think that appeals in a world where enormous numbers of people aren’t quite sure who they are trying to find, an identity in a rather shapeless society.”

The wonderfully waspish character of the dowager countess, Lady Grantham, played by Maggie Smith, was based on one of his great aunts. “Some of the quotes are from her, but really it is her attitude. She was quite a significant figure in my youth.”

In Past Imperfect he describes the rooms and their treasures in stately homes in such loving, minute detail that it is telling just how much he was taking in with his fleshy face pressed against those mullioned windows. Now he has the keys to his own castle, an enormous stone manor house in Dorset, Stafford House. You can only imagine how immaculately he would have emulated those houses in choosing his decor.

The British media have accused him of snobbery, which he has hotly denied. But when I ask what extravagances he has bought with his newly minted fortune (and he is certainly not snobbish about new money) there is a kind of polite silence and a murmured, “Well, I don’t know, I sort of bang on”, and I realise I have been unforgivably common in mentioning money at all, it is just not done.

Grateful and disciplined, he is still a powerhouse of productivity even though slowing down is inevitable. “There comes a moment when it is not your turn anymore, it is other people’s turn,” he says. He has written numerous other films including The Young Victoria, Vanity Fair, Romeo & Juliet, The Tourist, the television series Doctor Thorne, the book for the musical School of Rock, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber; the latter three while Downton was screening. “I didn’t want to get to the end of six years and have absolutely nothing left but a line of ladies’ maids, so I have always tried to do other stuff at the same time.” The novel Snobs was a bestseller in 2004.

We are supposed to be talking about Belgravia, his latest production, which is currently being released in weekly apps until it is published as a book in late June – like a Dickens periodical. But as there is such heavy security – presumably so that it doesn’t get hacked – it is hard to know what we are talking about because the material is top secret. It starts on the eve of the battle of Waterloo at an infamous ball given by the Duchess of Richmond in Brussels. From the ball the men went straight to the front, some still in their evening clothes, their dress uniforms, where they died on the battlefield. “Then we jump forward to 1841 and the rest of it is played in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. That is the shape of it. And you know the usual family dramas and love and hate and the whole damn thing.”

On the app you can apparently meet the characters, walk around the houses, look at maps. “I wanted to do that because it is breaking new ground and that is the direction we are going in. I like exploring the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, which was another period of tremendous social mobility, because so many things were opening up, the railways, industrialisation was getting going, the empire was expanding markets and new people were making new money and bringing a kind of modern look to the new world. And that is something that always rather interests me as you may have detected by now. Social mobility and how people deal with it.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 23, 2016 as "Fellowes traveller". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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