Interview: Downton Abbey Producer Gareth Neame

Interview: Downton Abbey Producer Gareth Neame

Posted on September 23, 2019 at 12:37 pm

Copyright Focus 2019

Producer Gareth Neame explains how he came up with the original idea for the “Downton Abbey” series, what went into adapting it for a feature film, why Americans and British fans see it differently, and why it is that fans respond to it so strongly, and confesses, at last, which is his favorite character.

What does it take to be a good producer?

I suppose you have to be quite tenacious, ideally you’re pretty passionate about what you do. I think you have to have attention to detail and you have to make the right judgment. Of course in every creative endeavor let’s say there are 100 key decisions that have to be made. The more of those 100 decisions you get right, the more likely it is you’re going to have a success. You can get a bunch of them wrong — you could put the wrong hair dresser on the show and you can have one of the writer’s not be quite right and the location you chose wasn’t the best place. Or you can get a number of these things right. Every show does but the more of them you get right the bigger difference it makes. So your judgment calls are quite important. And you have to find things you’re passionate about. It is really hard to produce something that you’re not enthusiastic about.

Running a production business is difficult because you can’t really love every show you make equally. Like Julian Fellowes would say, “Characters don’t love all their children equally; they have favorites.” Unless you’re going to make one thing at a time, it’s really hard to love everything. As a busy production company we make multiple shows but somehow you need to love all of those things as much as you can and you need to be tenacious and patient.

I suppose that’s what happened with the Downton movie. It’s taken me three years from the end of the television show to get it to the screen and that was an awful lot of persuading. We had to have 20 actors all be available at the same time and to make deals with us. We could probably have made it if a few of them didn’t show up a for the movie but we really wanted everyone there. We had to make the film at an affordable price so they had to make reasonable deals with us and fortunately all of them wanted to do it but they were waiting to see was it really going to happen. “If I commit are the others going to commit as well?” There was a little bit of everyone having to hold hands and go in together.

Is it true that the series was originally your idea?

I’m a British producer based in London so I like to find stories that are expressly British subjects. The great thing about the English country house genre, a genre I really like, is it’s pretty unique and it has all these wonderful iterations, comedy, romance, mystery, drama. There are so many different iterations of that genre giving us a slightly fictional world that never quite existed.

But certainly visually it exists and as you can see from Downton and other shows, there are lavish, beautiful historic properties. There was a very clear system of deference and protocol and everyone having their place which lends itself very well to drama. So I think it’s a good genre and it’s unique to Britain and so I’ve always thought it was a great environment. The idea was in my mind for several years. About 12 years ago now probably I was going through channels on the TV and I alighted upon an excerpt of Upstairs Downstairs and I knew what it was straightaway. I thought, “This is really interesting. I’m 40 and I’m too young ever to have watched that show, which means there are two generations who never saw it.” So I thought the time was right to invent this.

There’s a house I went to once near where my parents lived that had very well preserved servants’ quarters and kept exactly as it was in the Edwardian time and then it had all these gadgets in the kitchen like hundred-year-old toasters and ways that you kept things fresh. They actually had all kinds of gadgets and technology, just things that we have forgotten about now. That ended up in the show with Mrs. Patmore and the fridge and her aversion to technology because it was going to put her out of a job.

Roundabout the same time I got to know Fellowes and I was so impressed with his film Gosford Park and then I read his novel Snobs and I thought this man really has an outstanding of British culture and history and the way that we all speak. I can’t think of anyone really writing on screen who captures that strange way that we Brits have with speaking when we never really say what we mean, we say the opposite of what we mean. He captures that voice so well. I thought, “There’s something incredibly salable about Julian Fellowes and what he’s doing and he’s unique,” so I then said to him “Look, I’ve got this idea for this episodic show and in a lot of ways it’s returning to what you did with Gosford Park; it’s going back to that world but doing it as an episodic weekly show.” He’d never written/created a drama series so I didn’t know for certain if he was going to be able to do that to the degree that he did.

Do Americans and British audiences see it differently?

I just think there is an American fascination with the monarchy and the aristocracy and the places they live in and the clothes they wear, their behavior and the codes of behavior and so on and perhaps the servants life is a little bit more closely aligned to the lives that we’re all leading in a way anyway.

I think it is more egalitarian to the British audience because actually there’s a huge number of modern Brits who are descended from people who were in service and there were millions of people doing that so lots and lots of people can look back three generations ago when their grandmother was a maid. It’s quite normal.

The success in America is built on the mystique of the whole thing; it’s different and it’s quite glamorous. To Brits many of us live within a few minutes’ drive of some castle or ancient place. We live very comfortably alongside our history. Lots of people live in old houses. Some would say we look back a little bit too much. Perhaps we look back bit too much and America look forward a bit too much and aren’t knowledgeable enough about their history. There’s so much historical drama made in Britain that it’s not radical to us in a way.

Sophie McShera stars as Daisy Mason and Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore in DOWNTON ABBEY, a Focus Features release.
Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

My favorite scene in the film is the one with the Dowager Duchess and Lady Mary just quietly talking about some very important issues.

I think the passing over of the baton is always been a theme of the great houses. These characters are really tenants on a temporary basis and they have to look after it during their time but they may hand it on. That’s why they have survived because they do always hang on to the next generation and I think many families recognize the fact that these things can skip a generation. Violet, as she says in that scene, she loves her son but she sees Mary as the true descendent and I think that can be very true in families that sometimes there’s a very strong bond between grandparent and grandchild.

Mary’s probably was the heart of the show. When people say, “Who was your favorite character?” which they often do, I’d do a runaround and say I love all of them. But I always come back to her because she’s the heart of it.

We wanted to make the Downton movie. We didn’t say we were going to make a franchise but who knows, maybe we do go back if it does really well and Mary is the person who is running the whole thing and has the baton that Violet has passed her.

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Behind the Scenes
Downton Abbey

Downton Abbey

Posted on September 19, 2019 at 5:11 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Social drinking
Violence/ Scariness: Assassination attempt, scuffle
Diversity Issues: Class issues
Date Released to Theaters: September 20, 2019
Date Released to DVD: December 16, 2019
Copyright 2019 Focus Features

There’s a reason the hugely popular “Downton Abbey” television series and this first theatrical release are named for the property, not the characters. The part of Downton Abbey the building, or, I should say, the estate, is played by real-life historic Highclere Castle. It is over a thousand acres and has 200 rooms. And (which you can stay in via Airbnb). The story began in 2010 (1912 in Downton years) with the vital question of the future of the estate, which like most British great homes, was entailed. That means that it would always be inherited by the eldest male of each generation. (For more on this issue, see Sense and Sensibility and Moving Midway and let me just have a brief aside here to say that one completely revolutionary decision of our founding fathers that does not get enough credit for deciding that in the United States people could leave their property and land as they wished.).

The noble family occupying Downton Abbey are the Crawleys, headed by Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville of “Paddington”), who with his American wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) has three beautiful daughters and no sons. The property will thus go to to a cousin, who conveniently has become engaged to the oldest daughter, Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery). Unfortunately, as the first episode begins, he had been traveling to the United States on the Titanic, and he has been killed. Lady Mary is very sorry to lose her fiancé, but the family is in a complete upheaval because the next male relative is someone they don’t even know. Meanwhile, one of the great strengths and points of interest in the show is that it devotes equal attention and respect to the extensive staff below stairs, the servants, who all have complicated characters and conflicts and lives. They include Mrs. Patmore, the cook (Lesley Nicol), Carson, the head butler (Jim Carter), Tom Branson, and the chauffeur (Allen Leech), who crosses the uncrossable line by marrying one of the Crawley daughters. And there’s everyone’s favorite character, the acid-tongued Dowager Duchess exquisitely played by Dame Maggie Smith.

There is a ton of drama and romance over the run of the series, plus World War I and other seismic historical events.

And so now, here we are with the first Downton Abbey feature film, picking up the story in 1927, and once again the issue of property and inheritance is at issue. Writer Julian Fellowes had a daunting challenge. He had to take two dozen characters the fans were deeply invested in and were used to being able to watch through long-form storylines over the course of months. It’s kind of like “The Avengers” for the PBS/Anglophile crowd (I consider myself happily and proudly in both camps).

And, you know what? He pulls it off, with a brilliant mechanism for bringing everyone together in a high-pressure situation that gives even the most devoted fan many sigh-worthy and highly satisfying developments. As the movie begins, we follow a very important letter from its creation to its receipt. They are to receive a visit from the King and Queen of England (that would be King George and Queen Mary, the parents of future abdicator Edward VIII and “The King’s Speech” younger brother who became George VI, father of the present Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-reigning monarch in British history). This is an honor that no one can turn down. And so Downton is made ready, every tiara and silver serving piece polished, every piece of furniture in every one of the 200 rooms shined, and every arcane protocol meticulously followed.

There are ups and downs, none of the downs too terrible, all of the ups reassuring and satisfying. If we think about it for a moment, we will remember why we do not want to return to that world. It will take less than a moment if we consider the possibility we would be returning as the servants, not the nobility; the Crawleys may worry about money, but they get to worry in some beautiful clothes and settings while they are nicely cared for. We are aware that both the upstairs and downstairs characters struggle with the restrictions of their positions but somehow it all seems like a fairy tale to escape to in this lush and beautiful version, where we can all imagine ourselves dressing for dinner and receiving a visit from the royal family.

Parents should know that this film includes references to terminal illness, family conflicts, assassination attempt, scuffle, an out of wedlock child, and some mild language.

Family discussion: Why did the servants rebel? Why did Violet change her mind about the property? Do you agree with what Thomas told the princess?

If you like this, try: “Gosford Park” and the “Downton Abbey’ television series

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Based on a television show Drama DVD/Blu-Ray Epic/Historical Family Issues movie review Movies -- format

MVP of the Week: Dan Stevens

Posted on March 21, 2017 at 3:55 pm

Dan Stevens has been best known as Matthew Crawley in “Downton Abbey,” but this week he seems to be everywhere, starring opposite Emma Watson as the prince and the Beast in “Beauty and the Beast,” and opposite Anne Hathaway in a very different kind of monster story, “Colossal.” Think of it as “Beauty and the Beast,” except he’s the beauty. Kind of. He also stars on television in one of the most unusual superhero stories of all time, “Legion.”

Coming up, Stevens stars in “The Ticket.”

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Actors Superhero Television
The Great British Television Map — Find Everything from Fawlty Towers to Downton Abbey

The Great British Television Map — Find Everything from Fawlty Towers to Downton Abbey

Posted on February 26, 2016 at 3:48 pm

Copyright Tim Ritz 2016
Copyright Tim Ritz 2016

You love British television but can’t tell Derbyshire from Yorkshire, or Bath from Bristol? Here’s a map that shows you exactly where all your favorite characters are. Look for “Downton Abbey,” “The Office,” “Poldark,” “Call the Midwife,” and, of course, “Dr. Who.”

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Television Understanding Media and Pop Culture
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