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Everything you wanted to know about Downton Abbey

By Mary Thurman Yuhas

PR shots 2014 www.sarahweal.com

Jessica Fellowes

Jessica Fellowes is an author, journalist and public speaker. Formerly a celebrity interviewer at the Mail on Sunday and deputy editor of Country Life magazine, she has written seven books as well as touring with her lectures on Downton Abbey from Cheltenham to California.

LitVote: Sadly for many of us, the upcoming season of Downton Abbey is the last one. It has enjoyed an incredible estimated viewership of 300 million worldwide. The next series, The Gilded Age, takes place in the 1880s in the U.S. and showcases families such as the Vanderbilt’s. Will you be co-writing it with your uncle, Julian Fellowes, creator and writer of Downton Abbey?

Jessica: No! I have nothing to do with Julian’s script writing at all, and in fact he always writes alone – he’s extremely unusual in not leading a team of writers for Downton Abbey. However, I adore the era he is writing about for The Gilded Age, so if there was an opportunity for me to explore the series in the same way that I have done for Downton Abbey, I would jump at it.

LitVote: Why did your uncle choose to write about Americans for the next series?

Jessica: You’d have to ask him to find out but I imagine it was a combination of NBC (who have commissioned the pilot) wanting a show based in the U.S. and Julian wanting to explore that territory. It’s ripe for a series – the building of New York, the rich families, the cowboys, the British aristocracy marrying into them…I can’t wait!

LitVote: Some of the lines in Downton Abbey have become iconic. One of the most memorable was Maggie Smith’s character, Violet Crowley, the Dowager Countess, when she said, “What’s a weekend?” Your uncle, Sir Julian Fellowes, grew up in an aristocratic household. Is Downton Abbey somewhat of a memoir for him?

Jessica: No. He – and my father, as well as their four brothers – were the children of a ‘mixed’ marriage in that their father was from an aristocratic background, though he was the poorer relation, and their mother was middle-class stock. She suffered terribly at the hands of her husband’s snobbish aunts, and Julian has drawn a lot from those stories for the show. His was a comfortable, enjoyable childhood but not of Downton ilk.

LitVote: Why do you think that people from all over the world fell in love with the characters?

Jessica: I think for a start there is a wide range of them, so whoever you are, you should find at least one to relate to, or recognise or even just like to hate! Plus the master/servant relationship is at the centre of so many classic dramas – even without having servants or being one, we’re all familiar with the workplace environment and certainly with families.

LitVote: Did you or your uncle expect such a positive response to the show?

Jessica: He was certainly hopeful and very excited about it but we couldn’t have possibly anticipated the extraordinary phenomenon that it became!

LitVote: The scenes in the bedrooms and kitchen are all shot on a set. Only the living areas and dining room are filmed in Highclere Castle [this is the real-life name for Downton Abbey.] What are some of the other fun facts that most viewers probably don’t know?

Jessica: The funny consequence of the two sets – which are about 50 miles apart – means that they have to film in blocks of two or three weeks. So when a footman leaves the kitchen with a plate of food, he doesn’t emerge in the dining room until a fortnight later!

LitVote: You’ve written three beautiful companion books with photographs about the show and characters. Is Highclere Castle as beautiful as it photographs?

Jessica: I’ve now written a fourth companion book – out Nov 10 – ‘Downton Abbey: A Celebration’, with even more beautiful photographs! The house in which the show is filmed is certainly handsome and impressive – the architecture is one of Victorian confidence, which is what Julian and the producers specifically wanted. Inside, the Great Hall, library and dining room are all in real life as you see them on the screen. But I think the beauty we associate with ‘Downton Abbey’ the show comes from the brilliant technical and creative achievements of the art department, costume designer, lighting cameraman, good-looking actors….

LitVote: The costumes are magnificent. What happens to them when the show ends?

Jessica: Initially, some were made, some were bought and many were hired – so they were returned to the hire companies. Cosprop lent a great many of the costumes and together with Carnival (who make the show), they have staged a marvellous costume exhibition that is currently touring the USA (dressingdownton.com). The later series, under the hand of costume designer Anna Scott Mary Robbins, hire very little but buy in or design and make their own costumes – they are, of course, an asset now, because of the success of the show. They are carefully stored – beaded dresses, for example, cannot be hung or the beads will pull the material they are sown on – and I hope there will be more exhibitions!

LitVote: Now that you and your uncle have five years experience writing and filming a period piece, is there anything that you will avoid or add in the upcoming series?

Jessica: Again – I only write the companion books, not the show! But I have read the scripts for the final season and I can promise you that it will not disappoint. They are going out on a very high note.

LitVote: What do you see in your future?

Jessica: I hope to be lucky enough to continue to work as a writer, both non-fiction and fiction, and enjoy many happy days with my family.

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Mary Yuhas, is a journalist and has contributed to Sun-Sentinel, USA Today, China Daily USA and Washington Times among others, creator of Baby Boomers the first reality blog and the author of the upcoming memoir, QUIT AND BE QUIET, about growing up with a severely mentally ill mother,  featured three times on Scribd.

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