The Next Splendid Project of the Man Behind ‘Downton Abbey’

Julian Fellowes, the creator of the hit show, talks to Haaretz about his Middle Eastern roots, his ambitious new American series 'The Gilded Age,' and why he doesn't watch 'House of Cards.'

Avshalom Halutz

“Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes may be an expert on etiquette, class war and social mobility, but he’s surprisingly clueless about modern social habits. “What is social media?” he asks in his posh accent when the subject comes up during an interview with Haaretz.

The screenwriter, actor, novelist and film director was in Israel last Monday with “Downton” executive producer Gareth Neame, who volunteered to explain the phenomenon to his fellow Brit. The hierarchical world of Facebook, Twitter et al stands in complete contrast to their hit period drama, which depicts the changing fortunes of an aristocratic family and their servants, living on a large country estate in Yorkshire in the early 20th century. The series’ sixth season is currently being filmed.

The duo were in Jerusalem as guests of the third annual international television conference, INTV. While the conference, organized by Channel 2 TV franchisee Keshet, attracts senior television executives from around the world – people who have already identified the Israeli industry as one of the most emerging – Fellowes and Neame arrived in the Israeli capital without any particular business or creative aims.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a frame of Israeli television. I’m so sorry to say it,” admits Fellowes, who won an Oscar for his work on Robert Altman’s period thriller “Gosford Park” in 2001 and is a Conservative peer in the House of Lords (as Lord Fellowes of West Stafford).

Neame, who visited Israel once before, in the 1990s, said one reason the two were here, besides as curious tourists, is the huge success of their series among Israelis. “There are a lot of countries in the world we’ve been very successful in where you would not expect a British television show to be quite as successful – and it really is a huge hit in Israel,” observes Neame.

It is actually Fellowes’ first visit to Israel, even though he has a strong connection to the Middle East. He was born in Egypt (spending the first six months of his life there) because his father, Peregrine Fellowes, was a diplomat and Arabist.

“My father was always very interested in the formation of the Israel state, and he was a sort of ‘Middle East expert,’ and all the rest of it,” recalls Fellowes. He adds that at one point, toward the end of his father’s career, the latter ran a magazine called The New Middle East, “and the readership was designed to be a mixture of Jews and Arabs – can you imagine that now? I mean, this was in the 1960s. It came out in London, but it was distributed in Israel and various Arab countries.”

An Arabist and a fan of Israel

Fellowes adds that his father was very keen on the survival of Israel. “He was very much in favor of Israel. The two things I was brought up on were the survival of Israel and the unification of Ireland. But I’d never been to Israel, and so it seemed a rather marvelous opportunity to just come and see the Old City [in Jerusalem].”

Fellowes and Neame arrived in Israel in the middle of a media scandal concerning the future of “Downton Abbey.” One of the series’ stars, 80-year-old Maggie Smith, said earlier this month she would not return to play Violet Crawley after the sixth season. “They say this is the last [series], and I can’t see how it could go on,” she told The Sunday Times. “I mean, I certainly can’t keep going. To my knowledge, [my character] must be 110.” During the conference, Fellowes made it clear that questions about the matter would not be answered.

In addition, according to a number of media reports Fellowes is set to leave “Downton” and focus on an ambitious new project, “The Gilded Age,” an NBC drama about the American aristocracy, set in New York at the end of the 19th century.  When asked whether he would be moving to the United States, Fellowes replied, “Only in the newspapers, not in real life. I mean, when I finally do write ‘The Gilded Age’ – assuming they pick up the pilot, assuming they commission the series, assuming they make it, assuming they shoot more than one, so there’s a lot of ifs – I would be in America more than I am at the moment. But I’m rather looking forward to that. I like America, I enjoy America. But I won’t change my base; I will always have an English home.”

What can you tell us about ‘The Gilded Age’?

“Well, it’s about, for me, rather an interesting sociological period, where you have the bedded New York aristocracy who potentially were the descendants of the Dutch, and English and Scottish original settlers. And, remember, a lot of them weren’t gentry. It wasn’t the sons of dukes that went out to America, it was the younger sons of country gentlemen. And then you had this massive influx of new fortunes after the Civil War, at the end of the 1860s. Suddenly, onto New York descended these new families who were enormously rich. And they blew the model out of the water. And, of course, the old lot wouldn’t give in and the new lot didn’t care, and they built their great palaces up and down 5th Avenue.

Why are money and wealth such key subjects in your work?

“I think that being aristocratic, or whatever word one chooses to use – elite – is very much a performance art. And, on the whole, the British aristocracy understood that it was a performance art that depended on money. That is also why Britain’s aristocracy remained powerful for longer than any other European aristocracy. What they needed to create that impression of being above things, above the world, above minor considerations, a golden race of giants – was money.”

What draws you to these subjects?

“I think one of the reasons it interests me is because my mother was less posh than my father, and so she paid that price of his relations always treating her rather badly. You know, all of our relations were my father’s relations; we didn’t know any of my mother’s relations. And I think that kind of thing, when you’re a child, you don’t quite understand what’s going on. You just think, Oh, that’s odd. But as you get older, the pieces begin to fall into place and you do begin to understand. And I would say from that dates my interest in the influence of class on our behavior, which of course I later mined for my own benefit.”

A need for likeable characters

Fellowes is interested in more than his own shows. His favorite TV series are “Mad Men” and “The Good Wife,” mainly because “I have a very fundamental belief that it is hard to watch films or a series when you don’t like anybody.”

Neame chuckles and interjects. “Well, I was going to say that the other show I would add into the mix is ‘House of Cards,’ which is, of course, about two complete shits,” Neame laughs, “and yet I find them utterly compelling, in a sort of Shakespearean way. I think characters like that don’t exist in television, and therefore I feel I’m watching certain scenes and [witness] Machiavellian behavior that I don’t think I see in a lot of other shows.”

Fellowes hasn’t seen the Kevin Spacey political thriller, although the writer actually appeared in the third and final series of the British original in 1995.

“I think I was in a scheme with the wife [of the series’ British prime minister, Francis Urquhart, played by Ian Richardson], who was Diane Fletcher – rather good actress actually,” Fellowes says.

Do you have servants in your own home in Dorset, England?

“Well, not really, no. In the newspapers, but not in real life. You know, we have a gardener, and a couple of women who come in to help my wife clean and things. But I mean, we don’t have butlers.”

And are you interested in their private lives?

“Oh! I am riveted by everyone’s private life!”