A Conversation with Downton Abbey Producer Gareth Neame
SL chatted with the man behind the show about the upcoming film, his favorite characters, and the Downton exhibition that's currently welcoming visitors in Florida.
Ever wish you could chat with the creators of Downton Abbey? You’re not alone. Southern Living got to do just that recently when we spoke with executive producer Gareth Neame about all things Downton. He shared the origins of the show, some details about the upcoming film, and why you must see Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which is currently open to visitors in Palm Beach, Florida. (You can find tickets available on the exhibition's website.) But first, read on for your weekly dose of Downton.
Southern Living: Where did the original idea for the Downton Abbey television series come from? Can you tell us about your journey with the story?
Gareth Neame: I saw Gosford Park when it was released, and I was very impressed with the film, because I hadn’t seen the world of the English manor house depicted in such an authentic way before. I didn’t know Julian Fellowes at the time, but when I got to know him a few years later and we were kicking a few ideas around, I said, “I really think we should try and revisit that territory as an episodic television show.”
After that meeting, I received an email from him with a document attached. The email said, “I’ve been thinking about the idea we discussed, and here are some thoughts.” In the document, he listed many characters who are similar to the characters in Downton Abbey. There was his lordship, and he had an American wife, and they had daughters—no sons to inherit—and there was a butler and a housekeeper. I realized that he had probably been living with these characters in his mind for years. I think it released something that he had probably always wanted to write. He wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park, then I had the idea to turn that into an episodic series, and we’re now making the film of Downton. It’s circular, in a way, and on set for the film the other day, I joked to the actors, “This is so good, I think we should make a TV show out of it.”
SL: The story is so popular and has such a wide audience. It is undeniably British, but the stories and style also transcend locale. What do you attribute that to? What’s behind the show’s success?
GN: I think it’s partly about specificity. Everyone around the world recognizes it as a British show, but actually, when you unpack it, many of the scenarios are things that everyone around the world is living through. The characters are all going through these rites of passage: They look for a pay raise, they have a family, they get ill, they face war, they face poverty. We don’t all face all of those things, but our lives are made up of wonderfully joyful moments and minor tragedies. That makes a life. Plus, the characters are so relatable and likeable, the writing is so witty, and we mix romance and drama and comedy all together.
Romance was tremendously important. It’s probably quite unfashionable to do the old-fashioned, will-they-won’t-they kind of romance, but people around the world have really enjoyed the relationships between Mary and Matthew, and Anna and Mr. Bates. I think they enjoy the fact that there are older characters. Fellowes writes older characters very well, and I think it’s to the credit of the show that it depicts older people having meaningful emotional lives, because that is so absent in most other television. It’s those sorts of things that people all around the world relate to.
SL: Downton Abbey had six successful seasons—what prompted you to bring it back as a film?
GN: It was so successful as a television series, and it’s been dubbed into multiple languages all around the world, but we decided to quit at the end of the sixth series so that it wouldn’t get stale. Even at that time, we were already thinking about a film. Not many television series can migrate to the big screen, but we thought this one could. The knowledge that we were developing a film has sustained many people for the past three years, and I hope the fans will be happy when they see the movie.
SL: Where does the film fit in the Downton timeline?
GN: It’s not a prequel, and it’s not immediately after the end of the television show either, but it has a sort of continuum about it. You will be reunited with these much-loved characters, and we will put them in scenarios that audiences will enjoy. There will be a great big central narrative that all of these characters will be involved in, and it will be, as with the television show, a mixture of drama, comedy, and romance. It will be on the big screen, so everything will be on a bigger scale—production value, costumes, stories—there is more spectacle than we will have done on the television show.
SL: Is it correct that Dame Maggie Smith will be returning as Violet Crawley? Will there be new characters added to the cast?
GN: That is correct, yes. I do think there’s a particular chemistry between Maggie Smith as a performer and Julian Fellowes as a writer. It’s just seamless. People actually think that there isn’t a script and that she is just thinking those things and saying them—that’s how seamless it is. Of course, there is a script, but I think that Julian Fellowes writes the part with affection, and she delivers it perfectly. While the story is mostly about the central characters of Downton, there are new characters involved as well. We’ve shared who some of those actors are, including Imelda Staunton, Geraldine James, and a number of others.
SL: Do you have a favorite character?
GN: They’re all my favorites, and depending on who I’m watching, I can change my allegiances quite quickly, though I love them all. If I had to choose, I’d have to say Lady Mary, because she is the linchpin of the whole show. She is the character who’s going to take Downton forward. She’s an interestingly complex character because she’s not likeable all the time. She’s difficult to get to know, but I can’t help thinking that if you really needed somebody on your side, if you needed somebody to go into battle for you, she’d be the character to do that.
SL: You mentioned in a press release that the team is “aiming to deliver everything that one would hope for as Downton comes to the big screen.” What did you hope for when you embarked on the film?
GN: I feel a very strong contract with the fans of Downton. It’s been very important to me. We had a lot of stakeholders, and we had to get all of the actors to return to the film and to be available at the same time. It’s not as if we could have recast those parts, so on a number of levels it’s been a challenge. There’s not one day that’s gone by since we’ve finished the television show that I haven’t worked on this, and I think the fans want this so much that it felt like a real duty to make it happen. It feels like a contract with the fans to deliver this movie for them.
SL: The film is slated to be released next year—what should fans do in the meantime?
GN: Go see the exhibition. It’s a wonderful way to get an immersive experience, even more so than watching the box set. With the exhibition, you can touch, feel, and smell the world of Downton Abbey. The exhibition is open now, and it runs into the spring of next year, so it’s a perfect time to fill those months while everyone waits for the movie to be released next September.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.
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Will you be visiting Downton Abbey: The Exhibiton while it's in Florida? Let us know your favorite moments from the show and what you're hoping to see in the upcoming film.