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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2012

Award-winning screenwriter spins world of 'Downton Abbey'

BY DAVE ITZKOFF
NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

When you have only a few episodes and a Christmas special to address World War I and its aftermath, needless to say you have to cover a lot of ground very quickly. So it went for the Crawley family and its servants at Downton Abbey, the PBS Masterpiece Classic series that concluded its second season Feb. 19.

During that stretch the heir presumptive, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), appeared to be grievously wounded in battle and left paralyzed, only to make a miraculous recovery; Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) pursued her practical if unromantic courtship of the ruthless newspaper publisher Sir Richard Carlisle (Iain Glen); the kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) married the ill-fated William (Thomas Howes) before he died from war injuries; the housemaid Anna (Joanne Froggatt) and valet Mr. Bates (Brendan Coyle) married before he was arrested for the suspected murder of his previous wife, and, just when everything seemed to have settled down, a bout of Spanish influenza knocked off Matthew's fiancee, Lavinia Swire (Zoe Boyle), leaving him free to become engaged to Lady Mary.

Also: the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) made some cutting remarks, and the dog Isis went missing for a bit.

These miseries, machinations, and occasional moments of joy were all set in motion by Julian Fellowes, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter (Gosford Park) who is the creator and an executive producer of Downton Abbey. As work gets under way on a third season of the show Fellowes, 62, spoke by telephone from London recently about the many story lines at play in Season 2, the U.S. television shows he is influenced by, and when, if ever, Downton Abbey might come to a conclusion. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Q. You knew going into this season that World War I was going to dominate the narrative and dictate the fate of your characters. Did you sit down in advance and decide who is coming back alive and who isn't?

A. I don't think we did at the very beginning. But we were conscious of the fact that we had to kill someone we knew really well and liked. Because the danger is, the only people who ever get killed are people with two lines. There is a kind of falseness to that.

In my own life my grandfather died of disease in the trenches, my great-uncle died of wounds. It's not that this was something that happened to people one hardly knew. That went right through society, top to bottom. And we knew in the end it was the luckless William, because we all loved him, who had to die. Matthew was very badly wounded, though not as bad in the end as it was feared. We knew we had to make it pretty grim for people who were central to the narrative, yes.

Q. Probably the audience would be calling for your head if you dispensed with Matthew entirely, but you still created the possibility, for at least a couple of episodes, that he would be left paralyzed and unable to have children. Why not leave him in that state?

A. To be honest, when you're running a series and you have an open end, you don't want to limit yourself too much with the choices you've got for a particular character. In a way, being able to father a child was a bigger issue than whether or not he could walk again. But once you've done that, I'm not sure where we would have gone with him. Putting him through the mill and letting him come out the other end was as harsh as we were prepared to be.

Q. Television history is littered with shows that lost their mojo once their romantic leads completed their will-they-or-won't-they dance. Are you concerned that a central tension will disappear now that Mary and Matthew appear to be headed down the aisle?

A. It is a concern. But by the same token, shows can also run out of path when they go on with it too long. There is a moment when the audience just thinks, "Oh, for [goodness'] sake." You somehow have to pre-empt that.

Q. By the same token, why are you so cruel to Mr. Bates and Anna? Are we supposed to take away from their story that true love is impossible and gets you thrown in prison?

A. (Laughs) Oh, I love Mr. Bates. These are two people who have not been given all that much in life, but what they have been given is a real love. I wouldn't ever want to undermine that. But they've got to suffer a little. Nothing harder to dramatize than happiness.

Q. For just one episode we met a character who may or may not be the missing heir, Patrick Crawley. Is it safe to say we've not seen the last of him?

A. I'm not quite sure whether you have or you haven't. Some people have washing lines full of characters and blackboards covered with designs and things pointing at each other. I don't really have that.

Q. I don't want you to end up with your phone getting hacked, but is Richard Carlisle in any way supposed to be a gloss on a certain publishing baron of the modern day?

A. Not specifically. I've read all these things, like Cora is supposed to be Mary Leiter. She isn't really; she's one of that genus, of which Mary Leiter is a famous example. And, similarly, those press barons of the turn of the century, there were lots of them. And Carlisle is not modeled on any one of them in particular. It was just that they became a new type in London society.

Q. There would have been some justice to Mary ending up with Carlisle.

A. Mary and Carlisle were quite well suited in some ways. But in the end he just wasn't as nice as Matthew, really. And Lavinia was, in a way, a much sweeter person than Mary and would have been a very loving and supportive wife. Whereas I think Mary is a much more prickly affair. He might have had an easier, if a more boring, time with Lavinia, and similarly, if Mary had married Carlisle, they would have really built something.

Q. What are you legally permitted to tell us about what will happen in Season 3 of Downton Abbey?

A. (Laughs) By starting it in 1912, it meant that we could have that post-Edwardian serenity, followed by the first World War, followed by the '20s, a time of immense social change. You had the first votes being given -- not to all women, but at least to some women -- in 1919, and you have union activity, the Russian Revolution, all sorts of troubles going on across Europe. And that gave us right there three series where each would have a very different mood.

Q. Are there discussions about extending Downton Abbey beyond its third season? Do you see it coming to a conclusion?

A. (Ominously) Sufficient unto the day. (Laughs) I feel that one can't really think much beyond that. Although I agree, I do not think it should just go on and on forever.

Q. Downton is routinely among the shows that people cite when they talk about a renaissance in serialized drama. Are there other shows in that contemporary pantheon that you'll admit to watching, whether for inspiration or for pleasure?

A. There are lots of American shows I admire. Mad Men, a beautifully made and produced show. I love Sex and the City, I think I've seen every episode. I like Glee. The American series have a tremendous energy which I admire, and I hope I have emulated in Downton. In a way it's a period drama and it has all these stories packed in. That, I think, has much more to with the American tradition of television than the British, actually.

Q. Sex and the City is where you got all your best lines for Maggie Smith, isn't it?

A. Wonderful to think of her in that show with Samantha. The colonel's lady and Rosie O'Grady are sisters under the skin.



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