** WARNING: SPOILERS **
How do you reinvent a 1920s period drama?
That was the challenge "Downton Abbey" creator Julian Fellowes faced at the end of Season 3, when three of its biggest stars bolted the series. Currently airing Season 4 in North America, we find our favourite aristocrats leading their coveted life of leisure six months after Matthew Crawley's tragic car accident, Lady Sybil's horrific childbirth death, and the evil Mrs. O'Brien's sudden exit as Cora's lady maid. Downstairs, the hardworking and mostly earnest staff is grappling with Anna's rape among various and sundry injustices.
In an exclusive interview, Fellowes (a.k.a. "Lord Fellowes of West Stafford"), enjoyed a cup of brew with HuffPost TV Canada at last month's BAFTA Tea in Los Angeles to gossip Dowager-style about the show's future, the soap-opera art form, his new TV project and why spoilers and social media aren't a nuisance for him anymore.
HuffPost TV: Despite concerns, "Downton Abbey" survived Matthew's death. I didn't understand the whole brouhaha. Loves like Mary and Matthew's never last.
Julian Fellowes: The show must go on, isn't that what they say? It's definitely opened up a wealth of story opportunities -- not only for Mary, but the whole canvas. I think we've done quite well in Dan's [Stevens] absence. I knew we would have to jump forward in time, six months to be exact, so we could see how his death impacted the family in different ways. Listen, it was Dan's decision to leave. I would've kept him around forever.
Besides Matthew's death, fans and critics are buzzing about you bringing on a black jazz singer, Jack Ross [based on 20s cabaret start Leslie "Hutch" Hutchinson].
I can assure he's not a token. Far from it, in fact. [Actor] Gary [Carr] is a very interesting character. He's very attractive young man, who is also a good actor. His story, in a sense, because I don't want to give anything away for story's sake, is that he's not a loser; he's a winner. That's important to represent in art. So much of today's black narratives are about slavery and oppression. I always say to young writers, "We must empower people; and not think of people as victims all the time. We need black heroes. We need black characters being high achievers doing well in fiction -- because we've got them in real life doing absolutely fine!" There's this tendency in fiction to make black stories sad. I'm not saying they should never be sad. I'm saying we should get the balance better. Every canvas needs black characters, but where their blackness is not part of the story. Make them teachers or cops; people just living their lives. That's my big message this season.
Is it true you write the show by yourself? That's unheard of; but I'm sure the autonomy is a blessing.
And, sometimes, a bloody curse! [Laughs] While I work alone, I will bounce ideas off of my dear wife. No one reads the pages before she does. She's the gatekeeper! After she reviews them and gives me notes, the script goes off to my agent after it's been through her. Then it goes off to Gareth [Neame, the show's executive producer] and it ends up on screen somehow!
What's your secret to your success as a writer?
All my characters have their own journey ... and we know what they all want and what all of them are like.
Have you figured out why "Downton Abbey" has resonated in such a profound way since its international debut?
You work to make it a good show. Sometimes you make a show and it doesn't quite come off. I didn't expect "Downton" to be the hit it is, I just went in wanting to make it a good show -- and it is a good show. Now this could have been just a good show which was well-reviewed and we all could have gone on our merry way. But, you're right: there has been a tidal wave of attention and applause engulfing the show. It has something to do with the zeitgeist right now. It has to do with the insecurity of the economic situation and a certain disenchantment with our present society and all sort of things have come together to make the show impact the way it has. But if you find out the exact reason, tell me!
I love the soap opera art form -- when it's done well. I mean, Charles Dickens created the form, yet there is still a stigma attached to the medium. Why is "soap opera" an insult in North America but not in Europe?
Yes, the term "soap opera" is used pejoratively in America. I mean, all continuing dramas are soap operas. Dickens created the form, for sure. I can only speculate that your [daytime dramas] aren't based in much reality, whereas ours are in England. When our characters die, they die. And life goes on ... I've avoided those distractions because the human mind and heart are complex and entertaining enough to explore.
As a master of continuing drama, what comes first: Character or plot?
If you know a character inside and out, the story comes to you very easily. I would suggest if you're having writers' block coming up with a plot, you may want to dig deeper into who your characters are because you may have created someone black-and-white. So, in continuing drama, character is the most important element in a story. Plot's purpose -- and its core intention -- is to expose a character's strengths and weaknesses, which will hopefully result in growth or death. Now, in suspense and mystery stories, plot is pre-eminent. In continuing drama, it's the opposite.
What's it like working with the Dame Maggie Smith?
She's simply extraordinary! I refuse to do the show without her! [Laughs] It's an honour to not only watch her but to also write for her. She's inspiring.
Do you worry about spoilers?
Social media has changed everything! No doubt about it. I used to worry about spoilers, but worrying about things you cannot control is insanity. Luckily, our cast and crew are very discreet, but since we air in England first, some of our plots have been leaked in North America. Listen, this is why I refuse to worry about spoilers: If your show is good, people will watch. Period. People watch our show for the characters and the small moments -- not the plot twists.
Every time I ask a "Downton Abbey" fan what their favourite moment of show, they say, "Maggie Smith's quips." And those are never leaked, thankfully!
You've announced a Season 5 of "Downton Abbey." Can we expect a Season 6?
I'm not sure. Unlike America, in England we have to wait until the season finishes airs before we receive a pick-up; we're not renewed multiple years in advance. We never want to jinx anything. [Laughs] That's good because it keeps everyone at the top of their game. If there is a sixth season, it may be our last. I'm about to start on a new U.S. drama called "The Gilded Age" for NBC Universal. And the last thing I want is to juggle two shows.
What's it about?
Are you sitting down? Aristocracy! Two families ...The Winthrops and the Stuyvesants ... and the new money of gas, shipping and oil in 1870s New York City.
Hopefully starring Maggie Smith!
"Downton Abbey" airs at 9 p.m. EST during PBS's Masterpiece Theatre.