British TV Hit ‘Downton Abbey’ a U.S. Success

by | February 10, 2011 at 3:21 PM | TV News

Rose Leslie and Siobhan Finneran in 'Downton Abbey' (AP Photo/PBS)

Rose Leslie and Siobhan Finneran in 'Downton Abbey' (AP Photo/PBS)


LOS ANGELES – Julian Fellowes knows how to make himself at home in English country estates, both upstairs and down.

The writer won an Academy Award for the Robert Altman-directed “Gosford Park” (2001), about murder and secrets among the gentry and servants at a stately home. His TV series “Downton Abbey,” starring another magnificent mansion and its inhabitants, was a hit on British TV.

The early 1900s drama proved a draw for PBS on this side of the pond as well. Each of its four episodes averaged more than 6 million viewers in January to rank with other recent “Masterpiece” successes such as 2008′s “Sense and Sensibility,” according to Nielsen Co. ratings.

Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton called the drama, available to screen online at the PBS website, “a fantastic start to our 40th anniversary season.”

The second season of “Downton Abbey” is scheduled to begin production in March and air on PBS in winter 2012. The imposing Highclere Castle in Berkshire, England, is the stand-in for Downton Abbey.

World War I, which descended at the end of the first season, will figure prominently in the sequel and may move the drama off the estate at times, said Fellowes, the series’ writer and an executive producer.

“We will go away from Downton a little, but I never believe a series should lose touch with its base,” he said, noting how firmly the sitcom “Friends” was anchored in New York. “It (the new season) will be how the war affects Downton, how Downton can contribute to the war and politics.”

Downton Abbey” stars Hugh Bonneville as goodhearted Lord Grantham, who is determined to keep his vast estate and family legacy intact for future generations. Elizabeth McGovern plays his American wife, who brought her fortune to the marriage, with Maggie Smith as her imperious mother-in-law.

Romantic sparks are provided by the estate’s three daughters and by the servants. Bonneville, McGovern and Smith are among the cast members returning for the next season.

Fellowes said the drama has an inherently contemporary sensibility.

“Quite deliberately, actually, we chose to place it in a period that is recognizably part of the modern world. It’s not Jane Austen — people don’t get into carriages and light candles,” he said from London. “That was deliberate to make the audience realize that it’s not that long ago.”

British society appeared superficially serene but faced upheaval, including the push for women’s suffrage and political and economic transformation. The parallel to modern life resonated with U.K. viewers, Fellowes said.

“People are aware of a sense of living in a period of great change. Politicians over the last 20, 30 years have been telling us things that are not true, making wars we don’t believe in, doing things that are damaging economically,” he said.

Unlike the era of “Downton Abbey,” however, Fellowes sees a worrisome social disconnect today.

“The difference between the haves and have-nots then and now is that there was much more interdependence between the classes. The danger of our society is the haves have very little to do with the have-nots, and vice versa,” he said.

He’s not adopting a rose-colored view of the past, Fellowes said, “but a great estate required you to take an interest in the lives of those on the farms, and there were grades of society pulling together.”

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