One of the most prolific, cleverest, and perspicacious screenwriters working today, Julian Fellowes began his career as an actor and would not write his first major narrative screenplay until Robert Altman (Nashville) and Bob Balaban asked him to for a “who-cares-who-dunnit” mystery film they wanted to make in the early 2000s, Gosford Park, starring a slew of the best British actors including Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Alan Bates, Clive Owen, Kirstin Scott Thomas, and Kelly Macdonald. The film would go on to great success, garnering seven Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay for Fellowes—who would be Gosford’s sole winner that night.
Fellowes then penned (or co-wrote) a few scripts throughout the 2000s including Vanity Fair, Piccadilly Jim, The Young Victoria, and The Tourist.
In 2005, he made his writer-director debut with the romantic thriller, Separate Lies, starring the incredible Emily Watson, Tom Wilkinson, and Rupert Everett. Four years later, he wrote and directed his second feature, From Time to Time, an enchanting ghost story that boasts Maggie Smith, Dominic West, and Hugh Bonneville among the cast.
But in 2010, everything would change again for Fellowes as well as for everyone involved in a small show called Downton Abbey that was set on the eve of the Titanic disaster and gave us two classes of people living in the same home. This was not your mom’s Masterpiece Theatre. This has the swift pace of Mad Men or The West Wing. To say it was a smash hit isn’t doing it justice. Americans, in particular, could not get enough of the Crawley clan and what sardonic line Dowager Countess Violet (Maggie Smith) would utter next. Downton holds the record for the most Emmy nominations of any international TV series, including a win for Fellowes.
While Downton was hitting its stride, Fellowes agreed to take on the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic in 2012 with an ambitious 4-part series that would repeat the iceberg incident each episode early into the narrative and then allow us to spend time getting to know different characters. Titanic also dealt with the class divide but in a more harsh and brutal manner than we’d seen before.
Fellowes continued to write screenplays like Romeo and Juliet (with Douglas Booth), Crooked House (with Glenn Close, Terrence Stamp and Gillian Anderson), and The Chaperone (a lovely film about Louise Brooks starring Elizabeth McGovern and Haley Lu Richardson).
For television, he penned Doctor Thorne in 2016, the limited series Belgravia (based on his own novel) in 2020, The English Game in 2020, about the genesis of soccer, and, of late, the HBO smash hit The Gilded Age where new money battles old, starring Christine Baranski and Carrie Coon.
On stage, he is responsible for the books to the musicals Mary Poppins, School of Rock (for which he was Tony nominated), Half a Sixpence, and The Wind in the Willows.
And as if all the above wasn’t enough, he also found the time to script two Downton Abbey films. The first, reunited most of the actors from the original series and was a huge box office hit.
And now he is back with Downton Abbey: A New Age, revitalizing the series by introducing a few new and exciting plot points into the story that include the British Lion film crew descending on Downton Abbey so Lady Mary can pay for renovations and the discovery that Violet has inherited a home in the South of France from an old suitor—which brings up all kinds of complications.
We are also given expected doses of bitter and sweet.
A New Era works so well because the characters continue their respective journeys during another tumultuous time in the world, but still come together as a loyal and loving family, when needs be.
One thing Fellowes has for his characters is a keen kind of empathy and that emanates into the situations each find themselves in. Throughout his work, Fellowes has taken on class, in quite the subversive manner, never demonizing one to glorify the other, instead always ready to want to see the good in all people.
In addition, he has cast light on the many struggles in the 19th and 20th centuries that involved the treatment of women and women’s rights, gay life at a time when just being yourself could get you arrested, sometimes killed, as well as race, at a time when the racial divide was pretty evident.
As the sole writer of most of his projects (all of Downton!) Fellowes is to be commended for showing us the dangers of one type of person thinking they’re better than another. Back then it was class related, today on social media it might be as simple as having more followers and getting more “likes” than someone else that makes you feel superior—that elevates your status. But Fellowes work warns that this strived-for status is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Awards Daily had the pleasure of speaking with Fellowes about his extraordinary career while on a promotional tour for Downton Abbey: A New Era.
Downton Abbey: A New Era opens nationwide May 20, 2022.