Beware of meeting your heroes, they say, to which I would add a new warning – beware of visiting the set of your favourite television series, which in my case is Downton Abbey. As the taxi takes you up the long drive, through a thousand acres of sheep-dotted parkland, and you suddenly catch sight of Highclere Castle (aka Downton Abbey), you understand why the Earl of Grantham (aka Hugh Bonneville) is possibly more attached to his ancestral home than to his beloved wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) and his three daughters.
But the mystique is shattered as soon as you are deposited in front of vans, cables and men in jeans and puffa jackets who are camped around the entrance. Once inside the Great Hall, it only gets worse – with production, make-up and wardrobe people crammed into rows of chairs staring at half-a-dozen TV monitors. And what is this? The Countess of Grantham, in one of her fragrant trailing frocks, talking into a mobile phone. Ye gods!
There are compensations; Jim Carter, who plays Carson, the butler, is every bit as gracious and amiable as he is on screen (I have to restrain myself from hugging him), and Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) is far more good-looking in the flesh, his features chiseled, without any of that boyish plumpness around the cheeks.
Standing in the library, where so many memorable scenes have taken place – the weeping, blind cook; the dignity-denting revelation of Carson’s vaudeville past – Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, sails past. I smile at Dame Maggie Smith, she inclines her head and smiles back, whereupon foolishly emboldened, I stammer about being a fan, and am promptly chastised by that classic Maggie Smith look of frozen horror, as she quickens her step, and wafts awf.
When I repeat my invisible-hat-doffing faux-pas to Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton, he is sweetly reassuring: “I’m sure she was very flattered. One of the funny things about fame – and I don’t think I’m particularly famous, but I’m a little bit famous – is that people have a sort of relationship with you but you don’t know them.
“So you often find that a conversation with a stranger starts at a slightly inappropriate level because, of course, they ‘know’ you so well. And you sort of think, ‘My God… how did we get here so quickly!’ I think fame, like April love, is really for the very young.”
We are talking in a tatty room up the back stairs, probably in the old servants’ quarters. Fellowes requests a cup of tea, only to be told that a no-food and drink rule is in operation. “What, not even in here?” he says, sounding mildly put-upon. His voice has a naturally aggrieved tone to it and is theatrical-posh (“mahhhd” for mad; “orphan” for often) with a speech rhythm that resembles the whoosh and retreat of waves (“too much infoMAYYSHun”).
He is dressed in different shades of brown: fawn chinos, check shirt, dust-coloured jacket and loafers with tassels. Behind his spectacles, he has tiny raisin-coloured eyes. Something about his air of wistful jolliness and the way he sits, roundly, in his chair, makes me think of a character from The Wind in the Willows.
Toad, with his puffed up self-importance, conforms more to the image I had of him from everything I had read but, in person, he is a gentler, more Mole-like character with occasional flashes of Rat-like mischief.
The last episode of the first series of Downton ended with the bombshell of Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, Mary and Matthew’s blossoming romance having seemingly ended and the mystery of Mr Bates’ past deepening.
I really don’t want Fellowes to spoil my enjoyment of the second series by giving too much away but he’s so excited that he has to stop himself from blurting out key details.
So are you a bit in love with Mary? “Yes.” You like strong women? “I like strong, good-looking women and there’s something about – not coldness, exactly, but there’s something about the lack of needing to be liked which, when it’s coupled with very good looks and confidence, is, I think, tremendously attractive.”
Mary has yet to win me over entirely. It was obviously unforgivable that Lady Edith attempted to ruin her beautiful older sister’s life by informing the Turkish amabassador that his dead attaché, Mr Kemal Pamuk, had been found in Lady Mary’s bed (based, incidentally, on a true story Fellowes was told) but for Mary to sabotage plain Edith’s only prospect of a happy marriage was undeniably cruel. Fellowes is having none of it: “But Edith had it coming to her!”
Are you killing anyone off? Silence. You can’t possibly kill Matthew off? Julian?! Long pause; then laughter. He’s going off to war and then he’ll go missing and you’ll play with our affections, won’t you? “It is – I mean – I really mustn’t tell you anything…” What he will say is that both sisters are redeemed in this series and Edith “becomes nicer because she finds a sort of kindness in herself, as well as a role in life.”
What of Bates? “Love him.” But what about the tie that links Bates and the Earl? Does that get explained? “Well, I’m sort of deferring clarifying their shared past because I’m enjoying that.” Is it significant? “Yes.” Sinister? “No, more touching than sinister.” Oooh, the mind boggles.
What about the Dowager Countess? How is she going to cope with the war? “She’s a little too old to strap on a nurse’s uniform but she’s very… I shouldn’t really tell this part of the plot… but she is very supportive of the war effort, I will say that.”
How about Bates and Anna? “Oh yes – lots for them! The main thing is the war and how war changes them all, even those at home, and they all develop as people and become more self-aware.” Have you left an opening for a third series? “Unless you have a nuclear bomb go off, there’s always an opening.”
The first series of Downton had the biggest ratings of any ITV costume drama since Brideshead Revisited back in 1981, attracting 11 million viewers for the last episode, and has gone global having sold to more than 100 countries, including America, Japan, Australia, Israel and Albania.
Fellowes won an Oscar for his screenplay of the late Robert Altman’s upstairs-downstairs film, Gosford Park, but did he anticipate Downton Abbey’s popularity? “I thought we’d made a good show and people would enjoy it, but it was extraordinary. We were playing to something like a third of the adult population,” he says. “I mean, nobody could expect that level of success, except for Simon Cowell. It was completely mad.”
One of the interesting patterns was that even the young, more accustomed to catch-up services like the BBC iPlayer and the ITV Player, would stay in to watch Downton on Sunday evenings: “They had to watch it as it was going out and ring each other at the end. It was a sort of communal family event.”
What were the demographics like? “Very wide backgrounds, very wide social grouping, very wide age grouping and ethnic backgrounds. And I’ve had every type come up to me about Downton – taxi drivers, shop assistants, not just people having lunch at Fortnums.”
He tells a story about his son, Peregrine, 20, who’s studying history of art at Goldsmiths, University of London, who was travelling on the top deck of a bus in the early hours, “and this huge bouncer-type came up [affects oikish swagger] and Peregrine thought, ‘Oh Christ!’ Anyway, he sits down and says, ‘Did you watch Downton Abbey… so do you think Mary and Matthew are gonna get it on?’ Peregrine was going to say, ‘My father wrote it’ [if things turned nasty] but he didn’t need to. I love all that.”
Part of the fun of Downton for critics and viewers was spotting the anachronisms. As an executive producer, as well as the writer, Fellowes had specified that a television aerial that had slipped into shot should be removed, “but somehow it fell through the system, which was sloppy, and I was annoyed about that.”
What also irritated him was that when newspapers printed letters about other details, it was always assumed that the complainant was correct and the programme was wrong. Boyfriend, for instance, he says, was in print in 1889, so was presumably in parlance before that.
“But I thought I behaved rather badly by getting the hump,” he says. “So this time round, I thought we should get a newspaper to do a ‘This week’s mistakes on Downton’ column and we would have the right to reply. Don’t you think that would be good?”