Julian Fellowes married Emma Kitchener in 1990, when he was 40. She is a former lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent and the great-great niece of the first Earl Kitchener. I saw her downstairs with [their son,] Peregrine (named after Julian’s father) and was struck by her theatrical presence; a strong, resolute jaw, arresting gaze, in capri pants, her hair tucked under a white turban.
He says that he never lived with any of his girlfriends before his marriage, although he did have some significant relationships at university and drama school. One of the reasons he didn’t marry young, he says, is that he was concerned that his lack of good looks might prevent him from making a living as an actor; his first profession.
“I was very unfashionable,” he says, “and they weren’t looking for my type at all then. It was all cockneys and northerners and Tom Courtenay. And once you settle down and marry and have a child and everything else, you can’t be broke.”
He agrees that it’s curious, given his “great dissatisfaction with my appearance, that I chose such a lookist business. I mean, how odd is it that I quite deliberately went for the profession where looks will be very important?”
Was your rationale that you could become a terrific character actor? “I wasn’t a complete halfwit – I mean, I didn’t think I was going to be Romeo – but I wasn’t good looking at all. People always think you’re being modest.”
Fellowes says that although he was a young man in the 1960s, “I was never much of a raver. The whole one-night-stand culture passed me by because it took me longer to get anywhere with a woman. I had to get to know them and talk to them and all that stuff, whereas if you were gorgeous in 1969, in that atmosphere, that was just about as complicated as it got.” It didn’t help his cause that he had a brother who closely resembled the gorgeous actor, Terence Stamp.
Would he describe himself as cold? “No, I think I am quite warm and affectionate, but I don’t fall in love easily, which is a slightly different question.” In his early 30s, he started panic-dating: “I began thinking, ‘Cripes, where is she? Where is she?’ and took out a huge series of women for a couple of years.”
Did you sleep with them? “Not all of them. But then in my mid-30s, some of my friends got divorced and I wasn’t the only single person on the street and then I got involved with this marvellous married woman.”
They were involved for three or four years. “She was very intelligent, very supportive, great. It was a very nice time in my life, I was a bit more successful than I had been, had a bit more money, and I was doing work that interested me as opposed to the least worst work that was on offer. And, of course, when you relax is when it happens – I went to a party and there was Emma.”
Although he and his girlfriend loved one another, there was never going to be a future for them. “She once said to me, ‘I’m not nearly unhappy enough to cause the unhappiness that I would cause’ [if she left her husband]. She would have had to make a lot of people very unhappy at a time in their life when they couldn’t have dealt with it. When I told her that I’d met Emma, she just said ‘That’s it. This is your duty, you’ve got to go and get your future.’”
He is vexed, to put it mildly, about the idea that his wife’s family title – the Earldom of Kitchener – will be extinct in the future, because the current Earl has no children, and she, his niece, is a woman. This, of course, is very much the driving theme of Downton Abbey; the unfairness of the middle-class cousin Matthew Crawley being the heir to the estate rather than aristocratic eldest daughter Lady Mary.
“If you’re asking me if I find it ridiculous that in 2011, a perfectly sentient adult woman has no rights of inheritance whatsoever when it comes to a hereditary title, I think it’s outrageous, actually.
“The point is not whether or not you approve of hereditary titles, but given the fact that they do exist, the exclusion of women from them under English law is absolutely bizarre. This is the most famous imperial title of that particular period of our history.
“So if they do change the succession to the crown, which is much talked of – I don’t know anything you don’t know – I think around that time someone should look at this, too. Either you’ve got to get rid of the system or you’ve got to let women into it. I don’t think you can keep it as ‘men only.’”
In the future, we may hear more about this issue, I suspect, from Fellowes, who as Baron Fellowes of West Stafford (he was ennobled in January) has a seat on the Conservative benches of the House of Lords. He and his wife are often lampooned as hideous snobs, but I certainly saw glimpses of a larger, more complex humanity.
He tells a story that suggests that the mostly confident person he presents, these days, is as much of an artful creation as his dramas. As a boy, he had been “rather shy in company. The moment I left my family, nobody wanted to dance with me. I was the one who made up the numbers.”
When he was 18, he was sent on a boat to visit a “mad” aunt in Cartagena, Colombia, whose husband had died. Her response was to transform her finca and land into a summer camp, and young Julian’s job was to help her.
“And I remember thinking on the boat, ‘This isn’t who I am and this isn’t who I want to be… and when I get off the boat, I’m going to be the life and soul of the party and full of confidence and I’m going to do everything. I am not going to be that shy little person standing at the back of the group any more.’ And, I think, to be honest, the person I am now was born when I stepped off that boat in Cartagena.”
We finish on that note and Fellowes prepares for the next interview: an Australian journalist and film crew who are fanning the advance publicity for the next stop in Downton’s global journey. I, for one, can’t wait for Sunday evenings to rejoin the congregation of the church of Julian Fellowes.