How did you come up with the idea for Downton?
We were originally looking for something completely different and it just wasn’t working, so someone at ITV asked me if I would ever go back into Gosford Park territory, but for television. I felt a bit greedy in one way, almost like I was having two bites at the same cherry but I was reading a book about the buccaneers and the other American heiresses that came to England in the 1880s and 90s and I started to wonder what happened to them 25 years later when they were still sitting in some house in Staffordshire. As such Cora was the first character I though of..
When you were putting the show together did you feel that it could be a hit?
I don’t think you ever have any idea, you try and make a show that you’d want to watch. We thought we had a very good cast and a decent show, but I don’t think any of us expected this tsunami of popularity. It was a very welcome surprise..
Why do you think its so popular?
I haven’t a clue. But I think one of the most important things is the fact that we are quite egalitarian in how we treat the characters. It’s not that everyone upstairs is noble and everyone downstairs in vile, or vice versa. Edith and Daisy get the same kind of character weight and there are no crowd judgements. I think looking back that was a good choice and right for the zeitgeist now, but you just don’t know how these things are going to work out..
It must have been great fun to write for Maggie Smith?
We did Gosford Park together and a few other things, so know I know how to write for her and she knows how to say the lines so it works pretty well really.
Was her character based upon anyone?
In a way she was a revisting of my Grandfather’s older sister, who died when I was 21 so I knew her very well. She was born in 1880, married in 1898 and her husband died during the war. There are parts of her in many characters, for instance, that line when Sybil says “Sometimes it feels like every man I’ve ever danced with is dead” ..she said that. She had this tremendous set of standards, like Violet she was as tough with herself as she was with everyone else. She maintained that if a house ran out of their own jam, then someone, be it the cook, the housekeeper, whoever, someone wasn’t doing their job and Violet does the same. People like that are totally gone now and anyone under the age of 35 will probably never have encountered them. These people never questioned their own philosophy or culture, unlike nowadays when everyone is continually picking at the scabs of their identity. They thought they were there to do a job, they played their part and they expected everyone else to play theirs. I’m not very good at writing weak women either..
Richard Carlisle turned into quite a convincing villain by the end as well..
What seemed important to me was that he should be a proper threat to people’s desire for Mary and Matthew to get together, but I didn’t want to demonise him too much at the start. I actually think he and Mary would make a good couple. They are as tough as each other and it remains to be seen just how tough Matthew is..
Was there any pressure from ITV to for Mary and Matthew to have a happy ending this time around?
I think they just want to keep it bubbling along to be honest. Also the problem with solving a problem in the narrative is that you immediately have to come up with another one, because you don’t have the advantage of the ninth reel of a movie where everyone lives happily ever after and it’s all final. It’s all open-ended so nothing must ever be final. I’m not certain of where any of the characters are going..
Can you tell us anything about the Christmas Special?
There might be a Christmas tree..
Nice. So what’s going to happen in series 3?
Everyone asks me that but do you really want to know?
I’m not sure you do, I think it might spoil it for you..
Michelle Dockery, who plays Lady Mary has been receiving high praise of late, what do you make of her performance?
The finest thing about her is that unlike most other young actors, she isn’t bothered about her character being liked. Some actresses might have tried to soften the edges of that role because they don’t want to be unpopular, but she never does, so she’s able to play the duality of Mary very well. I don’t think she’s any nicer in the second series but we know much more about her. Mary never wants to be seen as weak or sentimental and I think Michelle demonstrated what a great grasp of the character she has..
Can you tell us about any storylines that you threw out or didn’t come to be?
No I’m afraid not. I might need to use them in the future!
How important was the house itself?
I was very keen to use Highclere from the beginning, it was my third attempt as well. I tried to get Little Lord Fauntleroy shot there in the nineties, I tried to get Gosford Park done there and finally managed to get it for Downton. What makes it such a fine location more than anything is the sculptural reality, it’s a statement of aristocratic confidence. The people who built it clearly weren’t troubled by a lack of self-worth and we wanted the irony of that statement against the fact that the world is changing and maybe everything is about to fall apart. But one of the finest things was the way the interiors worked for the narrative. I’ve no doubt that most viewers could find their way around Highclere and it’s easy to recognise the library, the drawing room, the kitchen and all the rest of it, so that helps with the story..
Why did you decide on the 1910s as a setting..
Gosford Park was very much about the end of an aristocratic way of life, so I decided to go back 20 years to a time when that lifestyle still has a bit of time to run, but the other thing that 1912 gave us was the fact that if we did go to three series, we had the chance to make all of them different tonally. The First World War changed everything and the twenties which was very different as well. War always develops things as well, plastics, metals or whatever. They are invented for the war effort but people find a use for them afterwards..
Downton Abbey Series 2 is available on DVD now and we’ve got some copies to give away..