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Downton Abbey – Executive producer on the second season

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Downton Abbey, Season 2 - Clapper board
Clapper board for the second season © 2011 Carnival Films

The British series Downton Abbey has become a phenomenon both in the UK and in America. In England it is the most successful series since Brideshead Revisited, and in the States its appearance on PBS’ Masterpiece has garnered over 6 million viewers per episode.

Over the weekend at the Emmy’s Downton Abbey received five gongs including best mini-series and best supporting actress for Dame Maggie Smith.

Written by now Emmy award winner Julian Fellows (Gosford Park), the show follows the antics of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who live and work in the fictional stately home of Downton Abbey.

With the second season now premiering in England, the series’ executive producer, Gareth Neame, visited the TV Critics tour to talk about Series II, which will make its US debut on January 8, 2012.

In the first series, you took a two-year jump. And now you’re jumping another two years forward as we start the new series. I don’t know whether you can answer it or not, but is there going to be a similar jump to cover more story in the second series?

Downton Abbey, Season 2 -  Dan Stevens and Hugh Bonneville
Behind the scenes, Matthew (Dan Stevens) and Robert (Hugh Bonneville) © 2011 Carnival Films

The new series is a similar span. Obviously, if this show continues to run in a way we hadn’t quite expected, then we may have to slow down with the history a little bit. We start in 1916 and the war will come to a conclusion within this series, so that the final episodes are after the war. So we burn through a similar kind of time line.

We [may] have to slow down, because I think the ages of our characters will get very fudged!

Can you talk about crafting the end of the first series? You didn’t know when it was written that it would go beyond the first season, but very few of the storylines wrapped up in neat little bows at the end.

Enough things were settled so you felt there were some resolutions. Enough things were kept open. The original concept of the show was to begin with that Titanic moment, because it felt like it was one piece of history that everyone understood the timing of it and the fact that it was a momentous time in 20th century history.  I suppose the outbreak of World War I felt like the next big momentous piece of world history.

The costumes on the series are stunning.

The great thing about the show is that the costumes are quite a central part of the drama. Julian was our expert on this world. I don’t think any of us were particularly experts on it. But the more we found out about it, the more we discovered that these aristocrats, they had no function whatsoever.

For the women particularly, most of their day was spent changing, dressing, undressing, changing into something else. There were four or five or six different outfits worn in any one day.

So the costumes themselves are part of the narrative. In fact, it makes it very difficult in editing sometimes that you want to move scenes around and you’re constricted by, ‘Oh, my God, they’re dressed for lunch, not for dinner. They’re dressed in something else for tea and breakfast.’ So it’s really central to the storytelling.

I hear there is one character from Series I who does not return in Series II.

Downton Abbey, Season 2 - Brendan Coyle and Joanne Froggatt
John Bates (Brendan Coyle) and Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt) © 2011 Carnival Films

Yes, one of the housemaids, Gwen. She gets a job as a secretary, if you remember. She’s an ambitious woman, and she causes outrage by being caught with a typewriter, which Mr Carson thinks is an outrageous aspiration for a young woman to have. But she, luckily enough, does get hired in the last episode of the first series.

She’s gone to greater things. I think we will bring her back at some point in a secretarial role as a professional woman.

Could you tell us a little bit about the new characters that will be introduced in the second series?

There are quite a few new characters. There are additional love interests for both Mary and Matthew. There’s a new housemaid. There’s a new male servant.

[There will be] new life coming in, but without the whole thing feeling radically different. I think we’ve got the balance about right.

Why do you think this series has connected with so many people both critically and in terms of massive audiences?

Downton Abbey, Season 2 - Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes © 2011 Carnival Films

This is a quintessentially British genre, isn’t it, this country house, historical drama.  And obviously, Masterpiece has made many such productions over the years. Very, very few of them are original writing.

I think it’s the combination of Julian Fellowes’ outstanding writing, written in a very contemporary narrative, with original stories, with this extraordinary ability for him to spin 20 plates all at the same time.  It’s very modern, contemporary storytelling, but in a period setting.

I think audiences love this sort of social interaction, the way that these people lived under a different code from the way that we live now, the manners and the rules that they all had are somewhat absurd to all of us, but yet we’re quite intrigued by them.

I think when you see storytelling that is written so confidently about that world, and so well acted as well, it’s really delicious to see the way these characters all sort of organize themselves.

I would say the show is closer to something like Mad Men, where you have a period setting but modern writing, than it is to a lot of the former Masterpiece productions like Pride & Prejudice, where you have a Victorian novel that is adapted and the screenwriter.

To a greater or lesser degree, has to be quite faithful to the novel that’s been laid down. We have all the freedoms that any modern narrative would have.

Downton Abbey, Season 2 - Cast
Mr Carson (Jim Carter), Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan), Ethel Parks (Amy Nuttall), Mrs Patmore (Lesley Nicol), Daisy Robinson (Sophie McShera), William Mason (Thomas Howes), Anna Smith (Joanne Froggatt), John Bates (Brendan Coyle), Sarah O'Brien (Siobghan Finneran), Thomas Barrow (Rob James-Collier), Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Violet (Maggie Smith), Robert (Hugh Bonneville), Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), Mary (Michelle Dockery), Edith (Laura Carmichael), Sybil (Jessica Brown Findlay) and Isobel (Penelope Wilton) © 2011 Carnival Films