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It's been 12 years since Downton Abbey, the TV series charting the fortunes and failings of an aristocratic British family and the people who serve them, debuted. Since then, it's become a global phenomenon, spawning six seasons of the series, building a robust tourism industry for Highclere Castle, where it films, and spawning a cottage industry of puzzles, tea, fan fiction, and board games.
And of course, there are the films. In 2019 Downton Abbey was released, earning nearly $195 million at the box office worldwide and making clear that the Downton audience was still ravenous. This month, Downton Abbey: A New Era hits big screens, bringing new twists and turns to the lives of its characters—who are, like it or not, being dragged closer to the modern age—and treating moviegoers to another dose of the best-in-class cozy drama that's become the property's trademark.
What inspired you to revisit Downton Abbey?
I don’t really think I ever make these decisions. What happened was we made the first film and it did very well; for a week or two, it was the number one film in the world. So, there was a certain interest in revisiting this recipe, and I didn't fight it. Downton has been an extraordinary chapter in my career, and when the world wants more of it, that's good enough for me. I've said goodbye to these characters three or four times, and each time, two years later, I'm back at my desk. But I am pleased with the way it turned out.
How did the stories this film tells—the Dowager Countess inheriting a French villa, a movie being filmed at the house, and various love affairs, secrets, and hijinks—develop?
I think we made a double decision. [Producer] Gareth Neame was very keen that they should leave their comfort zone and go somewhere else. We've taken them to Scotland, and of course, we've done the London season and things, so we haven't only been at Downton but we have only been in their world. I was very keen to have a real sense of the invasion of the 20th century. I do feel that film, in a way, was the art form invented by the 20th century. It didn't really have any precursors. It was a new thing. And when it arrived, and I heard all this from my parents at the beginning, film was seen as a working class entertainment. What dismayed my parents' parents' generation was suddenly their own children were getting drawn into the magic of film, and they were charging off, having favorite stars, and seeing favorite things. It was complete disruption of their society. And within not very long, the main entertainment for anyone under 40.
My parents were very keen on Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and they took one of my father's aunts to see one of their films. She obviously thought this was just absolutely ghastly and could hardly keep sitting upright, and they realized they failed completely to convince her. I saw it as a bridge between the younger generation and the older.
Does working on your other projects, like Belgravia or The Gilded Age, influence your work on Downton Abbey?
Everything in life makes you review your own opinions. There's almost no dinner party you can go to without coming back thinking about some previously reached conclusion that suddenly seems not quite good enough. I would hesitate to say that I wasn't permanently a work in progress because I think I am. The main job I did since the last film was The Gilded Age, and that has been a rather marvelous experience for me. The Gilded Age made me look at the declining European society at that time slightly differently, because they weren't business people and didn't understand how the modern world worked. Also, America was very different. They weren't living on money their great, great grandfather had married by finding an heiress. They were making the money, they were making their lives happen. It had a kind of dynamic that I found very interesting, rather beguiling, if I'm completely honest, an energy that I think Europe, at that time lacked. So in a way, that did give me a different view, really.
Without giving too much away, there are important developments—some happy—for a number of characters that feel surprising. Do you go into writing thinking about which character deserves that kind of attention?
I hope that I have given them all something to do over the years. The pattern of the series was different because you knew that you would have a decent story once every three weeks. And in the other episodes, you would join in other people's stories. But of course, a film is different, because in a film, everyone has to have their own story. I don't know if I should say this really, but I felt that while in the first film Robert and Cora had plenty of screen time, they didn’t have all that much to do emotionally. In this film I was determined to give them both a real emotional arc and emotional journey. The actors all know their characters better than I do, to be honest. I give them material, I hope, which fits their own feelings about them, but then they take it and run.
There are some delicious Easter eggs in the film, like when real life married couple Imelda Staunton and Jim Carter get to play a kind of flirtatious scene. Do you enjoy sneaking in those sorts of things?
Putting Jim and Imelda into a scene, of course, was a kind of joke to be shared with the audience because most of them know—and I thought they did it very, very well. The thing about Downton is that it has always had lines to make you laugh, but not so much as to disturb the reality of what the characters are going through. You don't want it to go over a line and start turning into a sitcom. You want to always stay this side of that.
Do you hope there'll be a third film?
Honestly, I thought the fifth season was the last. Then I thought the sixth was the end of them. Then I thought the first movie was the goodbye. Who knows? If there's a big demand and everyone wants them back, I suppose I certainly wouldn't say no.
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