Julian Fellowes Talks ‘Doctor Thorne’ and a ‘Downton Abbey’ Movie

After six seasons as America’s premiere Anglophiliac obsession, Downton Abbey switched off the lights and packed away the fine china earlier this year. But on his way out of the stately English manor, series creator Julian Fellowes has been careful to leave the door ajar for a return visit, potentially on the big screen. “I would be surprised if there wasn’t a Downton movie,” Fellowes tells Yahoo TV, echoing sentiments he’s expressed elsewhere. “Most movies you essentially make as a punt, because you don’t know if there’s an audience for it. With Downton, I know there is an audience, so it makes sense to make it.” And because that audience will want to see all their favorite actors back as their favorite characters (minus the ones that have already passed on: RIP Lady Sybil, and be sure to obey the speed limit in the Great Beyond, Matthew), Fellowes says the movie would be a sequel to the series, rather than the prequel that’s been rumored before. “It’s got to be a continuation that’s near enough in time to the series that the same cast could play their roles. I hope it happens!”

While the Downton faithful wait to see when we can book our return trip to the Crawley estate, Fellowes continues to feed us with period costume drama courtesy of Doctor Thorne, his four-part adaptation of the novel by prolific 19th-century novelist Anthony Trollope. Imported to the U.S. by Amazon Prime in May, the miniseries is now making its DVD debut on Oct. 18, the same day that a limited edition Downton Abbey box set arrives in time for the holiday gift-giving season. Featuring a cast that includes Tom Hollander and Alison Brie, Doctor Thorne tells the story of a pair of young lovers, Mary (Stefanie Martini) and Frank (Harry Richardson), whose path toward marriage is thwarted by the class prejudices of the time. We spoke with Fellowes about his own love affair with Trollope’s novels, when we might see his proposed American drama, The Gilded Age, and how he felt about the “Maggie Smith Rule” that Jimmy Kimmel proposed at this year’s Emmy Awards.

Doctor Thorne is one entry in a series of six novels that Trollope wrote. What made you interested in adapting this story specifically?
I’d already had a wish to bring Trollope to television, because he’s my favorite 19th-century novelist. We keep seeing Dickens’s novels and Jane Austen’s novels [being adapted], and I love both authors, but seeing the 44th version of Emma does make one rather wonder if there are other [books] that might be worth investigating. I’ve always been very fond of Doctor Thorne, because you get a great deal of Trollope’s personal philosophy: that not everyone is as pure as the driven snow and people do fall, but it shouldn’t mean they shouldn’t be allowed to get up again. Doing more Trollope is one of my ongoing ambitions; he wrote something like 80 novels, so there are plenty to adapt. I’d like very much to intersperse them between other projects that I’m doing.

There’s a political edge to the story that feels timely considering current events.
Trollope was so political, and actually quite critical of the politics of his day. His position was essentially kind and understanding, but he wasn’t antitradition either. He didn’t kick against the class system, he was just critical of people who believed they were better than they were because they were given artificial benefits. For instance, in Doctor Thorne, he’s not particularly critical of landed gentlemen, but very critical of some of other characters because they think they’re the bee’s knees based on nothing at all. It’s so modern to me, so understandable.

Downton Abbey unfolded against the backdrop of the early 20th century; this takes place almost a full century earlier in the 1830s. Does one era interest you more than the other?
I’m very interested in the early 20th century, because the 40 years between 1910 and 1950 probably saw more change than any time since the Norman Conquest. In 1910, we were essentially still Victorian England, but by 1950 we were almost into the Space Age. It was rock and roll and airplanes, and the class system that had prevailed before World War I had been swept away. So when you dramatize that period, you have the luxury of hinting at the sea of change that’s underlying everything, and that’s a good basis for drama. If you go further back to the 1830s, society becomes more entrenched. From my experience, I’ve found that the most interesting roles in that period are for women. Because there were as many intelligent, ambitious, creative, and high-achieving women being born then as in any period of history; what differs is how they were allowed to express it. It was such a man’s world in the early 19th century; if you were born aristocratic or had any brains at all, there was no excuse for not doing great things. The game was loaded in your favor. That’s why I keep going back to the female characters, because the game was not loaded in theirs.

Harry Richardson, Gwynett Keyworth, Tom Hollander and Alison Brie in 'Doctor Thorne' (Photo: ©ITV/Amazon / Courtesy: Everett Collection)
Harry Richardson, Gwyneth Keyworth, Tom Hollander, and Alison Brie in ‘Doctor Thorne’ (Photo: ©ITV/Amazon/Courtesy: Everett Collection)

Community‘s Alison Brie will likely be the most recognizable cast member to American audiences. How did she get involved?
We wanted her character, Miss Dunstable — the very wealthy daughter of a middle-class manufacturer — to essentially be an outside commentator as she is in the book. She’s English in the novel, but Anglo-American marriages were beginning to happen by the 1830s, so we felt it would be legitimate for her to be an American. Having made that decision, I was very keen on Alison, because I was a big fan of Mad Men. She was absolutely marvelous on that series, and played this part beautifully. In a very layered way, she hinted at being in love with the male protagonist, Frank (Harry Richardson), which I thought was a wonderful note to strike.

Doctor Thorne is arriving on DVD the same day as a new Downton Abbey box set. Now that the series is completed, are you personally satisfied with the way it ended?
Yes, and I think anyone who wasn’t satisfied with the way it turned out needs their head examined! It was an incredible experience for all of us. We were given awards all over the world, and we were able to support numerous causes. It was fabulous. As for the story, I’d only had the initial plot mapped out in my brain, because I didn’t know there’d be more than one season. So it grew and grew, and I enjoyed the whole thing thoroughly. We had our dramas, but for the most part I think everyone involved will look back on it as a very enjoyable part of their careers. I know I will.

How did you feel about Jimmy Kimmel poking fun at Maggie Smith on the Emmys this year for not attending the ceremony to accept her award for Outstanding Supporting Actress?
I think that when you’re of a certain age, as distinguished as Maggie and have done as much as she has for the business, you’re allowed certain privileges. And not flying halfway around the world in order to see if you’ve won an award is perhaps one of them. I do think we missed a trick there, because we had Michelle Dockery and other cast members in the audience that night, so I don’t know why we didn’t suggest that she collect it for Maggie. I know she would have been happy to do it. But Maggie deserved her award, and I’m very pleased she won it. It was a very nice feeling that we were going out still winning awards to the very end. We were able to go out with our heads held high, and that seems very fortunate to me.

What’s the current status of your NBC period drama The Gilded Age?
I’m starting work on it now, and am enjoying it very much. It’s almost the Renaissance period of American history. The Civil War was done, and some enormous fortunes came out of it. The newly wealthy descended on New York City, and the genteel families of British and Dutch descent that had run the town found themselves suddenly encircled by these princes and princesses building palaces up and down the lengths of the Fifth Avenue. And these groups essentially fought it out for supremacy. What may come as a surprise to some Americans is that this was also a very formal period of society, where families had enormous numbers of servants. And you get all these great historical characters like Rockefeller and Vanderbilt, the great financiers. I’m not going to use real people as the main characters in the series, because I don’t want to be limited by [the historical record]. But I will have one or two real people appear in the series, like Mrs. Astor. I think it’ll be a fertile backdrop for a family saga, one that’s Downton-esque but brisker.

Doctor Thorne debuts on Blu-ray and DVD on Oct. 18