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Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes: 'I'd love to shoot a new film here in beautiful Northern Ireland some day'

Lord Fellowes talks about getting involved in a unique new children's Christmas movie in Northern Ireland, his views on Irish politics and trying to get Maggie Smith to do a Downton movie.

By Una Brankin

Published 12/12/2015

Julian with actress Erin Galway-Kendrick from Newtownards and Cinemagic Chief Executive Joan Burney Keatings
Julian with actress Erin Galway-Kendrick from Newtownards and Cinemagic Chief Executive Joan Burney Keatings

Lord Julian Fellowes of West Stafford is regarding me warily, his warm hazel eyes a little more hooded than usual. Minutes earlier, he was cheerfully admitting to being as deaf as a post, the result of failing to wear ear defenders while shooting game.

"None of us wore them back in the day and I have lived to regret it. I'm very fussy over my son's hearing now," he says, referring to 24-year-old Peregrine - who, incidentally, is also working in screenwriting and production.

Peregrine is a family name going back generations and it is the mention of that which has me wondering if Julian (66) shares the nationalist aspirations of his Anglo-Irish forefathers from Co. Meath. His great-great grandfather, George Morant, was disinherited when he married into a family of Home Rule supporters in the early 20th century, and the 'Irish question' was given some significance in the first series of Fellowes' phenomenally successful creation, Downton Abbey.

As it turns out, Downton's Irish chauffeur, Tom Branson, was originally conceived as an Ulsterman.

"Hmmm. Now, I don't want you to get me into trouble ... that is not a safe question for me to answer," he prevaricates, on the question of whether he is a unionist or not.

"Ultimately, I believe in a united Ireland. I do come from a long line of Home Rule supporters. It is rather unusual in a family like mine, but we were brought up to support Irish independence and that meant swimming against the stream, in the 1960s for instance."

The Oscar-winning screenwriter, novelist, actor and Conservative member of the House of Lords, is in Belfast to help promote the Cinemagic charity movie, A Christmas Star. He has been to these shores often and spent many holidays as a child in the Irish Republic, where he occasionally attended Sunday Mass in Co. Kerry and Co. Waterford. He still goes on a weekly basis to his village chapel in Dorset - "it reminds you you're not in control of everything" - while his aristocratic wife Emma (52) attends the local Anglican church.

"My father had an island off Kerry, near Charles Haughey's, and we spent many summers there," he recalls, explaining the importance of having an Irish dimension in Downton.

"When you look back at the 1920s, the Russian Revolution and the fascists in Rome, or whoever, tend to be to the fore, but if you look at the newspapers in 1922, it was always Ireland in every headline.

"Originally I wanted the chauffeur to be a northerner and Alan Leech - who was very good in his audition - said that he could do the Northern Irish accent, but there was no need when I decided to make him a socialist, which meant he could have been from any part of the country."

He did drop 'Ulsta' - as he pronounces it - into the Downtown dialogue early on, when he had Lady Mary praising the gardens at the Clandeboye Estate.

"Oh yes, my great aunt Isie [Isabel Stephenson] had an aunt Eliza who married the nephew of Lady Dufferin of Clandeboye, you see. The dowager countess, Maggie [Smith], is based on Isie, in whom, I always say, there was a mix of severity and a kind heart. She would instruct us in our ancestry. I still miss her and my other fierce aunties."

We're chatting in a glass-walled side-room in the Odyssey theatre, following a screening of A Christmas Star. In contrast to the clashing combination I last saw him in - of a brown jacket, green tie and blue shirt, Lord Fellowes is in a sombre dark suit today. He likes to keep up the upper-crust tradition of dressing for dinner, after a long soak, and always wears a tie.

"I'm not mad about open-neck shirts," he commented recently. "They make men over 50 look like scrawny old Christmas turkeys."

The voice is as cut-glass as his Crawley characters' and his exclamations just as high-born. "Well done chaps!" he greets the Christmas Star cast assembled in the theatre for a Q&A session with the audience - which consists mostly of children with flat Belfast accents, announcing, amid hotch-potch grammar, that they "wannabe awn 'actir'" when they grow up.

Given this famous Tory's very precise way with words, I wondered what he thought of the mangling of the Queen's English he'd heard all morning, on and off the screen.

"I like regional accents," he declares, gazing out at the cityscape beyond the drizzled windows "They reflect one's history and culture. It's important to feel part of something with the UK, isn't it? To have a regional identity and to look after the detail of your culture. Take the Titanic, for instance. In time, the city will be able to talk about the Titanic with a real sense that it was an extraordinary ship with an extraordinary story from start to finish, from the men who worked on it to those who died on it."

Like most occasional visitors, he has noticed sweeping changes in Belfast, particularly since he made the ITV mini-series Titanic, in the years leading up to the 2012 centenary - he also used the news of the 1912 sinking to open series one of Downton. The series failed to gather the plaudits earned by his 2003 film Gosford Park, which won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2004, or the multiple award-winning Downton Abbey, but it helped send tourists over to our docklands in their droves.

"There's a completely different feeling here now," he observes. "I was here during the Troubles, on and off, and it just feels so different now. It's a modern city, very optimistic. I'd love to work here or in the south. That Belfast to Glenarm drive is one of the most beautiful I have ever been on, and I absolutely love Dunluce Castle and that story about the people dining in the banqueting hall and falling down the cliff in the middle of dinner when it suddenly subsided. Is that true?"

Reassured that it is, indeed, a fact, a huge smile splits his face and he launches into a yarn about an LA earthquake he was caught up in. And then it's on to his favourite Christmas movies of all time - when he's not walking his dachshund Humbug and border terrier Meg, he watches two or three films with wife Emma in the screening room of their Dorset country mansion on most weekends "with supper on trays on our laps", along with his favourite TV shows, Coronation Street and Casualty.

"Hmmm. I think White Christmas, with Bing Crosby, is hard to beat. And I love Miracle On 34th Street - not the newer one; the one with Natalie Wood and Maureen O'Hara. I was very sad to read that she had died. Ninety-five, though. She was a star in the Thirties and Forties. There was something very gutsy about her."

He's all ears when I tell him I once interviewed the feisty Ms O'Hara, and that she told me her studio bosses wanted her to "bop" her nose when she first arrived in Hollywood.

"Ha! That strong nose suited her character and those roles she played, opposite John Wayne in The Quiet Man, and in Jamaica Inn and Hunchback [of Notre Dame]. She was so much more interesting than all those little bopped-nose actresses. She has a marvellous confidence on screen, a presence. I love her, and Elizabeth Taylor and Rita Hayworth and Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe. They always looked like stars, even off-screen."

At this point, Mrs Fellowes - a startlingly tall, dark-eyed presence; hair swept up in an exotic bandana-cum-turban - interrupts from further down the windowed wall, to remind her husband that he's here to talk about A Christmas Star. He has commented in the past that his wife is an optimist, who has tempered his natural tendency toward fear and dread: "If I'd married someone like me, I'd be lying at the bottom of a pit somewhere by now," he told a London daily, admitting to being bad-tempered for no reason, occasionally.

Now, on his wife's cue, he shoots me a faintly disapproving but tongue-in-cheek glower, a cross between Frankie Howerd and Countess Violet.

"Well, it's the first time I've seen the film - it's a miracle in itself that it has happened so quickly. It's only been 18 months - that's extraordinary.

"It has been made by kids for kids with the help of some very nice generous actors and others, including our Thomas from Downton [former Corrie actor Robert James Collier]. He's a wonderful actor. He's interestingly handsome; not obviously so, at first. It doesn't hurt.

"But yes, it's a film about kids and making them feel empowered. About doing whatever they want to do in life, instead of accepting the circumstances of their birth or class. One or two will make it into the film business, if they want it enough, but that's not the point. It's about learning not to settle for anything they don't want. They've got a taste now for something they're really interested in."

He won't give me any clues as to what will unfold in the Christmas finale of Downton Abbey. The huge success of the series has prompted an offer for him to write a new screenplay, The Gilded Age, based on the 'dollar princesses' epitomised by Lady Cora (played by American actress Elizabeth McGovern) in Downton.

Meanwhile, a film version of the ITV drama is still up in the air, according to its creator, and very much dependent on an apparently unwilling Maggie Smith.

"The Daily Mail is very confident about it happening," he deadpans, as a PR man closes in to nab him. "In real life, it hasn't yet been decided upon. I'm not anti it; it would be good fun to do it on a larger scale.

"But I have to write the Gilded Age in the new year. I live for deadlines; they are a wonderful motivator. I write on a word processor - lap top, I mean. I can only type on two fingers, but I'm pretty fast. Are you?"

  • A documentary, Believe - The Making of A Christmas Star, will be shown this Wednesday, December 16, at 8pm, ahead of the film itself on UTV next Sunday, December 20, at 3.15pm

A-listers lend their talents for this incredible project ...

Set in the picturesque village of Pottersglen in Northern Ireland, A Christmas Star follows the adventures of intrepid youngster, Noelle, who believes she has the gift to perform miracles and sets out to save her village from the threat of demolition.

The film, produced by Cinemagic and Signature Entertainment, was an educational and cultural project offering children the opportunity to work alongside a star-studded cast and raft of film industry professionals.

More than 40 children were handpicked as trainee filmmakers and given intensive training in all aspects of production - including directing, script-editing and costume design.

The film's young lead actress, newcomer, Erin Galway-Kendrick, stars opposite Bronagh Waugh (Hollyoaks, The Fall), and Richard Clements (Good Vibrations, The Fall). A total of 11 new young actors from Northern Ireland and Ireland feature in the lead cast, including Aoife Hughes from Newry, John Moan from Warrenpoint, Alecoe Haughey from Killybegs, James Stockdale from Dungannon, Amy Dunne from Dublin, Mainie Mullholland from Lurgan, Patrick Roe from Newry, Sean Ronan from Dublin, Zena Donnelly from Dublin and Joshua Smyth from Crossgar.

A host of actors and supporters of Cinemagic including Pierce Brosnan (James Bond), Suranne Jones (Scott & Bailey, Doctor Foster), Robert James-Collier (Downton Abbey, Coronation Street) also feature in the movie made by young people, directed by Richard Elson (M.I. High, Steffi), and written by Maire Campbell (Punch); and the festive story, set in Northern Ireland, is narrated by Liam Neeson (Taken, Schindler's List ),

The film features a cameo from Kylie Minogue and guest appearances from Dermot O'Leary and Julian Fellowes. The film soundtrack, an original song - We Can Shine written by Ryan McGroarty and a team of young people - is performed by Zena Donnelly.

With an exceptionally tight timeframe, a cast and crew of thousands to manage and 40 young people to train on the job, the project was hugely ambitious. However, with the support of Cinemagic patrons, the celebrity cast and a host of film industry professionals all giving their time and expertise, A Christmas Star was born.

Featuring interviews with Kylie Minogue, Robert James Collier and Suranne Jones, the documentary Believe - The Making of A Christmas Star provides an intimate and exclusive insight into the journey Cinemagic embarked upon, whilst making Northern Ireland and Ireland's first ever children's Christmas film.

You can watch A Christmas Star official trailer at youtube.com/watch?v=RAg5Fv7lzAQ and the We Can Shine Music Video youtube.com/watch?v=aQjG2CaOmiI&feature=youtube

Belfast Telegraph

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