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'I like happy endings, but I don't have to have one all of the time'

Published 05/03/2016

Hat’s nice: Stefanie Martini as Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne
Hat’s nice: Stefanie Martini as Mary Thorne in Doctor Thorne
Write stuff: Downton creator Julian Fellowes

Downton Abbey made its final curtain call, but creator Julian Fellowes' period work is far from over. With his latest project poised for release, he talks to Gemma Dunn about supporting rising stars and unexpected Twitter threats.

If there's one thing you can count on  Julian Fellowes to do, aside from his duties as a prolific actor, novelist, film director and screenwriter, it's talk. A lot. Whether controversial, or simply commentary, the context is irrelevant - the fact is, he likes to chat and, when he does, he commands the room with colourful anecdotes and plenty of candid opinion.

At 66, Fellowes marches to the beat of his own drum, and always has. He sets the agenda, from our pre-interview chit-chat ("what do you do?"), through to moving it on, with a sharp, "right, off you go!"

But for a man of his success, direction is key. Discussing his latest project, a three-part drama adaptation of Anthony Trollope's novel Doctor Thorne for ITV, Fellowes is on a mission to "remind people that we don't have to have the 100th version of Pride and Prejudice".

A long-time fan of Trollope, he admits there was never a question mark over whether he would pen the production. It was simply a case of getting the job done.

"All adaptation is a process of filleting," he explains. "You have to try and decide what the key scenes are. On the whole, Trollope translates pretty easily to a visual or dramatised version of his work, because he writes such believable dialogue. There are some 19th-century novelists whose dialogue just doesn't bounce off the page, but his does.

"Many of the scenes are nine-tenths Trollope and one-tenth me. He's a natural for adaptation, and I hope the world agrees with me."

Going by Fellowes' track record - he won an Academy Award for Gosford Park in 2002 and enjoyed phenomenal success as the creator, writer and executive producer of the multiple award-winning Downton Abbey from 2010-2015 - it's fair to assume he knows his period dramas.

Boasting a stellar cast, Dr Thorne tells the story of Dr Thomas Thorne (Tom Hollander), who lives in the village of Greshamsbury in Barsetshire, with his niece Mary (Stefanie Martini).

When the terrifying Lady Arabella Gresham (Rebecca Front) discovers that her son Frank has fallen in love with Thorne's penniless niece, she's horrified.

Due to a diminishing family fortune, she believes it's her son's duty to make a rich marriage to save the family estate, and launches a campaign to secure an heiress for a bride.

"Doctor Thorne is a wonderful example of Trollope's gift for understanding the tangles we humans get into. He is sharply observant, critical and merciful in equal measure and, above all, highly entertaining," says Fellowes, whose film credits include The Tourist.

"On the whole, Trollope takes an optimistic view of life and I think that's one of the reasons why he has been trivialised over the centuries. He doesn't have a rosy view of every character, but his general philosophy, on the whole, is a warm one and I like that."

But that doesn't mean Fellowes - who's been married to wife Emma Joy Kitchener for 25 years and has one son, Peregrine - is sold on happy endings.

"I like them, but I don't have to have one," he says. "In a way, I think an unhappy ending can be unfair when you've followed characters for a long time and you've gone up and down. It doesn't mean everything has to be marvellous and sad things can't happen, but ultimately I think audiences earn a happy ending.

"I had all that hassle about whether Edith was going to be happy at the end of Downton. There was one tweet I rather liked and it said: 'If Edith doesn't have a happy ending, Julian Fellowes had better sleep with one eye open.' I knew what they meant!" he laughs.

"We'd gone for six years following this wretched woman being let down at every turn, and you just thought, 'give the girl a break'."

On the subject of Downton, Fellowes insists he has no regrets on his decision to end the hit show last year.

"It's good to leave the party when some people are still sorry to see you go, as opposed to a chorus of relief. Everyone is telling the younger actors that they are stars, but they've got to go and find out.

"We might still do a movie, but it would hinge on whether we could get enough of the cast and so on. I'd be up for it!"

An advocate for rising talent, Fellowes - who was born in Cairo, but privately educated in the UK - is only too pleased to welcome newcomers Martini and Harry Richardson to Dr Thorne.

"I love the fact they have no baggage; all you know is that she's Mary Thorne. Once they become stars then you start going through their lives with them, but with new faces, you don't have any of that. It's completely fresh. I like seeing the next generation get going."

As for his next move, Fellowes is set to release new historical novel Belgravia in 11 instalments via an app, in a bid to "marry the traditions of the Victorian novel to modern technology".

"When you're a writer, you're a gun for hire, and you just have to decide if you can hit the target. Not that I'm the judge of whether I have hit the target," he reasons.

"The only opposite to having a big success and a lot of pressure is to have a big flop and no pressure at all. Of the two, I think most of us would go with the pressure. Will you ever do as well again? I had that with Gosford Park, and other things came along.

"I doubt if every series I write is a worldwide success, with millions of viewers in China, but I've been jolly lucky. Here we all are chucking our bread on the water, hoping it comes back as buttered toast; and I think I've had more than my usual share."

  • Doctor Thorne, ITV, tomorrow, 9pm

Belfast Telegraph

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