Downton Abbey Creator Julian Fellowes Reveals The Teenage Experience That Led Him To Create The Beloved TV Series Years Later

Kevin Doyle directs Michelle Dockery in reading a script in Downton Abbey: A New Era.
(Image credit: Focus Features and Carnival)

Any experience in the world can inspire a creator like Julian Fellowes to start a legacy like Downton Abbey. With the world of upcoming movies seeing A New Era currently in UK cinemas, and on the way to domestic theaters in late May, a lot of reflection on the past has been mixed in with looking towards the future. With Fellowes not being immune to that strategy, he recently revealed the teenage experience that led him to eventually start the beloved TV series that kicked things off.

During his fireside chat with Downton star Hugh Bonneville, Julian Fellowes recounted a vacation he’d gone on as a teenager, which would set the scene. Through the interview released by Focus Features, Fellowes credited the following experience as the thematic foundation for the Downton estate: 

I remember one time when I was about 18 or 19, something like that, I was staying in a rather grand house in Cheshire. There was a lunch party, and you know all that dining room humming. I went past this staircase, and I heard this row coming from the kitchen. There was all these people talking in the dining room, then all these people talking downstairs in the kitchen. And I had this flash of the fact that there were two lives going on in this house, and two groups of participants, and all of their experiences were different, and I was fascinated by that.

While he might not have known at that point that Maggie Smith would be key to Downton Abbey's success, the basic framework wedged itself into Julian Fellowes’ mind pretty early. Merely experiencing the flash of activity between both halves of that “grand house” left an impression that would not only shape Downton, but could probably also be chalked up to another project he shepherded some years prior.

That would be the 2001 film Gosford Park, a murder mystery that also saw the focus shifting between the upstairs and downstairs characters involved. Fellowes would even win the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay at 2002’s Oscars, with the Robert Altman-directed movie being up for seven awards that year.

Perhaps the telling sign that signaled the future is the fact that Julian Fellowes wrote a sharp-witted Dowager Countess into Gosford Park, and as luck would have it, she was also played by Dame Maggie Smith. Try watching this scene and not imagining Violet Grantham delivering a similar blow, though perhaps with a little less acid: 

Downton Abbey and Gosford Park both seem to owe a debt to Julian Fellowes’ experience as a teenager. It shows even more now that the Downton Abbey series, and its latest film entry, are firmly established in what to expect. This was even noted in our official review for A New Era, which acknowledges that the fan service is stronger than ever. But again, it wasn’t like Fellowes had an immediate lightbulb moment that set him to a pen and paper. Further explaining himself, Fellowes rounded off this part of the story with these remarks: 

Of course, thirty years earlier, it would have been a very ordinary thing. But by the late sixties, it wasn’t very ordinary; and that stayed with me. I didn’t immediately think, ‘Oh, I must go and write a film,’ but it stayed with me as a kind of notion of these separate worlds under one roof. A kind of workplace drama, I suppose you’d call it now.

The realm of the ordinary has definitely changed, both in reality and in the universe that Downton Abbey: A New Era calls home. Much as the title and the film’s trailers have suggested, the times are changing for the Downton family on both sides of the societal coin. If Julian Fellowes' story is any indication, and if Downton fans keep returning, maybe the ultimate end will see the Grantham family's heirs traced into the swinging '60s. 

Downton Abbey: A New Era hits US theaters on May 20th, with UK audiences already enjoying the next chapter in Julian Fellowes’ cinematic expansion. That leaves plenty of room for American audiences to catch up with the entire legacy that came before, or selected highlights, through the world of streaming. Peacock subscribers are in luck, as that platform is the home for all things Downton, past and present. 

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.