WTF is FYC? Part 10: Downton Abbey: The Final Season




Downtown Abbey: The Final Season

carnival and MASTERPIECE


Downtown Abbey The Final Season FYC invitation


Pete Hammond moderates a more intimate FYC ... a panel consisting of the impeccable Julian Fellowes, the sunny and real Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Patmore), and the experienced observer with the unmistakable voice, Jim Carter (Mr. Carson.) Getting in on any event held at the Linwood Dunn is reward itself.

The 286-seat theatre is named after a visual effects pioneer of the same name and is located at the Academy's Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Los Angeles. Yes, you read that correctly: Motion Picture Study. This theatre is part of that other golden statuette's family ... yet perhaps an appropriate setting since Fellowes is an Oscar winner for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park. The building is actually a rental venue with some fantastic art in the hallway and reception area, and it's been a landmark in the entertainment industry from the time it was built in 1926.

From:   Vintage Los Angeles '  1950s image of what is now the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study 

From: Vintage Los Angeles' 1950s image of what is now the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study 

The Motion Picture Academy's museum, according to its website, houses an impressive collection of "more than 10 million photographs, 190,000 film and video assets, 80,000 screenplays, 50,000 posters, 20,000 production and costume design drawings, and 1,400 special collections of film legends such as Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Alfred Hitchcock, and John Huston." The Collections are AWESOME ... but I digress.

Baron FELLOWES of west stafford: we LOVE YOU!

Julian Fellowes @ Downton Abbey: The Final Season FYC in Los Angeles, CA 

Julian Fellowes @ Downton Abbey: The Final Season FYC in Los Angeles, CA 

Julian Fellowes need only speak to draw attention to his words. Besides that wonderful British accent, he's articulate and adept at story-telling, merrily carrying the listener along to resolution, as is visibly measured in tonight's audience of rows of collective head nods, full-on belly laughs, and explosive cackles filling his pauses. Depending on your association to patriarchs, he may seem a father figure, a favorite uncle, or the reigning purveyor of British culture and class ... including tea. You've got to hand it to this man for bringing tea along for the ride.

"If you start a show and expect it to be a world phenomenon, you need help." 
Julian Fellowes

the downton abbey Story

Fellowes wrote the show as if it were a single series. It caught on. When Nicols began working on the series, she simply hoped that it would be as good as Brideshead Revisted. Clearly, 6 years later supported by its many accolades and 12 Emmy wins, the show's taken actors who weren't used to being recognized in public along for the ride. Jim Carter tells us that his character (Carson) was referred to as, "awesome," and now, he takes it as "his due and his right."

When Hammond prompts sharing favorite moments, both Nicol and Carter agree they love the scene of negotiating the marriage between Carson and Mrs. Hughes, played by Phyllis Logan. Together, they navigate sensitive dialogue about just how the union will be consummated. Hammond comments that it must have been difficult to manage the tone. Fellowes, in a child-like squeal replies, "Oh, thank you." Continuing, he explains, "The challenge is to be funny within the bounds of reality. In Downton, these things do take a long time."

Carter expounds on the mention of time, telling us that in the show, the actors range from Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Crawley) who was straight out of drama school to Maggie Smith (Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham) who can't remember if she'd gone (to drama school), a comment that gets a roar. Nevertheless, as a viewer, I'm aware that it's Dame Maggie Smith who dryly delivers the lion's share of perfectly timed one-liners. Carter is quick to assure that they all got on really well, particularly at Ealing. 

Ealing Studios was often their "home" for filming off location areas, such as servants' quarters and attic bedrooms. Nicol tells us that her dressing room was called the Bulgarian Brothel ... indicating perhaps some less than preferred conditions? Ealing has its own definable history as both a movie studio and production company, until the BBC purchased and repurposed the studios to operate, like Linwood Dunn, as a venue for hire. Carter goes on to explain that Dressing Room #1 is the nicest at Ealing, and if you were lucky to be assigned to it, a whisper would circulate throughout the cast: "Are you having a party? This was code for, I'm in the nice dressing room come in and share."


According to Deadline, nearly 10 million people watched the final episode of the series, giving credence to Downton Abbey's solid base of viewers.

Fellowes confirms, "Our audience deserves a happy ending and I like happy endings, but I was living under somewhat of a threat. A Twitter threat." He qualifies, by acknowledging the demands of social media and the impact it can have on his creative decisions.

"The thing about happiness is that it's great in life, but flat on television, so you have to work with that. There wasn't a bible. Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge (Emmy-winning Executive Producers) and I would go to ITV and say, This is what it is." Mind you ... notice how I threw that colloquialism in there? ... in Fellowes' own words, this is his "first go at a series. The characters were created by me ... and the actors playing them ... you have to adjust. When Dan (Stevens) decided to go ... I wanted to keep Elizabeth Crawley. You have to stay loose a bit, instead of having a fixed idea of what every character was supposed to do."

Several years ago, I listened to Fellowes speak with a tone of disappointment about the untimely departure of Stevens, and now, it's as if something is still stuck in his craw ... Matthew Crawley. Get it? Go ahead. Roll your eyes. But remember, he's an articulate story-teller, veering from that subject to the issue of happy endings without a nudge from the moderator. Hammond must love this guy!

"The audience is smart. You have to have a sense of what makes sense. You must give people a plausible response that goes with the time." ~Julian Fellowes

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Nicol shares her observation of how American audiences are "demonstrative." While American theatre performers are accustomed to explosive emotional displays from their native audiences, I will venture to say that English audiences prefer to reserve their appreciation for the end of the act. As evidenced from my own tenure at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London, our American cast of Bob Fosse's Dancin' was initially stunned by the polite silence that had replaced the energy-boosting whoops and cheers we'd all come to rely on as immediate measure of our work. Even more interesting? Fellowes was nominated this year for a Tony for Best Book of a Musical for Broadway's School of Rocka very glaring theatrical display and one that seemingly invites the measure of its merit by demonstration. My guess is that by now he's overcome any shock of our unabashed exuberance and fully embraces it.

Andrew Lloyd Webber and (American) Glenn Slater were nominated for Best Score and the entire show was nominated for Best Musical. Offering a nod to the experience of an American working with Webber and performing in the London company of Cats as part of the AEA/BEA Artist Exchange, I'm recognizing and sharing this British connection here ... now ... in my own way as part of my blog writing. My memories are of a London less commercialized than it is now, where a walk through Covent Garden's alleys was often a solitary, romantic, and somewhat dangerous experience for a young woman headed home full of adrenaline after a performance. Oh, but I loved that looking for trouble feeling. I'm curious about Elizabeth McGovern's (Cora Crawley) experience. As Downton's resident American who lives in England with her husband and family, do you know she has a band? Sadie and the Hot Heads. It's a real band with a very cool sound. Go girl, go!

As if he's seen the hand signal from the staff to wrap it up, Fellowes qualifies the thread, incorporating Nicol's idea about American manners, pulling us again to the topic of happy endings:

"Americans like success and so do I. Maggie Smith is a tent pole character ... a character who serves as support for the story. She saw the changing of the world. It made sense we ended the show with her." 

Hammond takes the cue, however, opening the discussion to audience questions. Someone comments on the proliferation of viewers intent on knit-picking continuity errors on the show. Fellowes seems to agree, countering that although he'd suggested some spin-off material to the Daily Mail, This Week's Mistakes on Downton ... they didn't take him up in it.

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is The Gilded Age America's downton?

Another audience member beats me to it, encouraging Fellowes to discuss his next project: The Gilded Age. Fellowes explains that it takes place at the end of the Civil War, when huge fortunes in railway (mostly), mining, and shipping were being amassed at time when there was no income tax on social capital. That bad boy didn't begin in America until 1913; 1909 in Britain. People came to New York City as descendants of the Dutch ... palaces sprang up on 5th Avenue and there was a rivaling society. In middle of it was Caroline Astor with her own private ballroom. Alva Vanderbilt had one, too. Let the cat-scratch parlor games begin.

Caroline Astor by Carolus Duran

Caroline Astor by Carolus Duran

Mrs. William Astor ...(Caroline Webster Schermerhorn) as painted by Carolus Duran, 1890

Mrs. William Astor ...(Caroline Webster Schermerhorn) as painted by Carolus Duran, 1890

Astor took control of society. The 400 came from The Astor List of 400 ... the people who were considered New York's high society. A story I read suggests the title reflects the number of people who could fit in her ballroom. She kept a man named Gould ... probably George Jay Gould, known as one of the ruthless robber barons of The Gilded Age ... out of the group. Americans invented a new way of being rich. What Fellowes hopes is to dramatize that.

Enormous fortunes controlled by a few families created a period of economic disparity not unlike what appears to be happening today. If I'm understanding the pattern, war has always been the great equalizer of this kind of inequality. 

Paul Krugman reviewed Thomas Piketty's (Paris School of Economics) book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in an interesting article entitled, "Why We're in a New Gilded Age." (The New York Review of Books, May 8, 2014)

"Piketty shows, however, that even today income from capital, not earnings, predominates at the top of the income distribution. He also shows that in the past—during Europe’s Belle Époque and, to a lesser extent, America’s Gilded Age—unequal ownership of assets, not unequal pay, was the prime driver of income disparities. And he argues that we’re on our way back to that kind of society. 
Basically, Piketty sees economic history as the story of a race between capital accumulation and other factors driving growth, mainly population growth and technological progress.
To be sure, this is a race that can have no permanent victor: over the very long run, the stock of capital and total income must grow at roughly the same rate."
~Paul Krugman, "Why We're in a New Gilded Age," on Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty

Before The Gilded Age begins in earnest, Fellowes' adaptation of the musical Wind in The Willows opens at the Theatre Royal Plymouth in October, eventually moving on to the West End.


Downton Abbey FYC welcome screen and panel chairs at Linwood Dunn Theatre in Los Angeles, CA

Downton Abbey FYC welcome screen and panel chairs at Linwood Dunn Theatre in Los Angeles, CA

the Fellowes' 300

At the reception, I approach Fellowes. There are certain people who stir the creative dream in me, the stardust by proxy, and he's one of them. It's that he's my people thing all over again. Wine in hand, I begin a conversation that leads with me talking about my blah-blah ... New York City Broadway dancer goes to London's West End with all-American Fosse show, works in Cats as an exchange-artist, gets booked on a BBC TV show, but a labor strike nixes it ... Fellowes asks a few questions about whom I worked with we chat about those people ... then I bring the blah-blah home by tying my film school degree to my 15-year job (at the time) working for a reality television production company, FINALLY ARRIVING at my point: How do I cross the bridge into something more creative, perhaps in a role I've never done before?

Fellowes locks eyes with mine. "I get asked this question a lot." He went on to say that he has about 300 people, relatives, friends of friends, friends of relatives he's responsible for putting to work in the industry and anyone outside of the 300, he is absolutely unable to help. HIS OWN GILDED 300??? I am visibly deflated. Still looking directly at me, he offers that there must be someone in my experience, because I look like I've had a lot of experience ... Yes, I'm not 22, but why do I feel like I am at this moment? ... who would stand behind me, who would be someone I could look to to be on my side to help me in the directions I want to go? I'm thinking, but I want to learn from you! I bring up the issue of being older and coming into this scenario. He mentions his son who is assisting a very famous producer right now ... but of course, the son is young and in the time when people are hoping to be accepted in these positions. Well, Baron Fellowes, that's telling it like it is. I wonder if he's learned that indirect-directness from us (Americans). The "very famous" producer may be the producer of the re-envisioned Dirty Dancing ... another connection I could have offered to warm him to accepting me into the 300 as 301 ... 

I close with, Here's my card. You can write on it. As he's ushered away, in an afterthought, I hear him say to write letters. How lovely. Of course, it'd be a dream to be mentored by him, yet since he solely pens every word of his projects, the idea may be just an idea. I'm dwelling on it, because in light of recent circumstances, the impulse to home in on my need for "someone to stand behind me to help me in the directions I want to go" is appropriate and timely. By the way, home in is the correct phrasal verb - from19th century homing pigeons, 20th century homing missiles and targets, and 21st century return to home mouse clicks or finger taps. Yeah, that last one is a stretch ... but ...

Stardust, are you reading this? Mr. Fellowes, consider this post my letter to you.

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