Written By January 2012 : Page 22

W e all know not to count our chickens before they are hatched. Least of all while working in television. And so the decision to end the first series of Downton Ab-bey with the declaration of the First World War was done de-liberately to bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion if it turned out to be the last we would hear of the Crawley family. As it happens, that scene came from a memory of my late father, his very first memory in fact, of a day long ago when he had been taken to a large garden party at a house in Hamp-shire called Hurstbourne Park. He was two years old at the time and standing with his mother when a man came on to the terrace, called for silence, and informed the company, with some preamble, that “We are at war with Germany.” It was August 14, 1914. When I asked him why this should have been the first image that his brain had fastened on so firmly, he replied that he could only suppose that the change in the atmosphere and in the expressions of the men and women around him must have been so profound that even a two-year-old could not forget it. The challenge for all of us, of course, when the news came through that there would be another series, was to take this group of people who had lived through the settled and unchal-lenged era of Edwardian England, a time of savage inequalities certainly, but also with its high splendor and security on the world stage, and plunge them into a period of mortal chaos which, by its end, would leave Europe and beyond altered for-ever. And yet, at the same time, we wanted to continue to tell the story of Downton Abbey and the people living and work-ing in it, so the first task was to find a new role for the house itself. Here, our choice was not limitless. A House of Ill Repute During the Second World War, many of the great houses of England would be requisitioned for any number of purposes. The Armed Forces, government departments, the Civil Service took over people’s homes without number. But during the first conflict, just as the ranks were filled only with volunteers until conscription began in 1916, so houses were taken only when they were offered willingly by their families to the war effort, usually either as hospitals or, more frequently, as convalescent homes, a service they could perform without traumatizing changes to their fabric. This seemed the right way forward as it needed to be believ-able that the Crawleys and their servants would stay and get in-volved, which would seem less credible if Downton had become a full-blown hospital with operations and X-rays and intensive care. Incidentally, this is just what happened to Highclere Cas-tle, where the series is filmed, which became a state-of-the-art hospital, founded by Almina, the charismatic and iconoclastic Countess of Carnarvon and paid for by her putative father. But for us, making Downton a convalescent home, and not a hos-pital, meant the family could remain in occupation, while Lord and Lady Grantham, their staff, and all three of their daughters could join in with the work, as many daughters of great families 22 • WG aW Written b y j anu ar y 20 12 War Comes to Downton Abbey For the popular series’ second season, a writer’s family tragedy is resurrected. Written by Julian FelloWes

War Comes To Downton Abbey

Julian Fellowes

We all know not to count our chickens before they are hatched. Least of all while working in television. And so the decision to end the first series of Downton Abbey with the declaration of the First World War was done deliberately to bring the series to a satisfactory conclusion if it turned out to be the last we would hear of the Crawley family. As it happens, that scene came from a memory of my late father, his very first memory in fact, of a day long ago when he had been taken to a large garden party at a house in Hampshire called Hurstbourne Park. He was two years old at the time and standing with his mother when a man came on to the terrace, called for silence, and informed the company, with some preamble, that “We are at war with Germany.” It was August 14, 1914. When I asked him why this should have been the first image that his brain had fastened on so firmly, he replied that he could only suppose that the change in the atmosphere and in the expressions of the men and women around him must have been so profound that even a two-yearold could not forget it. <br /> <br /> The challenge for all of us, of course, when the news came through that there would be another series, was to take this group of people who had lived through the settled and unchallenged era of Edwardian England, a time of savage inequalities certainly, but also with its high splendor and security on the world stage, and plunge them into a period of mortal chaos which, by its end, would leave Europe and beyond altered forever. And yet, at the same time, we wanted to continue to tell the story of Downton Abbey and the people living and working in it, so the first task was to find a new role for the house itself. Here, our choice was not limitless.<br /> <br /> A House of Ill Repute <br /> <br /> During the Second World War, many of the great houses of England would be requisitioned for any number of purposes. The Armed Forces, government departments, the Civil Service took over people’s homes without number. But during the first conflict, just as the ranks were filled only with volunteers until conscription began in 1916, so houses were taken only when they were offered willingly by their families to the war effort, usually either as hospitals or, more frequently, as convalescent homes, a service they could perform without traumatizing changes to their fabric. <br /> <br /> This seemed the right way forward as it needed to be believable that the Crawleys and their servants would stay and get involved, which would seem less credible if Downton had become a full-blown hospital with operations and X-rays and intensive care. Incidentally, this is just what happened to Highclere Castle, where the series is filmed, which became a state-of-the-art hospital, founded by Almina, the charismatic and iconoclastic Countess of Carnarvon and paid for by her putative father. But for us, making Downton a convalescent home, and not a hospital, meant the family could remain in occupation, while Lord and Lady Grantham, their staff, and all three of their daughters could join in with the work, as many daughters of great families did, including the teenage Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who would read to and tend recovering officers billeted at Glamis. <br /> <br /> This then was to be the key to the return of Downton. It would not just be an examination of how the war affected those who were in it, but also, and mainly, it would be about those who stayed behind. We would examine how the order and the old certainties were shaken, how some people would hate the changes and bow under their weight, and others would start to sense new beginnings and changing roles, which once had been defined by sex or class, but which were now relaxing. In a way, it would be about surviving war, not that all our characters survive. <br /> <br /> That said, the program-makers were agreed that we did need to go to war. A bit. It would feel like cheating only ever to have horrors reported but never to witness them. As Violet Grantham says in the first episode: “I hate Greek drama, where everything happens off stage.” We were helped in this by our marvelous advisor, Alastair Bruce, who had himself fought in the Falklands, and he gave the male characters who would go to the front (and all the rest of us, for that matter) some very moving insights into what it is to face death for a shared cause, which seems so far from our own lazy, sybaritic era. And naturally, the accounts of war that we were hearing and reading were lent considerable poignancy by the knowledge that our own day is also a time of war, and that as we were finalizing scripts or attending costume fittings or dressing wigs, our countrymen and women were fighting, and in too many cases dying, at the politicians’ behest in the Middle East.<br /> <br /> Abbey Road <br /> <br /> But, to be prosaic, the problem was naturally how to film any of this on a television budget. To give a sense of the scale of the awfulness and violence of war when we were not going to spend much screen time there. Our salvation came in the form of a remarkable Suffolk farmer, Taff Gillingham, who has dedicated a large part of his land to re-creating a set of First World War trenches, all in perfect scale, all only too exactly like the real and terrible thing. He told us, with some pride, of a director who had turned down his trenches because they were too narrow and with too many angles. Didn’t he know that if they’d been straight and wide, a single shell would have killed every man in them? But of course, as was only too clear to an outside observer such as me, these narrow, meandering slots in the ground added claustrophobia to the loneliness and discomfort and the terror that the troops had to go through. <br /> <br /> I went to Ipswich to see some of the filming and managed within a few minutes to fall flat on my face in the mud, lightly skinning my chin, tripped up by the rough and uneven surface, because it was certainly a foreign terrain. Standing in the trenches, walled in by earth, walking on rough planks and duckboards, listening to the explosions, looking at the barren, blasted landscape all around, it was impossible not to think of those legions of young men who had been taken to that awful place, or somewhere like it, many from comfortable and fulfilling lives, or at any rate safe ones, and suddenly plunged into raging turmoil. <br /> <br /> My grandfather volunteered in 1914, dying of wounds and meningitis in June 1915, at the age of 30, leaving a widow of 25 and an only son of 3, my father. Not long ago, I came across the programme for some country-house theatricals, Little Bo Peep, in which my grandfather had figured as Mr. Timothy, whoever he may have been, no doubt roaring with laughter with his fellow guests as they ransacked the dressing-up box in the attic for costumes. It was in June 1913, and two years later he would be dead. <br /> <br /> I think this, more than anything, was what I learnt from the experience of taking Downton to the war. That these were ordinary men, some privileged of course and lucky, some with much too little going for them, most just leading their lives, who were suddenly gathered up by the hand of fate and flung into the mouth of Hell. In his compelling book, Six Weeks, John Lewis-Stempel describes how this period was the average life expectancy of a young officer at the front. He tells of their bravery and their discipline and their reluctance to complain and, above all, of their refusal to inflict pain on their loved ones at home, all of which moved me more than I can say.<br /> <br /> I hope we have conveyed some sense of this in the series. We’ve certainly tried to. At one point, when Mary asks Matthew how things are going in the war, he can only reply: “Do you know, the thing is I just can’t talk about it,” which is, in fact, a direct quote. My great Aunt Isie, the model for Violet Grantham, was told that her husband, Bertie, was coming home on a troop ship in the summer of 1918 and she hurried to Southampton, dressed in her best, to meet him, only to have him carried ashore on a stretcher, dying of his wounds. As an old lady, she would repeat the words I have given to Matthew, saying this was the only answer she would ever get to her questions. <br /> <br /> But gallantry and bravery and patience are still with us today. Many of the supporting artists playing convalescing officers were men who had lost limbs for some reason or another. We had Simon Weston [the Welsh Guardsman severely burnt when his ship was destroyed during the Falklands conflict] to help us, an extraordinary man who has turned his savage injuries into a source of real strength for others. And there were many on the set who may not be as famous as he but who were also inspirational in their own quiet way. <br /> <br /> When we were children, few of us took kindly to being told by our teachers that there were people worse off than ourselves, but they are words we can never hear too often, and I would say that the cast and crew of Downton, really all of us, learnt something good and lasting from the filming. We were reminded of what sacrifices have been made—are still being made—to maintain Britain’s freedoms. It is a lesson that, I would say, has left us very grateful.<br /> <br />

Previous Page  Next Page


Publication List
Using a screen reader? Click Here