‘Downton Abbey’ Creator Julian Fellowes on Show’s ‘No Guilt’ Rape Storyline

EmmyWrap 2014: “I did get some very moving letters afterward from women who’d been assaulted,” Fellowes tells TheWrap

Julian Fellowes Downton Abbey
Downton Abbey

This story originally appeared in EmmyWrap: A Golden Year

It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise that “Downton Abbey” landed a dozen Emmy nominations this year, including Outstanding Drama Series — after all, the British period drama was already the most-nominated international series in Emmy history, with 39 nominations and 10 wins for its first three seasons.

But “Downton’s” Season 4 snuck in under the radar, with storylines that weren’t quite as headline-grabbing as the deaths of two major characters in the previous season. This time, the upper-crust Crawley family dealt with grief over past losses, with a cousin’s scandalous flirtation with a black jazz singer, with an unexpected (and secret) pregnancy and with the gradual reemergence of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) after the death of her husband Matthew.

In the servants’ quarters, meanwhile, the usual squabbling and jockeying was overshadowed by the rape of Anna Bates (Joanne Froggatt), which she tried to keep secret so her husband wouldn’t kill the rapist.

See video: ‘Downton Abbey’ Teases Turmoil, Change in Ominous Season 5 Clip

All of this came courtesy of the pen of the show’s creator, Julian Fellowes, who writes every episode of “Downton” by himself. He spoke to TheWrap’s Steve Pond from his home in Dorset, as filming on Season 5 was in its final stages.

You’re following a season that included a shocking death in the final episode. So you had to begin this season with Lady Mary in mourning.
We were obligated to kill Matthew at the very end of Season 3, because [actor] Dan [Stevens] wanted to move on. And when we’d done it, we realized that doing it then gave us this tremendous advantage, that we could have a time jump. We could move on four months and get to a point where Mary should be beginning to put herself together. That really was a much more interesting place for Michelle, too, because the rebuilding of someone climbing out of the bottomless pit of grief is better than just watching them in the bottomless pit of grief.

Let’s talk about a couple other main storylines. Why Anna’s rape?
Well, I’ve always wanted to do a rape story where there was absolutely no guilt whatsoever attached to the victim. Because when I was growing up, there was still a sense [with rape] that the woman must have done something, she must have gotten drunk. Why was she walking out that late? Why did she wear that skirt? All of that is rubbish, and so I wanted a character the audience would be entirely on the side of. And that you can only do when you’ve really established a character that they all love. If you essentially bring in a character in order to have them raped, it’s not invasive, it doesn’t get under your skin in the same way. And I did get some very moving letters afterward from women who’d been assaulted, and felt at the time that they were being blamed, that in some way they had been kind of soiled by the whole process.

Lady Edith’s pregnancy was obviously set up to be a continuing story in subsequent seasons.
I wanted to deal with secret children. It was a different moral time, and on the whole the majority of women went into marriage as virgins, which was as much to do with the lack of efficient contraception as it was with the different morality. But having said that, of course there were sexual affairs, and every now and then there was a pregnancy, and it had to be dealt with in a society where appearances were all. And so you had these mysterious trips to Switzerland, and these sketching parties that go across the Alps for six months and all of that. I know one or two children of upper-class women from the war, where a love affair either went too far or the man was killed or something. And these children were either smuggled into their own families, or grew up separately and later were allowed to meet their mothers for lunch at the Ritz. It always rather intrigued me, that, and so I thought it would be interesting to have one such child in the family at “Downton.”

o-DOWNTON-ABBEY-facebookThis past season began in 1922, which seems an ideal time to explore the theme that this family is doomed if it doesn’t recognize that the world is changing.
Yes, it’s a very interesting decade, really. Like Janus, it faces two ways. At the beginning, just after the war, people weren’t really sure that life had changed all that much. You might have two footmen instead of four, but the same idea was going on. It was only as the ’20s went on, with the movies and the motorcars and the aeroplanes, that everyone started to get the idea, wait a minute, the world has changed. The ’30s really are the beginning of the modern world, but I’m not tempted by the ’30s. I just think the ’30s have been done. We’ve had a lot of the looming menace of Hitler and so on and so forth. Whereas the ’20s are more of a new territory for drama.

So “Downton” will end before it arrives at the ’30s. Have you given much thought to how and when the series might conclude?
Our system of renewal is so different from yours. We never know that we’re even going to be doing the next series until this series is going out. So it’s all speculation. I mean, I would be astonished if there was not a Series 6. But beyond that, I can’t know. The trouble is, when I say that, the newspapers immediately print a story that “Downton’s” coming to an end, because I don’t know that.

Also read: ‘Downton Abbey’s’ Joanne Froggatt on Her Emmy Nomination: ‘I Actually Cried Slightly’

DA4.22555But at this point “Downton” is so successful that you’ll certainly be able to end it on your own terms, rather than saying, “Oh, I guess we’re not renewed.”
[Laughs] Well, there will come a moment when too many of the actors want to leave. And with a family show based on one house, we don’t really have the freedom of a hospital show where essentially you can have a completely different cast after five years and nobody minds. And so that will be what decides it. Of course it must end. The end of “Mad Men” is a blow to me, a strike through my heart. I love “The Good Wife”, I can’t bear the thought of that ending. I love “Scandal” — mind you, that’s just in its third season, so it’s got some legs there. But it is a blow when these shows come to an end, and ending them is quite tricky. You want to be un-disappointing. And I haven’t given it any thought beyond that, really.

Aren’t you doing a show for NBC, “The Gilded Age”?
I am, but not until “Downton” is done. To be doing two whole serials at once, I think would kill me. I don’t have a writers’ room — it’s just me banging away on the old word processor. But NBC has been very good about it. So my start date is rolling. And then when “Downton” finally is coming to an end, “The Gilded Age” will get going.

Have you ever been tempted to try the American model, and bring in a writers’ room?
To be honest, I’m rather intrigued by the idea. If they commission “Gilded Age,” I will write the first series myself, like “Downton.” And it will be 10 or 12 episodes, something like that. But if it gets another commission, then it will probably jump to 24 episodes or something. And I couldn’t do that. So then I will have to get a writers’ room organized. I’m not fighting it at all. I find it very interesting. I shall ask Matt Weiner to come out for dinner and talk about the whole method. Because one of the things I find so marvelous about “Mad Men” is the way he has maintained his own style. He has all these writers, they come and go, and yet the style of “Mad Men” is so distinctive. And it’s never weakened, it’s never been watered down. That takes tremendous talent and organizational ability from Matt, so I shall certainly be kneeling at his feet.

EmmyWrap: A Golden Year