A version of this story on “Downton Abbey” first appeared in the print edition of TheWrap Magazine’s The Race Begins Emmy Issue.
It lasted for six seasons and spanned almost 20 years, from the sinking of the Titanic to the first murmurs of a new menace rising in Germany. It garnered 58 Emmy nominations in its first five seasons, winning 12 times and setting a record as the most-honored foreign show ever. It gave Maggie Smith dozens of quotable lines, made stars out of little-known British actors and gave its creator, writer Julian Fellowes, a calling card even more impressive than the Oscar he won for Gosford Park.
And now “Downton Abbey” is over, although the hint of what seems to be an all-but-inevitable movie hangs over everyone involved in the series. “This was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of a job,” actress Lesley Nicol, who played the cook Mrs. Patmore, told TheWrap. “Hopefully we’ll all have many more exciting jobs to do, but something like ‘Downton’ won’t come around again.”
Nicol said she knew the show about the family and servants on a British estate in the early decades of the 20th century was a phenomenon when she was on a farm in rural China, and the farmer turned to her interpreter and said, “Is that the lady from ‘Downton Abbey’?”
Her co-star Joanne Froggatt, Emmy-nominated three times for playing the long-suffering lady’s maid Anna, told TheWrap that it hit home for her during an awkward exchange in the changing room of a German hotel she was staying in while working on a different project: “I was doing my makeup in the mirror and this lady behind me said, ‘Oh my goodness, you’re in ‘Downton Abbey!'” she said, laughing. “She was very naked, and very vigorously drying herself in an intimate area, and I just didn’t know where to look.”
The two actresses have different views on the ending of the show. “People like Phyllis [Logan] and I are of an older generation,” said Nicol, 62. “I try not to buy into this, but the feeling is that there is less work for [actresses] our age. So part of it is, it’s a nice job, it’s a wonderful cast, it’s a great crew, I’m not really happy to let it go.”
“For me, I felt it was the right time to finish,” said Froggatt, 35. “I was very sad to finish, but I do feel it was the right time, and I was keen to do other things. But I also loved every minute of doing ‘Downton.’ It was a bittersweet thing, and it is kind of strange now.”
After six seasons of births, deaths, betrayals, scheming, upper-class intrigue, occasional love and frequent heartbreak, Fellowes said it was time to give his large cast of characters, and the fans who followed them since 2010, a measure of peace and satisfaction. “We’d made them cry enough in our time,” he told TheWrap. “We’d had drama and death and sobbing. In the end, it was right to let them get on with their lives.”
Before writing the final episodes, Fellowes watched the end of series he loved, like “Mad Men” and “The West Wing,” and realized something fundamental about saying goodbye. “With the last episode, you’re not writing to attract new viewers anymore,” he said. “That’s a group you’re always thinking about when you write the show, but not at the very end. You’re writing for the people who have supported you and followed you over the years. They’re the ones you want to serve, and I felt that most of them wanted happy endings. And so they got ‘em.”
Her final day of filming, Nicol remembered, “felt like the last day at school. We were a bit giddy, a bit silly, people were running around giving each other presents. And there might have been a bit of alcohol involved.” After the final scene, she said, actor Jim Carter said a few words, then spotted a pair of crew members in the corner sobbing. “A bit of weeping went on,” she said.
(Fellowes admitted it was similar after the final scene, a night shoot at the Ritz in London. “It was a bit boo-hoo, really,” he said.)
Since the end of “Downton,” Froggatt has starred in “Dark Angel,” a British miniseries that will air on PBS next year, and then a film she can’t talk about yet. Nicol is about to start on a movie and an American television series. Fellowes has just landed a Tony nomination for Broadway’s “School of Rock–The Musical,” and will now begin working on “The Gilded Age,” an NBC series about New York City in the 1880s, when a post-Civil War influx of new money threatened the city’s entrenched upper class.
“I suppose it does feel like life after ‘Downton’ now,” said Froggatt. “We had a funny time for a few months after we wrapped, when we would not normally be doing ‘Downton.’ So that was kind of normal. But then it becomes January, when we would normally be going back…”
She paused. “Thinking back, at the end I was crying but I felt so elated. I felt such a sense of achievement, like we’d been a part of something special.”
And as for the chances of continuing that something special on the big screen, both actresses said they expect it to happen — as does Fellowes, who said, “I feel reasonably confident that there will be a movie.”
So is he thinking about a story that’ll come after his series’ happy ending? “Well, I obviously have given it some thought,” he admitted with a grin. “But beyond that, I think we’re getting into the territory of ‘That’s for me to know and you to find out.'”
See the full interview below:
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