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Emmys: Inside the Unexpected Body Count at Elegant ‘Downton Abbey’

Executive producer Gareth Neame on why he didn't mind the the deaths of Matthew and Sybil — and those new "Downton" clothing and furniture lines


A version of this story appears in theComedy/Drama issue of EmmyWrap

Shows like “Game of Thrones,” “Boardwalk Empire” and “Breaking Bad” killed off high-profile characters during this past season — but was any death as upsetting as the car accident that killed “Downton Abbey’s” Matthew Crawley as he sped home from the hospital moments after seeing his wife and newborn son?

The crash happened in the final moments of Season 3 for the British drama, putting an abrupt and tragic end to a season that had begun with the long-awaited marriage of Matthew to Lady Mary. Coming on the heels of the death of Mary’s sister Sybil after giving birth four episodes earlier, it gave “Downton” an unexpectedly high body count and infuriated more than a few fans.

Also watch video: ‘Downton Abbey’ Gets the ‘Sesame Street’ Treatment¬†

Executive producer Gareth Neame, a fourth-generation show-business figure whose grandfather Ronald directed “Downton” stars Maggie Smith in “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” and Shirley MacLaine in “Gambit,” brought the idea for the show to writer Julian Fellowes, and the two men oversee the drama that is now following both the aristocracy and the servants of an elegant (but troubled) British manor in the years just after World War I.

He spoke to TheWrap over lunch at the Soho House, a regular haunt (and unofficial office of sorts) when he’s in Los Angeles.

Well, you had an eventful Season 3.
I suppose it was pretty powerful if you think that we started with the TV wedding of the year, followed by one sister being jilted at the altar, followed by another sister dying in childbirth, followed by the hero who just got married at the beginning of the season being killed following the birth of his child. When you put it like that, this is a soap opera par excellence. 

Matthew’s death is a case where the departure of an actor, Dan Stevens, had a huge impact on the storyline for next season.
People have been saying, “How will you ever survive the demise of the Matthew Crawley character?” And I have no concerns about that whatsoever. We didn’t want to lose Matthew, obviously — but having lost him, the great thing about series television is that there are endless possibilities.

Shows are always having to work around actresses who are pregnant or people who are ill or an agent who has negotiated an out. Drama has endless possibilities, and the thing that looks like the worst that can happen, if you look at it in a completely different way, you suddenly realize that it’s the best thing that can happen to you.

Also read: Paul Giamatti Joins ‘Downton Abbey’ Season 4

This adds dramatic rocket fuel to the fourth season. There’s nothing better that could have happened than that twist. Mary Crawley’s story is far more interesting now, and the dynamics of the show are far more interesting, that she has to rebuild her life rather than she has to evict the tenant farmers or something. Which might have been the storyline otherwise.

But when you learned that Stevens wouldn’t be coming back, I’d imagine your first thought was not, “This is the greatest thing that could happen!”
Absolutely not. No, I was very surprised by his decision, actually, and we tried very hard to keep Dan. But he had just got his mind to a place that he wanted to move on, to capitalize on the plaudits he received being in “Downton.” I have not yet invented a legal way to force people to work for us once their contracts are up, unfortunately.

But why kill his character?
There wasn’t really any alternative other than a death. Because the audience was too invested in that couple to suggest that they could ever be estranged in any way. They would not have accepted that a couple whose marriage was so hard-won in the first place would just break up.

Was Sybil’s death also caused by Jessica Brown Findlay (above left) declining to re-sign with the show?
Yes. She wanted out. I was OK with that in the sense that that death gave us one of our best episodes. And the following week’s episode is also incredibly profound. It’s how the family deals with grief, and particularly how Robert and Cora [Hugh Bonneville and Elizabeth McGovern] are driven apart by the death of their daughter, and how by the end of that episode they’ve managed to get back together and grieve together. I felt that it was OK to lose Jessica for the dramatic strength that we would get.¬†

You brought the idea of “Downton Abbey” to Julian Fellowes, who came up with the characters and storylines. Was your idea of what the show would be similar to what it turned out to be?
Entirely. The idea of a drama, the time, the interplay between the upstairs and the downstairs, the very fast pace of the thing, the mixture of drama and comedy, the intertwined characters, the dynamic pace so to a modern audience it didn’t feel like something old-fashioned. Although it is set in the past, the storytelling is highly contemporary. And the idea, which I think is quite fresh, that while the world we depict is not democratic at all, the way the drama is depicted is very democratic. All of the characters are equal.

Given the show’s high profile in the U.K. and the U.S., are you now getting script notes from executives in two countries?
We don’t get any notes. The show wouldn’t work that way. Julian writes every script. It’s a huge workload, and there’s no way he could do it if he were getting notes from multiple sources. The only way it works is if he writes the scripts and gives them to me. I comment on each one, he responds to the notes, and we do it together, just the two of us and Liz Trubridge, our producing partner on the project. It’s a small, very reasonable team.

You’re now getting into merchandising, with “Downton Abbey” clothing and furniture lines.
Yeah, we’re developing products for the show, which is unusual in drama. Not that many dramas really lend themselves to products. But we’re hopeful that there will be a range of products eventually.

Do you worry about diluting the brand?
Every single product design comes to me for personal approval so we don’t bastardize the brand. We’re selective about what we do. Fastidious. But it is a show for Middle America, for Middle Britain. It’s not an opera or a Merchant Ivory film or something. It’s getting massive audiences around the world — and there is a market for people wanting to possess something of that identity.

We are a business, and personally I quite like elements of the business that bring revenue straight to the bottom line but don’t involve making a new show. [laughs]

Were you thinking of appealing to Middle America when you launched the show?
No. I was thinking of Middle Britain, and I was thinking of Anglophile America. I didn’t think we’d go any wider than that. I wasn’t expecting this extraordinary phenomenon, and we certainly didn’t design the show in any way to make it more American.

You came out of the gate and did extremely well your first year at the Emmys, winning six awards including Outstanding Miniseries or Movie. Did that surprise you?
We were surprised. “Mildred Pierce” was the big thing in that category, but when we got the screeners out to the Academy, people started saying we were the dark horse. And by the day of the Emmys, I thought, we really have a chance here. And then Maggie Smith won, Julian won for script, Brian Percival the director won, and I thought, “Well, if we won director and writer, we’re probably going to win [Outstanding Miniseries].”

And really, that first season got record audiences, but it was the momentum that built off the back of the Emmys that really helped with [home] entertainment and foreign sales. The money that we spent on the campaign, you earn the money back 100 times over because of the attention that awards bring. People say awards are a lot of backslapping nonsense, and obviously there’s a bit of that, but there is also a direct economic benefit that is unmistakable.

So how long can “Downton” keep going?
I don’t think it’s going to be a show that runs for 10 years. But we’re on year four now and in very healthy shape. Everyone keeps trying to pin me down for how long we’re going to run, and I say, “More than four and less than 10.”

I would rather that this is a show that ran for six years rather than eight years, if those six years in 20 years time were still being relicensed and people loved the show, rather than eke it out longer and have people get tired of it. I think so far we’ve got the timing of most things on the show right, but knowing when to go is hard.