For He's A Jolly Good Fellowes

Director, screenwriter, actor - listen to a podcast with Downton Abbey supremo Julian Fellowes at Cinemagic

Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes is an extremely prolific person. He manages to combine the roles of actor, film director, novelist and, of course, writer of screenplays for film and television with a genuine and active patronage of many good causes. These range from being the chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People appeal for Talking Books (a charity recently seen to be in some difficulty due to government culture cuts) through to Moviola, a body pledged to assist rural cinema screenings in the West Country.

Fellowes – soon to be entering the House of Lords – was in Belfast for two days this November as part of the 20th Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for young people. There he facilitated a one-day practical workshop on screenplay writing, and when I spoke with him it was evident that the support and furtherance of the aims of Cinemagic are dear to his heart.

Fellowes has been in the headlines recently as the writer of the highly successful ITV drama series Downton Abbey, and when I remind him that some commentators have described him as 'the saviour of ITV', he laughs and counters, 'Me and Simon Cowell!'

Having written for television for many years, Fellowes was aware that there would be no guarantee of success for Downton Abbey before it screened, and modestly claims that where it scored with critics and the viewing public alike was in the fact that it is an original production, not a classic adaptation. 'No-one had read the book, no-one knew what the ending would be.'

He is also quick to point out that part of the series’ success is due to the cast. Fellowes even modified the roles once they had been cast, and further modified them while writing final episodes after the first few had been filmed. 'When something proves to have legs, you let it run.' It's clear that he saw the task of writing the newly commissioned second series of Downton as both a pleasure and a heavy responsibility. And yet, 'one does what one is asked to do', he says with a smile and a shrug.

And what else has he been asked to do? Ulster audiences will be intrigued to hear of his next project, a four-part drama series about passengers onboard the Titanic. Fellowes is tight-lipped about the project, but lets slip that is to be screened in 2012 for the centenary of the sinking of the (in)famous ship. Further details are not forthcoming. 'Early days yet.'

Another Them vs Us period piece it may be, but Fellowes is equally content writing in the now. He has written the original script (and is co-credited for the screenplay) for the contemporary thriller The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, which opens in the UK before Christmas 2010.

Fellowes seems unfazed by some of the recent criticism of his writing by 'grittier' and more political writers such as Jimmy McGovern, pointing out, a propos of his style and that of others, that there is a 'wealth of talent working in the UK film and television industries at the moment. We are all different and individual and that is all to the good'.

He doesn’t wish to be drawn into too much of a discussion on the politics of film and culture, but is very aware of being labelled a Tory Toff in some quarters (he is, after all, the Lord of the Manor of Tattershall in Lincolnshire). But Fellowes is at pains to point out that although he will be sitting on the Tory benches in the Upper House, he, like his fellow Tory new Lord, Michael Grade, will be much more interested in speaking for the arts, culture and media rather than toeing the Tory party line.

However, he has a higher opinion of what the current culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, is trying to do than many others in arts quarters these days, especially after Hunt’s abrupt axing of the UK Film Council. Fellowes is realistic. 'I understand what a difficult job he has to do, but I think the results, however painful, will be worth it in the long run.'

Clearly Fellowes understands much more about the business and differing issues around modern culture than his seeming obsession with class and the past (he won an Oscar for his Gosford Park screenplay) might suggest. In times of recession, it's good to know that a champion for the arts has infiltrated the highest corridors of power. Listen to the podcast above for the full interview.

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