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Julian Fellowes of 'Downton Abbey' says misery isn't 'compulsory' in entertainment

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

"Downton Abbey" is back again.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHN LUNN AND CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OF LONDON'S "KINEMA")

KELLY: Six years after "Downton Abbey" wrapped on TV, nearly three years after its first movie spin-off, now comes "Downton Abbey: A New Era." Here's executive producer Julian Fellowes, who created "Downton Abbey" and introduced the world to the Crawley family.

JULIAN FELLOWES: I tied it all up at the end of Series 5. I tied it all up at the end of Series 6. I tied it all up at the end of the first movie.

KELLY: So what else is left for Fellowes to tie up? Well, for one, the beginning of this new era for the Crawleys.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA")

HUGH BONNEVILLE: (As Robert Crawley) You steer ahead. You're the captain now.

KELLY: Also, a family mystery involving Violet Crawley, played by Dame Maggie Smith.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA")

MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet Crawley) Years ago, I met a man, and now I've come into the possession of a villa in the south of France.

MICHELLE DOCKERY: (As Mary Crowley) What?

KELLY: And Hollywood comes to Downton.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DOWNTON ABBEY: A NEW ERA")

JIM CARTER: (As Mr. Carson) A moving picture at Downton.

SOPHIE MCSHERA: (As Daisy Parker) Will there be film stars, famous ones?

KELLY: Julian Fellowes told me that for grand old estates like Downton, modernity can be challenging.

FELLOWES: These houses, these families where they survive - and many do survive to this day - they have to make adjustments. They have to learn to live in a different way. They have to let go of certain things and so on. And it's much harder for the older generations to let go of the older way of life than it is for the young. And I think that's reenacted in every generation of existence, that we all end up being told how to work our computers by our children.

KELLY: If we're lucky, yes.

FELLOWES: And that's the sort of different version of what they were going through, really.

KELLY: I read an interview you gave in which you said - and I'll quote - "if people watch a show I have written, have had a great evening and have enjoyed it, that's enough for me." Julian Fellowes, I read that, and I thought, gosh, it's amazing how unusual it is for someone just to say, look; I'm not trying to do something terrifically high-stakes or controversial or provocative. I want people to go to the movies and - gasp - have fun.

FELLOWES: Yes - cry a bit, laugh a bit. Sometimes you hope you've sort of provoked a reasonably interesting thought they'll consider later when they're, you know, sitting in the traffic, waiting for the light to change. I mean, I feel a strong part of the entertainment industry is to entertain. I'm not really trying to provoke the French Revolution. You know, I just like to make people think about things, maybe change their attitude.

You know, with a character like Thomas, the footman at the beginning, he's quite a bad boy. And then as the show goes on, hopefully you realize that it was very difficult to be gay at a time when it was illegal. And gradually, you come to understand his reserve. You know, if one crusty old colonel in the north finds himself feeling slightly more tolerant, then great.

KELLY: Since you raised him, Thomas Barrow, the footman who gets promoted to butler - he gets a prominent storyline. He is gay. That is something the series has explored. Without giving away any plot twists, we did say this is a happy movie. You're trying to give people some joy. And Barrow ends up OK. He ends up better than OK in this movie, which is wonderful. I did wonder, is it realistic, do you think, for that era nearly a century ago?

FELLOWES: I think it's realistic in that people have to find a way in which they can have the relationship that fulfills them. And, you know, women were allowed to live together without anyone really questioning it...

KELLY: Yeah.

FELLOWES: ...Rightly or wrongly. But that wasn't really allowed to men. They had to have a reason to be living together. And I think, you know, they find their reason. And I think that is believable, yes. And I think that quite a lot of that sort of thing went on in the days much later than this, actually, when it was still illegal.

KELLY: "Downton" has always been about the upstairs, the downstairs, the aristocrats and the servants who serve them. And you pursue all of their storylines with equal zest. I did wonder, watching this, how you think about making a movie that is - it's very much about privilege. It's about rich white people swanning around their fabulous houses and their fabulous clothes. And I wondered, does it feel different to make that now than it did a decade-plus ago when you were first casting "Downton"?

FELLOWES: No, not really. I mean, we're looking at a certain way of life. It involves some privileged people. It involves more unprivileged people. In my own head, among the servants, you get the different types. You get the ones who are resentful and unhappy like O'Brien. You get the ones who adore the family and worship them and see them as their soap opera like Carson. You get the ones for whom it was a job, who I am quite sure were in the vast majority, like Mrs. Hughes. And I think that's a fairly truthful reflection of that society.

I think in the end, you know, when you're going to make any film, any TV show and write a book, what you're trying to do is to tell a reasonably truthful story about a group of people. You know, I don't - I mean, this modern thing, present thing that nothing is valid that isn't about misery - I don't agree with that. I think misery is fine to investigate and to dramatize and all the rest of it, but I don't think it's compulsory.

KELLY: Is "Downton" going to go on forever? Are we going to be turning it into Lord Grantham's...

FELLOWES: Well...

KELLY: ...I don't know - great-great-great-great-grandkids running around the house?

FELLOWES: I'm not going to go on forever. So I think there would be a real difficulty getting "Downton" to go on forever. Whether it's come to an end or not, I couldn't tell you.

You know, I mean, one of the other things is that during the lifetime of "Downton," the whole nature of showbiz, of how you make films, of how they're released, the platforms - all of this is different from what it was 15 years - I mean, quite different. Now, of course, people complain about it one way. But I think it also is constantly throwing up new opportunities, new chances, new ways of doing things. And, you know, I like that. I think that's interesting. And I like being part of it. So if "Downton" is to be reborn in a different shape or size, then, you know, I hope I'm part of that.

KELLY: Well, may I say I hope you're not quite done yet because this was a lot of fun.

FELLOWES: Well, we'll see - none of us eternal.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OF LONDON'S "DOWNTON ABBEY - THE SUITE")

KELLY: That is "Downton" creator Julian Fellowes. Julian Fellowes, thank you.

FELLOWES: Thank you for having me. It was very nice of you.

KELLY: The new movie is "Downton Abbey: A New Era." It's out next week.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAMBER ORCHESTRA OF LONDON'S "DOWNTON ABBEY - THE SUITE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.