INTERVIEW: Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes tells us about ‘Doctor Thorne’
Hot off the heels of international sensation Downton Abbey coming to an end, the show’s ever flamboyant, ever erudite, and ever entertaining creator, Julian Fellowes, has penned another period piece for ITV which is sure to enchant fans of the prior show. Adapted from the 1858 Anthony Trollope novel of the same name, the new three-part drama starring Tom Hollander, Rebecca Front and Ian McShane is Doctor Thorne.
Doctor Thorne tells the story of Dr. Thomas Thorne (Hollander), who lives in the village of Greshamsbury with his beautiful young niece Mary (newcomer Stefanie Martini) – a girl of illegitimate pedigree and no fortune, who is therefore considered unworthy of marriage to the man she loves, the handsome young Frank Gresham (Harry Richardson). Meanwhile, the eminent Gresham family is in dire financial straits itself after years of the estate’s mismanagement, making matriarch Arabella Gresham (Front) determined to secure a wealthy marriage for her son.
We had the absolute pleasure of speaking with Julian Fellowes and the cast of Doctor Thorne about their delightful mini series over tea and biscuits at a London hotel. The first of three interview features, here’s what Fellowes had to tell us about Downton, wealth, access to education, and, of course, Doctor Thorne.
“Period drama has an apparently reassuring view of a society that seems calm compared to our own. In troubled times there is often a desire to go back to some mythical period in the past where everything was simpler” – Julian Fellowes
Photo by Tim O’Sullivan
Knowing that he’s been a big fan of Trollope’s work ever since his school days, I get our interview rolling by asking Julian how the project came about.
“Our producers Chris Kelly and Ted Chiles had the idea of doing Doctor Thorne for television. Wanting for a long time to remind people that we didn’t have to have the hundredth version of Pride and Prejudice, that there were other nineteenth century novelists out there, it just seemed a good idea”, Fellowes explains.
Having created the world of Downton Abbey from his own imagination, how did Julian find the process of adapting Doctor Thorne – following a story not only written by someone else, but one that’s also very dear to his heart?
“All adaptation is a process of filleting. You have to try and decide on the key scenes, and the moments everyone loves and remembers. Like chucking the dictionary out of the carriage as she drives away from school [Becky Sharp in the opening to Thackeray’s Vanity Fair]; you’ve just got to find which of those moments are in this particular book.
“On the whole, Trollope translates pretty naturally to a visual or dramatised version of his work, because he writes such believable dialogue. There are some nineteenth century novelists whose dialogue does not, let’s say, ‘bounce off the page’, but his does. Many of the scenes are really nine tenths Trollope and one tenth me. I think he is a natural for adaptation, and I hope the world agrees with me”, Julian gushes.
This of course leads me to ask him about the recent resurgence of English period drama, contributed to in large part by his Downton Abbey. Why does Julian think the genre has come back in such a huge way over the past decade or so?
“What period has is an apparently reassuring view of a society that seems quite calm compared to our own. You see in troubled times – and I think we’re living in reasonably troubled times – that there is often a desire to go back to some slightly mythical period in the past where everything was simpler … They believed in a kind of order that we don’t particularly believe in – they lived by rules that we have abandoned. The other thing of course is that you can enjoy an historical period, but you’re not living it! It looks charming, but you don’t have to get up at 5am and clean the grates. Or if you’re upstairs, you don’t have to change your clothes five times a day, and sit waiting for something to happen”, he says.
I want to know how the casting of Tom Hollander as the show’s titular hero came about. Did Julian have the Rev actor in mind during the writing process?
“I can’t remember when Tom first came up; it was while I was still writing it, I think. He did strike me as perfect, because it’s a difficult part. In a way, [he is] this sort of pillar of strength at the centre of proceedings, but everyone else is driving the narrative.
“[He’s] mainly responding all the time. And yet [he has] to be this figure of probity and authority, so that even Lady Arabella (Rebecca Front) is uncomfortable when she’s not on good terms with him; she tries to manoeuvre him back into the fold. For that to work, you need someone of great strength, because otherwise you just think ‘why would she bother with him? I don’t believe this’. Tom’s got that sort of authority, but also of course he’s very funny. So you have this light dusting of wit over everything. I think he’s marvellous in the role. Really marvellous”.
“God knows I’ve got nothing against gentlemen actors … But I like a broad spectrum, because I think you’ve got more chance of representing the society in which we live [that way]. I do think we have to look at that”
How about the newcomers? Was it nice to watch the young talent of Stefanie Martini and Harry Richardson, who play Mary Thorne and Frank Gresham, blossoming on set?
“Oh yes, I love that”, Fellowes coos. “I love the fact that they have no baggage, they come clean, and nobody thinks ‘oh, I thought she was better in Robin Hood’! All you know is that [Martini] is Mary Thorne – you don’t have any pre-knowledge. Once they become stars, you start going through their lives with them, but with new faces, you don’t have any of that. It’s completely fresh. And I like seeing the next generation – or rather three generations down(!) – get going.
“[Acting] is a tough profession, and it’s hard to get money for training. In the old days when I was at university, there was a system where everyone was allowed three years of [funded] further education, and you might go to somewhere like Cambridge as I did, or you might go to a drama school. They were both covered. So of course you had a much wider group of people applying. Now it’s much more complicated than that, and I think it is a pity.
“God knows I’ve got nothing against gentlemen actors – good luck to them all! But I like a broad spectrum, because I think you’ve got more chance of representing the society in which we live [that way]. I do think we have to look at that. But anyway, I liked it when the young kids at the end of Downton all shot off with great contracts to do series and movies and plays and God knows what. I think it’s great!” says Fellowes.
I had all that hassle about whether Edith was going to be happy at the end of Downton. One Tweet said “If Edith doesn’t have a happy ending, Julian Fellowes had better sleep with one eye open!”
Judging by the optimistic conclusion of Downton Abbey, Fellowes seems to be rather a fan of the happy ending. Does he agree, and can we expect similar from Doctor Thorne?
“I like happy endings, but I don’t have to have a happy ending. I’m thinking of Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Hardy – a society of which I am the President – for example. But I think an unhappy ending can be unfair when you’ve followed characters for a long time. It doesn’t mean that everything in the story has to be marvellous, and sad things can happen; sad things happen in this. But ultimately, I think audiences earn a happy ending.
“I had all that hassle about whether Edith was going to be happy at the end of Downton. God, I can’t tell you! There was one Tweet I rather liked, which said “If Edith doesn’t have a happy ending, Julian Fellowes had better sleep with one eye open”! Not that I of course was affected by that… But I knew what they meant. We’d gone for six years following this wretched woman being let down at every turn, and you just thought ‘give the girl a break’! I felt that as much as anyone else, really”, he laughs.
So back to Doctor Thorne; what elements of the story, written almost 160 years ago, does Julian believe will resonate with today’s audience?
“I think Trollope’s themes are very modern, actually”, explains Fellowes. “I wouldn’t quite say he has a jaundiced view of [nineteenth century] society, but he certainly has a very realistic one. He’s not in love with it in any way – not even in Dickens’s sort of evil glamour. Trollope’s very practical, and understands that what it comes down to is money – nobody makes a convincing aristocrat without any money! You find that strand in his books; this pragmatism that is underneath the vanity of the characters. They’re sort of hard knocks about life. [Trollope] understands that his own society was a cruel society.
“Nowadays we live in a tough world, and we have this strange, almost contradictory imperative; we love the rich, we want to be rich, but we hate them! That doesn’t really come together as a philosophy, but nevertheless, that is who we are. You also find that curious dichotomy in Trollope. He understands that money is the battery, the petrol of the whole thing. He’s very undecided about whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. In a way you sense that he would’ve approved of a more American society at that time, which was much more fluid than Britain, and would remain so.
“There is never a moment in this novel where it’s not clear that Thorne [a penniless doctor] is a better man than both Gresham and Scatcherd [wealthy estate owners]. Which of course in the Nineteenth Century was quite… not daring, exactly, but it wasn’t a Victorian view. Even Jane Austen doesn’t really challenge the social audience. She makes fun of people like Lady Catherine, but there’s never a moment where she questions whether or not it’s a good thing to end up at Mansfield Park. Whereas Trollope is much more ambivalent, and I think that is more modern”.
Stay tuned for our interviews with cast members Tom Hollander and Rebecca Front, who play the titular Doctor Thorne and Lady Arabella Gresham respectively.
ITV’s Doctor Thorne premieres at 9pm on Sunday, March 6th.