Do-it-yourself approach reigns on 'Downton,' 'Upstairs,' 'Luther'
Though television is the most collaborative medium, it also offers a forum for individual talent — especially for writers of longform drama.
That judgment is borne out by some of the most acclaimed miniseries efforts of last season, including the PBS costume dramas “Downton Abbey” and “Upstairs Downstairs” and the detective miniseries “Luther” on BBC America. All three were conceived and written by a single scribe.
“I like authored pieces where you can really feel the creative hand of the writer,” says Rebecca Eaton, whose 25-year career as producer of what is now known as “Masterpiece” makes her an expert in the field. “Giving the writer breadth and depth makes for a satisfying piece. I can see how collaborative writing would work in other genres, like sitcoms certainly, but for miniseries I really like the idea of a single writer.”
Julian Fellowes, who won an Oscar for penning Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” and created the similarly Byzantine “Downton Abbey,” says he’s never used a partner professionally.
“I’m not saying I’ve never shared a credit,” he says, “but I’ve not sat down at a desk with someone at my side and said, ‘Let’s start the kitchen scene.’ I wouldn’t know how to do that.”
Yet he almost ceded writing credit for “Downton” — until he concluded that his original vision for the series was being compromised. He had suggested to his producer that two additional writers be engaged in the hope that if either panned out and the series was extended, his duties could be delegated.
“The producer said, ‘Suppose it’s not right,’ and I said, ‘Don’t worry,’ ” recalls Fellowes. “But for some reason — which I cannot to this day explain, because both writers were extremely talented — there was something in the rhythm they couldn’t get. And in the end, I completely rewrote them.”
Heidi Thomas, another scribe who favors working solo, faced an especially difficult task with “Upstairs Downstairs,” a reboot of one of the best-loved series in TV history. Though she herself had raised the idea of remounting the show, she knew she was standing on the shoulders of the original creators, two of whom — thesps Eileen Atkins and Jean Marsh — would be starring in the new series.
“In a word, it was harder to do this rather than something wholly original,” says Thomas, whose “Cranford” netted her an Emmy nom in 2008. “I always place a great burden of expectation on myself, and I knew that this time others were, too. The pressure is always greater when you’re not taking the world by surprise.”
Neil Cross, who wrote for the series known in the U.S. as “MI-5” before creating “Luther,” shares his colleagues’ conviction in flying solo when it comes to creating a series. But he suggests that the reasons for such an approach go beyond personal preference.
“I though it was very important to establish the world of John Luther,” Cross said, referring to the titular cop played by Idris Elba. “I call it ‘Luther Land,’ and I understand the logic. Luther does things no police officer in the real world could do. And I had to discover those boundaries by writing them.”
Ironically, the success of such shows can lead to the adoption of a different writing model later. And because all three of these series have been picked up for at least one more campaign, Fellowes, Thomas and Cross are readying themselves for that change.
“If you’ve got consistency of story, character and world, you’ve laid a grammar that other writers can intuit,” Cross says. “At a certain point, the originator will always run out of new ideas, so if you want a show with longevity, you need to hand it over, which can be done slowly and happily. In fact, I think that’s almost a perfect model.”
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