Putting to rest months of speculation, the “Downton Abbey” team finally confirmed that the sixth season of the popular drama will be the last. Creator and executive producer Julian Fellowes, executive producer Gareth Neame, PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger and “Masterpiece” executive producer Rebecca Eaton spoke to Variety about what’s next for the franchise.
• On a potential movie and spinoff:
While much has been rumored, all involved say it’s just an idea, and there are no firm plans. “I can’t guarantee it’s even going to happen,” says Neame. “Julian and I would be very happy to do it if that opportunity comes along. Now that we’re at the beginning of the end of the TV show, we can start to think about it.”
For his part, Fellowes laughed at the notion. “It sounds rather an intriguing idea,” he chuckled. “I hope it comes off! I don’t know anything more than you do about it.”
As for any potential spinoffs, the team at PBS say they’re always talking about it, but there are no plans. “When you have a hit, why wouldn’t you?” said Eaton. “Do you do ‘The Bateses’? Do you follow Tom to the States? There are as many potential spinoffs as there are characters. None of them are in fact in the works. Nothing is even in the proposal stages.”
• On how much the decision was related to Fellowes’ deal for NBC’s upcoming “The Gilded Age”
Fellowes and Neame both say it wasn’t related at all, “Other than the fact he’s always said he can’t write two shows at the same time,” said Neame. “Who can blame him? Most people think it’s pretty amazing he can write one show on his own. But there’s no way ‘Gilded Age’ could happen while ‘Downton’ is on the air.”
Fellowes and Neame both say NBC was willing to wait for “Downton” to finish its run, even if there had been a seventh season of “Downton.”
“NBC Universal was incredibly generous to me,” said Fellowes. “I didn’t have to commit to a time, which I think is extraordinarily nice of them. Obviously, now that time has come, so I’ll be getting on with it. I wasn’t arm-twisted at all.”
• On the actors wanting to move on:
“I think the actors are ready to move on, particularly the young ones,” said Fellowes. “They’re all famous now, which they weren’t when we started. They have such interesting opportunities coming to them.”
But Neame said this wasn’t a matter of not being able to renew any of the cast’s contracts. “It’s not that we tried to keep going with the show and couldn’t contract the actors,” he said.
He also dismissed recent reports about Maggie Smith wanting to leave the show. “She said something like, I don’t know how much longer the show can go on because in story terms my character must be 108,” he said. “And that was interpreted as ‘I’m not doing it any longer.’ People have been speculating about Maggie Smith leaving the show since halfway through season 1.”
• On why this was the right time to end:
The general consensus was they all wanted to go out on top. “We all want to go out on a peak as opposed to waiting for it to tail off,” said Fellowes. “That would be very sad.”
PBS and “Masterpiece” said the decision was Fellowes’. “Any great novelist recognizes when he or she is ready for his final chapter,” said Kerger. “He doesn’t have a team of writers. He lives and breathes every character. It’s his vision of what the story should be and needs to be. We’ve always felt that while we would love for the story to continue, if he felt that’s what he needed to do, he needed to be the one to make the decision.”
Added Neame, “We could have easily done a season 7 or 8. We couldn’t have necessarily guaranteed we could keep the stories as strong. Our feeling was get out earlier than we needed to, so that we could make the final season as strong as the first season.”
• On what’s in store for the series finale:
The EPs all dodged any narrative questions, but allowed that as has become tradition, the series will end with a “Christmas episode,” which airs on Christmas Day in the U.K.
Fellowes has just begun writing the final season, so he wouldn’t say whether the show will end with a cliffhanger. “It might be nice to end with one or two unanswered questions, in a way,” he said. “I really haven’t made that decision.”
• On what they’ll take from the set:
“Maybe I’ll put those bells up in my house and see if anyone answers when I ring them,” said Neame. “I’d like someone to bring me my tea in bed.”
Fellowes has his eye on the library — the whole library from Highclere Castle, where “Downton Abbey” is filmed. “It’s one of the great rooms in England,” he said. “But I think Highclere might miss it.”