“Downton Abbey’s” creators say that more big-screen installments of the hit show could follow if the new movie, which premieres in London on Monday, proves successful.
“I don’t see why not,” writer Julian Fellowes told Variety in an interview ahead of the premiere of the Focus Features and Carnival Films movie, adding that the prospect of sequels “entirely depends on reception of this film.”
Producer Gareth Neame concurs. “I’m optimistic that, because it used to be such a water-cooler TV show, people will want to go and see the movie in theaters. Hopefully there will be an appetite to do more. It’s all down to how much the fans take to it. I think there is appetite from me and Julian [Fellowes] and, I’ve heard, from the cast.”
The producer of the series, Carnival Films, said a movie was a possibility back when the series ended in 2015. Then, when it was finally agreed, Neame had to get the huge ensemble cast on board for the feature. Fellowes, meanwhile, had to make a show comprising intertwined, season-long storylines work as a two-hour feature.
“Once I’d accepted the idea there was going to be a film, I was looking for an event of some sort that would involve everyone – the family, servants, people living locally,” Fellowes said. “You have a lot of choice, any numbers of disasters of epidemics or fires, but I was looking for something more happy, more positive than that but still something that would put everyone on their toes.”
Reading about a royal visit to northern England in the early 20th century proved illuminating. “I thought maybe that is the answer, because they used to take these tours of different counties and I thought that is something everyone would be excited by…and might be fun as a starting place,” Fellowes said. “The other narratives come away from that trunk.”
When, in 2009, Neame persuaded Fellowes to take the world of his country-house-murder film “Gosford Park” to TV, it was the writer’s first small-screen project. Its impact was immediate in the U.K., and then in the U.S. and internationally. It helped kickstart the revolution in high-end international TV, moving the business away from remakes and spurring the British government to create a generous tax break for premium-TV production.
“We were the first international show that truly broke through to become a mass hit in the U.S. and demonstrated the world we live in now, which is one where a hit can come from anywhere and a well-made show from Britain is as valuable as a well-made show that is shot in Atlanta,” Neame said.
He added that it “Downton” laid the groundwork for many series that followed, including Netflix’s smash hit “The Crown.” “I don’t think Netflix were going to spend the kind of money that they have spent on ‘The Crown,’ on a piece of British content, in the expectation it would travel everywhere around the world without the success of ‘Downton,'” Neame said. “It’s given people confidence.”
“Downton” is quintessentially British, and the film is launching at a moment when the nation is wrestling with Brexit and its identity. Tonally, the series featured some dark moments through its six seasons but overwhelmingly had a positive spirit, which is also true of the film and which might offer some respite from the increasingly bitter Brexit battles, Neame said.
“We didn’t know what the political landscape would be when we were making a film,” Neame said. “This is complete escapist joy. In a small way, it can be a mechanism that can bring people together and realize we have wonderful things to celebrate in this country.”
Having had a bigger budget to play with, Fellowes promises banquets, balls and military parades done on a filmic scale in the new feature. With the curtain about to rise on the movie, does he feel the weight of expectation from “Downton’s” big fan base?
“The reason there’s pressure on you is that the show is a big hit, and that’s what we all want. One can hardly complain when that’s what happens,” he said. “If that adds to the pressure, all well and good. Bring it on!”