When a TV series enters its fourth year you might expect its executive producer to step back from the production but if anything, says Gareth Neame, he’s more hands on with Downton Abbey than ever.
The normal thing would be for me to delegate the script editing side of things - the whole job of supporting Julian and the script writing. We haven’t done that. In fact if anything we’ve realised that it’s actually quicker, more streamlined and betters the process if we don’t involve other people and that he and I continue to work on all the scripts directly.
The only other places Neame and Fellowes go for input are to their partner Liz Trubridge and the individual director on that episode.
We are certainly open to the directors’ thoughts because they’ve got to execute it. But having said that, it’s still Julian sending the script to me and me writing up my notes on the script and him acting on those notes. TV is always best when you get behind a writer and an idea and give that writer his or her space to really do what they want to do.
Some things, he says, have become easier over three series - during which time Downton has been screened in 220 territories to an estimated global audience of over 120 million people.
You’ve got that great cast and you know which characters work, you know which locations you use, you learn so much about the making of the show and yes, I delegate the making of the show entirely to Liz and the team, to all the brilliant crew. What’s more challenging is how to keep the ideas going, how to keep the quality control up there, how to ensure it’s as good as ever - or better? That said I think that Julian is writing, and the actors and directors are delivering, really deliciously made individual stories that are moving, funny and heartfelt.
Both Neame and Fellowes have stated several times that they did not wish Dan Stevens, who played Matthew Crawley to leave the series. Yet his departure has, Neame says, opened up new opportunities.
In drama sometimes what seems like the absolute worst thing that could happen can be a great opportunity, if you spin it 180 degrees the other way and look at it again. Now the upshot is that the predicament Mary Crawley is in for the fourth series is far more dramatically powerful and interesting than if Matthew was still alive. It will engage audiences more than their ongoing relationship would have done.
Downton’s global success has brought with it a queue of famous names all asking whether they could have a cameo, from actors to global superstars to rappers and politicians.
It’s quite fun to hear about - in a show like this you have to be really careful about putting in cameos like that. We’re doing it with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa because the storyline is about a world-famous celebrity opera singer coming just for one stand-alone episode to sing at a house party. So it makes sense to cast a world-famous opera singer so that the audience view that character in the same way that the other characters in the show would. There’s a nice little connection there. You can do it for a cameo like that but otherwise you have got to be careful.
There have been many parodies and skits of Downton from both A-list stars like P Diddy and US presenters like Jimmy Fallon to normal fans of the show, which the cast and executives alike enjoy.
It’s flattering that people like the show so much they put serious time and effort into parodying it to such great effect.
One name has stood out, however: that of the Republican 2012 Presidential nominee Newt Gingrich.
Not that he wants to be in the show, but I do enjoy reading all the Newt Gingrich comments about what a fan he is and why he thinks it’s so good - it’s all very funny.
Yet it’s not the celebrity fans or the ratings that makes Neame most proud of his and Fellowes’ creation. It’s the esteemed company that Downton Abbey keeps these days, and what it’s done for British television drama.
I am proud of the fact that a British show made primarily for a UK market can, within a couple of years of inception be on an awards list alongside Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Homeland, Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire, probably the five biggest, most respected American shows of this time. We are on the same platform as them and that’s not happened before. It just shows that the right drama can really cross boundaries and borders.
Downton Abbey starts Sunday 22 September at 9pm on ITV