Julian Fellowes: I was sorry as everyone else to kill off Matthew and Sybil

The Downton Abbey writer said he had no option but to write the dramatic demise of key characters

The creator of Downton Abbey has defended his decision to kill off two major characters in the last series saying he “didn’t have any option” because the actors decided to leave. 

Last night the Christmas special that shockingly saw the death of Matthew Crawley hours after the birth of his baby daughter was broadcast on PBS in America.

In an interview with the New York Times blogs Julian Fellowes explained the motivation for the deaths of Matthew, played by Dan Stevens, and Jessica Brown Findlay’s character Lady Sybil, who died in childbirth in series three.

“With members of the family, once they’re not prepared to come back for any episodes at all, then it means death. How believable would it be that Matthew never wanted to see the baby, never wanted to see his wife? And was never seen again at the estate that he was the heir to? So we didn’t have any option, really. I was as sorry as everyone else.”

Fellowes said he tried to persuade both actors to stay, suggesting they appeared in just two or three episodes of series four. “But they both felt they wanted to make a clean break.”

The writer and former actor said it was easier when “an actor playing a servant wants to leave” as he can just give them a job elsewhere.

He had hoped to have created a whole episode premised upon Matthew’s death at the beginning of series four, as he did with Sybil’s. “But [Dan] didn’t want to do that,” he said. So the scene where he is killed in a car crash after visiting his wife and new baby at the hospital was tacked onto the end of the episode screened last night in America and on Christmas Day in Britain.

“I had hoped we could have ended the Christmas episode on a happy note – the baby, everything lovely. And then kill him in the first episode of the next series. But he didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want his death to dominate the Christmas special, so that’s why we killed him at the very, very end.”

Instead the beginning of the next series will be set six months after Matthew’s death. “We don’t have to do funerals and all that stuff. That’s all in the past by then,” Fellowes said, adding that the focus of the next series will be on rebuilding the life of Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery) in a period of history that sees women’s roles change drastically.

The writer said he hadn’t yet started writing the series nicknamed “American Downton” provisionally titled The Gilded Age and wouldn’t be able to until Downton finishes. He said: “There are many hurdles that have to be cleared. You have to write the pilot, they have to decide they’re going to make it, they have to decide whether they want to pick it up. So it’s a line of ditches that lies between me and the series. But if it goes, and if I’m doing a series at NBC, I would not be able to write all of Downton and all of that series at the same time.”