Fellowes denies plagiarism in 'Downton Abbey'

Viewers point out striking similarities between hit ITV drama and other books and films

By Matthew Bell
Saturday 22 October 2011 23:42
Hugh Bonneville as the earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey
Hugh Bonneville as the earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey

The screenwriter Julian Fellowes has denied suggestions of plagiarism and lashed out at critics of his hit ITV series Downton Abbey, expressing anger at what he believes is "a permanent negative slant" in the press.

He has denied consciously lifting plotlines from other writers after viewers pointed out that scenes in last Sunday's episode bore similarities to the novel Little Women and the 1942 film Mrs Miniver. One described it as "the finest example of coincidence I have ever heard and seen".

When asked about the apparent similarities, Fellowes accused this newspaper of being part of a left-wing conspiracy against him. But it was in the letters pages of The Daily Telegraph that questions were first raised about the freshness of some of Downton Abbey's plotlines.

On Thursday, Christina Jarvis from Essex wrote to say she had been "slack-jawed" as she watched "the flower-show contretemps" in last week's episode, saying "precisely the same situation appeared in the film Mrs Miniver", which she had seen the previous week.

Prompted by Ms Jarvis's letter, another viewer, John Alcock from Staffordshire, then wrote to say the scene in which salt was sprinkled on a pudding instead of sugar was "an apparent crib from an event in Little Women, or was that, too, a coincidence?" Speaking to this newspaper, Fellowes admitted he had read Little Women and seen Mrs Miniver, but not for many years. He conceded the similarities were striking, but said: "Who can say what is lodged in one's brain? I am not conscious of lifting either, but it doesn't mean [the viewers] are wrong."

Fellowes apologised if he "seemed rather weary", but explained he had grown "depressed" by the criticism of Downton Abbey, even though it has fared so well in the ratings that ITV has already commissioned a second series. "All we get is this permanent negative nit-picking from the left," he said. "You just want to say relax! It's a show that might not appeal to the left. I mean, why is it that it's The Independent on Sunday ringing me up about this? There are plenty of shows on television I don't like but I don't go on about them."

When it was pointed out that he has received criticism for alleged historical inaccuracies in the TV production from several sources including the Daily Mail, he conceded it was not a question of politics. "You're quite right to pick me up on that," he said, "it's perfectly true." He went on to express bewilderment at a column by the parodist Craig Brown last week, in which he derided Fellowes's interest in the etiquette of whether to tip a soup bowl forwards or backwards and described Fellowes as seeming "almost laughably socially insecure".

Fellowes had defended Downton Abbey from accusations it is riddled with historical inaccuracies by saying: "The real problem is with people who are insecure socially. They think to show how smart they are by picking holes in the programme to promote their own poshness and to show that their knowledge is greater."

Speaking of Brown, Fellowes said: "I just don't understand it. He based his entire attack on an interview with my wife from years ago. I just can't imagine writing a whole column attacking someone like that. I find it quite depressing. I would understand it if I was a health risk, but what have I done wrong?" Asked if the criticism had put him off making the next series, he said: "I'm just producing a drama series. It's what I do."

The plot thickens

Downton Abbey

The Countess of Grantham (Maggie Smith) is to announce the winner of the annual flower show. Like every year, the judges have chosen her. But, stung by a suggestion by Mrs Reginald Crawley (Penelope Wilton) that she wins due to her status, she names Bill Molesley, whose roses are widely considered better, as the winner.

Mrs Miniver

Lady Beldon is secretly informed she has won the annual flower show. But her middle-class neighbour, Kay, persuades her that the judges chose her because of her status. So, she announces Ballard, the village stationmaster, as the winner. His rose is widely considered the best.

Downton Abbey

Cora has a recipe for a pudding that she'd like to give to Sir Anthony. Mrs Patmore is offended when Cora offers to read it to her and makes it herself. When the pudding is served, Sir Anthony splutters in disgust. Mrs Patmore has covered it with salt instead of sugar. Mrs Patmore later confesses she thinks she's going blind.

Little Women

In chapter 11, Jo offers to make lunch. She is hurt by Meg's comment that she can only make two types of pudding. After every course goes wrong in some way, she is relieved to reach the final course when she serves strawberries and cream, a safe dish. But she tips salt on instead of sugar.

Matthew Bell

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