Julian Fellowes: Lord and master of Downton Abbey

His Tory politics haven't always gone down well with the arts establishment. But as his latest drama reaches its finale, and with his friends running the country, Britain's proudest snob is having the last laugh

Tim Walker@timwalker
Saturday 06 November 2010 01:00
Julian Fellowes
Julian Fellowes

Before it was acceptable for Gary Barlow to join David Cameron on the campaign trail, or for Tracey Emin to cosy up to George Osborne, being a Tory in the arts world meant being thoroughly discreet about it, or being Phil Collins.

So, for some time, Julian Fellowes was made to plough a lonely furrow in a field full of posturing lefties.

"I experienced real prejudice because of my politics," the actor and writer, 61, has complained. Early in his career, he was fired from a television show because the Labour-supporting lead actor disapproved of his Conservatism. "I couldn't get an audition for the RSC or get into the National," he said, "even when a director asked for me."

Nowadays, Fellowes could probably have a young actor quietly removed from the set of Downton Abbey if their socialist leanings happened to irk him. His latest creation is ITV's most successful drama of the year, with a second series already commissioned, and nine million viewers hooked on Mr Bates the valet, and the scandal of Lady Mary and the dead young Turk in her bed. The above-and-below-stairs story of a stately home in the years before the Great War has been described in some quarters as "the best thing since Brideshead Revisited".

Yet Downton also has its detractors: those who suggest that double yellow lines and TV aerials really ought not to feature in a programme set in 1912; and those who believe they've spotted plotlines plagiarised from Little Women and Mrs Miniver. True to form, Fellowes has blamed the dissent on politics. "All we get is this permanent negative nitpicking from the left," he said last week. "You just want to say, 'relax'! It's a show that might not appeal to the left."

As more than one left-leaning newspaper pointed out, the accusations of plagiarism had, in fact, appeared in the letters pages of a right-leaning one. To this, Fellowes replied, "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."

Fellowes has transformed himself from a mildly recognisable television actor into an Oscar-winning screenwriter by a not dissimilar process: he became the go-to guy for film-makers wishing to illuminate the workings of the traditional English class system, a ladder with which he is intimately acquainted.

His own backstory reads much like that of one of his characters. Fellowes's illustrious ancestors include Rear Admiral Sir Thomas Fellowes, who served with Nelson. Born the youngest of four sons in August 1949 to Peregrine and Olwen Fellowes, Julian was brought up in South Kensington, East Sussex and Nigeria – where his father, a former diplomat, was posted by Shell.

Practising Catholics, the Felloweses sent their son to Ampleforth, where he planned to become a stockbroker. He might have become a Thatcherite yuppie were it not for the Cambridge Footlights, which he joined while studying English at Magdalene College. After leaving Cambridge, he went to the Webber Douglas drama school in London, from which he emerged, in 1973, into the £18-a-week existence of a jobbing young actor. At the same time, he was leading a double life as a London socialite courtesy of Peter Townend, Tatler's social editor. Fellowes had been singled out by Townend as a clubbable young man who'd fit in at upper-crust drinks parties. "I would be doing rep, sleeping in digs with leaking walls, then I would go off to a huge stately home and have them do my laundry at the weekend," Fellowes later explained.

The two halves of his life, however, were not complementary. During the 1970s, the British film and theatre world was filled with class warriors for whom a posh accent, a private school background, let alone a friendship group that frequently featured in Tatler, were unacceptable traits. Frustrated by his inability to secure work, Fellowes fled to America, but ended his brief sojourn in Hollywood when he caught himself waiting by the phone, on tenterhooks, to learn whether he'd been cast in a cameo on Fantasy Island. He returned to the UK determined to forge a respectable career as a character actor.

In 1989, Fellowes was approaching 40 and in the throes of an affair with a married woman when, at a party, he met Emma Kitchener, the great-great-niece of "Kitchener of Khartoum" and a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. Within 20 minutes, he claims, he'd informed her that they ought to be married. She, a six-foot brunette, wrote in her diary, "A funny little man asked me to marry him." Undeterred by rejection, Fellowes tracked Emma down at her mother's address and within 18 months they were wed. He even became Julian Kitchener-Fellowes, to preserve the family name when his wife's 91-year-old uncle, the third Earl Kitchener, dies. Less than a year after their wedding, their son Peregrine was born. As godmother, the couple chose Princess Michael, who told Tatler she thought Fellowes "the quickest, sharpest yet kindest wit in London, a cultivated, cultural snob".

Fellowes's most prominent screen part was as Earl Kilwillie in the BBC series Monarch of the Glen, and his subsequent acting roles rarely allowed him to stray too far from a posh and/or snobbish stereotype. Having subsisted for some time in the 1970s as a romantic fiction author under an assumed name, he returned to writing, and in the mid-1990s produced a pair of well-received children's scripts for the BBC, Little Lord Fauntleroy and The Prince and the Pauper.

A hindrance for much of his career, Fellowes's upper-class background became a boon when, in 2000, Robert Altman required a screenplay about the social workings of the interwar British aristocracy. Fellowes knew the territory, was offered the job and spent six months writing the first draft of Gosford Park. His first produced feature film script, it won him the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2002.

Writing offers flooded in after Gosford Park. Fellowes was hired for a film adaptation of Vanity Fair, and to write the book for a stage musical of Mary Poppins. In 2005, he made his directorial debut with the drama Separate Lies and, in 2009, wrote the script for The Young Victoria. It was produced by another grand Hollywood patron, Martin Scorsese.

He was drafted in to write zingers for Iain Duncan Smith's speeches, coining the notorious line about the "quiet man ... turning up the volume". And in 2004, Fellowes also became a bestselling author with Snobs, a comic novel about an arriviste clambering into the upper class. His wife, with her bluer blood, advised him on the finer points of ladies' fashion at Ascot.

Today, the couple divide their time between the 40-acre grounds of their Dorset manor house and a Chelsea pied-à-terre. Their weekend parties in Dorset are said to boast guest lists of high-born Europeans and Hollywood royalty. Fellowes remains a stickler: one is not permitted to wear jeans to lunch, and the couple once admitted to disdaining fellow diners with the temerity to tip their soup bowl towards them. Those who cross their host may suffer his temper: he barked at a theatregoer who coughed during a performance of Posh at the Royal Court.

As a decent Tory of the Big Society, Fellowes is active in his capacity as Lord of the Manor of Tattershall in Lincolnshire, a title he inherited from his father. He doesn't live there, but is supporting a local campaign to halt plans to build a large Tesco in the village. He's also a defender of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's decision to axe the Film Council. Fellowes remains a conservative with both a large and a small "C". These days, he can be proud of it in public.

A life in brief

Born: 17 August 1949, Cairo, Egypt.

Family: The youngest of four sons, born to Peregrine Fellowes, a diplomat, and Olwen. Married Emma Joy Kitchener, lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, in 1990. They live in Dorset with their son, Peregrine.

Education: Wetherby School and Ampleforth College in Yorkshire. Graduated in English from Cambridge before attending the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Career: A member of the Cambridge Footlights, he worked as an actor, finally getting his break in Monarch of the Glen. Won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for Gosford Park in 2001, and wrote screenplays for Vanity Fair and The Young Victoria. In 2004 he wrote a novel, Snobs, and made his directorial debut with the film Separate Lies in 2005.

He says: "I remember watching Loose Women and one of them saying, 'I hate posh people.' And I thought, you can't hate posh people; it's like saying you hate blondes."

They say: "He's the most humane of writers, I think. Lesser authors judge their characters. Julian doesn't." Hugh Bonneville, star of Downton Abbey

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