‘Downton Abbey’ Creator Julian Fellowes on Telling Period Stories About Modern Issues

The Downton Abbey panel at the Television Critics Association press tour was a raucous spectacle, with Shirley MacLaine, who will be playing Lady Cora’s American mother, telling raucous stories about Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville, who plays Lord Grantham, ripping open his dress shirt to reveal a “Free Bates” t-shirt, and Brendan Coyle declaring that in Downton personality tests, he comes up as a Lady Mary. But in the midst of all of it, Julian Fellowes, who created the show, offered one of the best explanations I’ve ever seen of how to explore modern concerns in a period framework without becoming thunderously obvious or inappropriate to the period. He said:

There are many subjects that we sort of range among with I don’t know whether it’s women’s rights or homosexuality or whatever, which you wouldn’t find in a novel written in 1906 or whatever. And so you have that freedom. But the discipline is to look at those subjects, but within the context of that period. So you must be careful to try and give people reasonable reactions and emotional responses that are right for their own time and not simply someone who’s been parachuted in from 2012. And that’s the other discipline, really.

I think that’s exactly right, and gets at what’s interesting about period stories. On something like sexual orientation, I understand the impulse to look to history and period stories to demonstrate that people who have been attracted to people of their same gender have always existed. But what’s fascinating about seeing, say, Thomas, live out his life as a gay man in Edwardian England is not, that people had same-sex sexual contact in Edwardian England, but the differences between how he thinks of himself and his sexual and romantic feelings for men or the way the Duke of Crowborough conceives of his relationship with Thomas as separate from his identity, and the way we understand sexual orientation today. It’s the spaces between then and now that are interesting, the distance we’ve traveled, and the understanding that we’ll change again.

In terms of what to expect from season three of Downton Abbey, Fellowes and the cast were very cagey. But the trailer screened before the panel suggested a number of things. The family will face the decimation of Cora’s fortune, something that will change the dynamic between Cora and Robert will change because, as Fellowes said “Cora is less afraid of the future than Robert is. She’s much less afraid of change. And now you’ll start to see more and more of that because she’s less afraid of expressing that.” Mr. Bates remains incarcerated. A rift has come between Thomas and O’Brien, who we see sniping at each other. Lady Sybil and Branson are back from their elopement, something Fellowes suggests may be linked to the Irish Troubles. Branson’s proclivity for causing trouble at dinner doesn’t appear to have abated, though he’s doing it from his seat among the company rather than while standing in as a footman, and his elevation has Carson twitchy. And dear, silly Matthew and Mary are fighting about something big, but that doesn’t seem to be stopping their drive to the altar, or at least for Matthew to insinuate he’s pretty excited to get in Lady Mary’s knickers. I had my quibbles with the melodrama of this last season, but this is a fun, fizzy combination of plots, and I’m looking forward to see how it plays out.