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(Soundbite of music)

GUY RAZ, host:

The Bible wasn't the only legacy King James left behind, at least in Britain. There was also the aristocratic legacy: a world of landowners and their servants, and a way of life that lasted right up until the First World War.

Screenwriter Julian Fellowes portrayed that world in the acclaimed film "Gosford Park." He's done it again, this time for television, in the British series "Downton Abbey." It premieres on PBS tonight.

It's the story of the aristocratic Crawley family, known as the noble Granthams. And it takes place in the two years before the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

Mr. JULIAN FELLOWES (Screenwriter, "Downton Abbey"): They're not colossally rich, like Sir Duke of Marlborough, the Duke of Roxburghe. That's not it. But they are senior earls. They are the earl and countess of Grantham, and they have three daughters.

They live in this house, which we chose quite deliberately. It's actually, in real life, a house called Highclere Castle, which is lived in by the earls of Carnarvon. But it's built as such a statement of aristocratic confidence.

You know, when you look at that house, nobody was scratching their head and worrying about their social position. This was a class that knew what it was there for. And we deliberately wanted that because the house, quite strongly, I think, is a character in the drama, really.

RAZ: Indeed. Yeah.

Mr. FELLOWES: They all sort of serve the house, in a way.

RAZ: Early on, we learn that the Crawleys are not fabulously - obviously, they're very wealthy, but there was a point before Robert Crawley, the earl, before he became the earl, he was in danger of losing Downton Abbey until he married his wife Cora, who is an American heiress. Were those kinds of marriages common at that time?

Mr. FELLOWES: Oh, enormously common. Because in Europe, to get an heiress, you basically need everyone else in the family to die, and then there's only one girl left, and she's a great heiress.

Well, naturally enough, that doesn't happen all that often. But the Americans don't believe in primogeniture, and they never have. And so when a man was enormously rich, he would make his daughters rich, as well as his sons.

RAZ: He would divide it up.

Mr. FELLOWES: He would divide it up. And so it meant that there were an enormous amount of American heiresses, as opposed to the European ones. And often, because they were very new money, they couldn't really get into society in New York or Cincinnati or Cleveland or whatever because the rules there would keep them out.

And so, the obvious thing to do was rather like in the novel by Edith Wharton, "A Custom of the Country," where Ms. Sprague comes over to England to get a title. And they would arrive, and their enormous fortunes would attract these elder sons of houses on the way down.

And, you know, in the end, something like 350 American heiresses came over between about 1880 and 1920 and married into the upper classes. You can't really imagine that now, can you?

RAZ: And that American heiress, Cora Crawley, is played brilliantly by the actress Elizabeth McGovern, and her mother-in-law, the matriarch of Downton Abbey, is the dowager countess. She is played by the amazing Maggie Smith.

And I don't want to give away too much of the plot because it is such an amazing series, but I am going to play a scene here, and in this one, the dowager countess reacts to news that a foreign visitor has died at Downton.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Downton Abbey")

Dame MAGGIE SMITH (Actor): (As Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham): I can't believe it. Last night he looked so well. Of course, it would happen to a foreigner. It's typical.

Ms. ELIZABETH McGOVERN (Actor): (As Cora, Countess of Grantham) Don't be ridiculous.

Dame MAGGIE SMITH: (As Violet) I'm not being ridiculous. No Englishman would dream of dying in someone else's house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: I wonder whether you wrote this part with Maggie Smith in mind.

Mr. FELLOWES: I can say without question I wrote it for Maggie. And actually, it's our third time at the rodeo because she and I were in - I mean, I wrote "Gosford Park," she was in it. And then she was in a film I wrote and directed called "From Time to Time."

And there is just something about the way she plays these characters that suits the way I write them, really, because I think both of us are capable of feeling, but we're both rather unsentimental. And she as an actress has a wonderful dry wit behind everything she does.

She doesn't plead with the audience to like her. She gives you her performance, and if you like her, that's your business.

RAZ: In the house, the head butler, Mr. Carson, who's played by actor Jim Carter," he shows us fierce loyalty to the Crawleys, to the point where he scolds the staff for gossiping about them.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Downton Abbey")

Mr. ROB JAMES-COLLIER (Actor): (As Thomas) She's a match for the old lady. She wasn't going to give in.

Mr. JIM CARTER (Actor): (As Mr. Carson) What old lady are you referring to, Thomas? You cannot mean Her Ladyship the Dowager Countess, not if you wish to remain in this house.

Mr. JAMES-COLLIER: (As Thomas) No, Mr. Carson.

Mr. FELLOWES: You know, there are two great crimes for a servant. One is theft, and one is disloyalty and not being trustworthy, because these people are living in your house, and of course, in a day when they were helping you to dress and even bathe, and they were present at every dinner and luncheon and so on, the capacity for disloyalty was enormous.

So I don't think that Carson's loyalty is something that puzzles them, but what puzzles them is his love. But of course, you know, he has no other family.

RAZ: How much research goes into re-creating this world?

Mr. FELLOWES: When I was growing up, you know, I had great aunts and things. I mean, my oldest great aunt, who is sort of the original for Violet Grantham, Maggie Smith's character, you know, she was born in 1880.

She was presented in 1898. She was married in about 1905, and she - I knew her. She only died when I was 21. I was very lucky because I got interested while that generation was still alive.

Even my parents, you know, my father had an aunt called Lady Sidnum(ph), who was a very frightening character. My mother was absolutely terrified of her.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELLOWES: And they used to stay, and she loathed women smoking. She thought it was the most ghastly thing. So she'd say to my mother: I hope you don't smoke, dear. And my mother, of course, would say: Oh, horrible habit. Certainly not. And of course she smoked like a chimney.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELLOWES: So she used to wait until everyone had gone to bed, and then she'd sneak up to the room of the head housemaid, who also smoked illegally, and they would puff away together, leaning out of the window. And this particular housemaid was a big film buff, and all her walls were decorated with the covers of Photoplay, you know, and Screen and those magazines.

And, you know, this is the lovely thing about being a writer because I was able to put that character into Gosford as Elsie, the film-mad head housemaid. And so, in a sense, you have this kind of squirrel's pouch of stuff you've heard during your life. And, you know, when you get given the right project, then you can bring it out.

RAZ: There will be - you've announced that there will be a second season of "Downton Abbey." What can we expect?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FELLOWES: Oh, I don't think I could tell you that, Guy. I mean, I think I can say without too much letting down or letting the game away that it will be in the First World War when it begins, because we finished as the war broke out.

And of course, we will see how Downton has to be useful to the war effort and play its part and the different attitudes of the people in the house and, you know, who gets called up and who enlists and this and that and the other. So I think we've got quite a lot to be going on with, as they say.

RAZ: That's Julian Fellowes. He's the writer and creator of the British period drama "Downton Abbey." It premieres on the PBS program "Masterpiece Classic" tonight. The series continues through January 30th.

Julian, thank you so much.

Mr. FELLOWES: Oh, thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

RAZ: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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