Special Edition ‘Lunch’: Downton Abbey Dish with Gareth Neame

Diane Clehane and Gareth Neame

I was joined at my usual perch at Michael’s yesterday by Downton Abbey‘s executive producer Gareth Neame and Hope Dellon, executive editor at St. Martin’s Press whose new book, Behind the Scenes at Downton Abbey, is the “official” and definitive behind-the-scenes look at the wildly popular series. Unless you’ve been living under rock, you have undoubtedly heard that series creator Julian Fellowes writes every word of each episode that Downton addicts devour every season, but you may not know it was Gareth who is truly responsible for bringing the series to the small screen.

Having worked in British television for over two decades, Gareth was, as he writes in the book’s foreward in which he chronicles the backstory of the creation of the series, “familiar with maids, footmen and aristocrats and historic houses that serve as inspiration for drama.” He was also a fan of Gosford Park, the film that earned Fellowes an Academy Award. Gareth approached Fellowes with the idea to do a television series set in a grand house during the Edwardian era, focusing equally on the lives of the servants and the aristocrats, but, as Gareth told me, “Julian was resistant at first to do it. He didn’t think lightning would strike twice.” Still, Fellowes sent an email a few days later outlining all the major characters and the plot revolving around an inheritance issue with a distant cousin, a male heir (Matthew Crawley), who comes into the world of a family living in a great house staffed with servants. “We didn’t know whether it would work,” Gareth told me. “But everything was there on the page.”

What a difference a few years make. Since its January 2011 debut in the states, the show’s ratings have increased each season with Downton Abbey season three ranking as the highest-rated drama in PBS history. Last season, the show’s finale was the country’s most-watched show during its Sunday-night broadcast. “We’ve rebooted the quaint English period drama,” said Gareth. I’ll say. This week, the show’s cast, along with Gareth and Fellowes are in town making the rounds on television (Note to interviewers: it’s just plain dumb to call the actors by their characters’ names and stop asking about Dan Stevens’ departure already — it’s old news! ) and for several fan events. They’ve been greeted like rock stars everywhere they go. I can attest to this first-hand having attended a BAFTA event earlier this week, where the first 40 minutes of episode one of the new season was screened, followed by a panel discussion with the cast. Even though I arrived an hour early, I was lucky to find a seat on the very upper tier of the Hudson Theatre. Afterwards, the cast was mobbed by fans and I witnessed Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary) being surrounded by more security detail than President Obama. For the record, the entire cast was very game to sign autographs and pose for selfies with fans even though their handlers seemed less than thrilled by all the attention.

Suffice to say, faithful fans are eager for every morsel of information about Downton Abbey as we await the January 5 premiere of season four, and the new book delivers and then some. Dellon, a “fanatical fan” of the series was responsible for having St. Martin’s snap up the rights from HarperCollins UK for the first two books on the show, The World of Downton Abbey and The Chronicles of Downton Abbey, which went on to become New York Times best sellers as well as the latest tome. “I remember with the first book was not met with enthusiasm,” she told me. “They said, ‘It’s PBS’ and ‘TV tie-ins don’t work. My buyer asked, ‘What’s Downton Abbey?'”

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