According to Gareth Neame, the issues for the World War I-era drama about about the aristocratic British Crawley family and its household staff begin at home.
Talking to Zap2it over afternoon tea at the exclusive Soho House in West Hollywood, Calif., Neame says, “To be really honest with you, the show is so successful, and we don’t like success in Britain. Everyone loved the show, then when it got really successful, the commentators thought it got too popular, too mainstream, ‘It’s too successful.'”
Asked why the British press likes to tear down things that do well, Neame says, “Funnily enough, it stems from the very class system that we address on the show. The legacy of the class system is very, very destructive. It makes people feel that, whatever their lot is, is what they were born to. It’s a culture of dependence, at times.
“It’s a most peculiar British phenomenon.”
It may even be a point of pride for for some in the U.K. media to be seen to disagree with something the public loves.
“Certainly,” says Neame “it is not good to be popular. If you’re popular, you must be appealing to the masses and therefore downmarket.”
The attitude may also be connected to the show’s writer, Julian Fellowes (far right below, with Neame and “Masterpiece” head Rebecca Eaton), who is a Conservative member of the House of Lords (because he is Baron Fellowes of West Stafford) and a Roman Catholic.
“There’s probably a political agenda as well,” says Neame. “It’s very unusual that our writer is a public figure. He’s a right-wing politician and a Catholic. I don’t think anyone’s got it in for him for [his religion], but being a conservative in our business is unusual.”
The criticism hasn’t just come from the press.
Back in January, in front of the assembled Television Critics Association, “The Borgias” and “Brideshead Revisited” star Jeremy Irons caused a bit of kerfuffle when, during a press conference on PBS’ “Shakespeare Uncovered,” he said that production could show audiences “that actually television doesn’t end with ‘Downton Abbey.’ If you think that’s good, then watch the Shakespeare productions. You’ll see what real writing, what real stories, what real characters are about.”
Trying to dig himself out of the hole, Irons actually went deeper, drawing an analogy that “A Ford Fiesta will get you there and give you a good time. But actually, an Aston Martin …”
Irons then admitted he had never seen “Downton,” but in a subsequent conversation with Zap2it, he responded to a suggestion that he should go on the show by saying, “I’d like to be a burglar, a gentleman thief.”
“Some of these English actors,” says Neame, “are saying this because they’re not in the show. ‘I’m the “Brideshead” guy, and how dare you say this is the new “Brideshead,” so I can criticize it …’ I don’t care.”
While there’s no word of Irons breaking into the Abbey anytime soon, there will be a major element missing when the show returns for its fourth season in January on PBS.
Dan Stevens opted to not return to his role as Crawley cousin and heir Matthew Crawley. In the third-season finale, he perished in an auto accident while heading to the side of wife Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who was giving birth to their first child (who is now, one supposes, the Crawley heir).
“It’s a funny thing,” says Neame, “that happens with something like this, because once you’ve accepted that you’re not going to retain a character, it seems like the worst thing that could happen on the show. If you spin it a different way, and you look at it from a different point of view, it becomes the best thing that can happen to you.
“It becomes so revolutionary. Now, I can tell you that the fourth season of the show will be more dynamic for him not being in it than it would be if he were there. Now, I’m not saying that we didn’t want him, but it’s actually opened up a massive amount of story.”
Of course, despite the insistent romantic demands of soap opera — which, despite the manor house and fancy dress, is what “Downton Abbey” is at its core — one would think a decent amount of time has to pass before Mary can have a new entanglement.
“There’s two things,” says Neame. “There’s how long before she wants to get back in the saddle, so to speak, but that doesn’t stop other people being interested in her.”
Last season, “Downton” cast Shirley MacLaine as Mary Crawley’s American grandmother, but Neame hasn’t pursued other big stars from across the pond.
“It worked to have a very big star in Shirley,” he says, “but we couldn’t do that all the time, because it would detract. It wouldn’t feel right.”
But Neame knows of more than one notable American who’s a fan of the show.
“I met Newt Gingrich,” he says of the GOP politician and author. “He’s a massive ‘Downton’ fan. He speaks about it all the time. He wants to know everything about the show. He’s obsessed with it. But I didn’t give him any scoops.”
“Abbey” also has a fan in a man better known for Rambaldi spheres, mysterious islands and, on the big screen, the Starship Enterprise.
“I’d be interested in seeing J.J. Abrams [involved],” says Neame. “He spoke of his love of the show. Maybe we could ask him to direct a couple of episodes. Spaceship arrives at the castle; aliens come out.
“Those are good experiences. Normally, as a producer, you’re trying to get anyone interested in your show. Then something comes along like this where you don’t have to work too hard to get people excited about it.”