When you work for yourself, as I do, you must engage in the rather unseemly (it seems) act of self-promotion. With no corporate PR hired to cheer my latest publication, or monthly salary paid out to alert a boss to my presence, I must keep reminding readers to read me and commissioning editors to hire me. There is, in short, no supper for me unless I have sung for it, with my busker’s hat beside me.
So when I was called last Friday afternoon by the jolly Anthea in the BBC TV Breakfast production office and asked if I’d be interested in taking a train to Salford, Manchester, staying overnight and appearing for approx three and a half minutes before taking the train back again (a six hour round trip), for no fee, I barely hesitated before saying ‘yes’.
But the truth is, the six hours and the overnight in a Holiday Inn (you know, really not bad at all) were hardly downsides. I practically enjoyed myself. Uninterrupted reading time on the train and a whole night in bed with no duvet-stealers, large or small, to break my sleep… yeah, kinda nice. But I also enjoyed the process of the filming itself. I’ve done a few TV things now, from a BBC4 panel show (‘Never Mind the Fullstops’, hosted by my uncle, Julian Fellowes) to those lunchtime magazine shows, and despite the fact that almost anybody can get on the tellybox, there’s still something of the futuristic excitement about it that captivates the 1970s kid in me. There’s still something amazing about knowing that you are appearing in the corner of someone’s sitting-room, even if it’s only your own. Plus, I really like the hair and make-up bit (breakfast hair and make-up girls are renowned in the industry for being the best, given that they have the hardest job to do, making people look normal at 6am in less than ten minutes).
It’s unusual to get asked to discuss Downton on the BBC, given that it’s an ITV show. (In a rather strange twist, the Brits watch Downton on commercial tv, ie interrupted by ads, and the Americans watch it on PBS, their nearest equivalent to the BBC in that it is partly funded by the government – though mostly funded through pledge drives – and therefore ad-free.) So they weren’t going to be talking about how lovely it all is – the ‘controversial’ line that my hosts took was that Downton Abbey was pandering to its American audience by introducing another American character – Harold, Cora’s playboy brother, to be played by Paul Giamatti in the final episode of the fourth series (broadcast in the UK on Christmas Day).
On the red sofa with me – we were being interviewed by Charlie Stayt and Louise Minchin – was Paul Allen, an arts critic. I imagine the idea was that we might disagree, but unfortunately for the producers, we didn’t. My line was that there was no pandering because Cora, the original American character as played by Elizabeth McGovern, was the genesis of the whole show.
In the very beginning, Julian and Gareth Neame (the executive producer) went out for supper to discuss another project that wasn’t achieving lift off. Gareth said to Julian that he thought he should revisit his Gosford Park territory for a TV show – early 20th century, big country house, ensemble cast, following characters both above stairs and below. Gosford Park was the movie directed by Robert Altman and scripted by Julian that won him an Oscar – it was, in other words, his major break into Hollywood and the film that changed his life forever. Julian said that to ask more of that territory was like asking lightening to strike twice in the same place, so he didn’t think he would do it.
But he went home and happened to be reading ‘To Marry An English Lord‘ by Carol Wallace and Gail MacColl (I’ve since become quite friendly with Carol and the book has been very successfully re-printed since the show began), which was all about the Buccaneers coming over to England in the 1890s and marrying into the aristocracy. He wondered what it would have been like to have been one of those women, leaving behind their friends, family and society in Wisconsin or Virginia or wherever, and find themselves in a freezing cold castle in Yorkshire some twenty years later. And so Cora was born, and the rest followed swiftly after…
There was no hard-headed thinking then about American audiences and what they would want. Shirley MacLaine was a brilliant injection into the show in the last series, and represented in just the right way how America felt to Britain in 1921. They were rich, vital, energetic and optimistic about the future. Sure, sometimes that felt brash, but it was a much-needed blast of fresh air in a country that was feeling depleted and bereaved after the war.
Paul Allen’s point was that casting an actor such as Paul Giamatti showed ingenuity in that he is a great character actor, not a classic leading man. He usually plays the geeky losers in cult movies, although in Sideways he was the geeky loser that got the girl, while the conventional handsome leading man turned out to be the bastard (poor Paul forgot we weren’t allowed to say that word on breakfast telly and got Charlie and Louise into a fluster of apologies to the viewers – it’s a pretty low-grade word that is clearly fine by 7pm. It’s probably fine by 1pm. I wonder if all the swear words have their own time slots on the BBC?).
Also, isn’t it usually the case that when we watch an American show we like it to be full of Americans? And Americans probably watch Brit shows for the same reasons? An anthropological study of another nation, which is identifiably cast with characters that bear strong resemblances to but do not in fact live real lives as we recognise in our own. So when someone from your own country appears, it never feels like a comfortable fit. I was never very keen on Emily in ‘Friends’, though I like the actress in other shows and was mad about Ross, Rachel et al. However, I ought to stress here that I think the US characters work very well in Downton, these being rather more beautifully and sensitively written parts – what I mean to say is that one wouldn’t generally go about trying to do it deliberately in order to satisfy another country’s set of fans.
Three minutes or so of that and – all over. Thanks for the memories! Which, unfortunately, are all I have, as the You Tube clip someone put up of it has been taken down again for reasons I do not know, and the BBC don’t put their breakfast show on iPlayer. But that’s probably as it should be – a passing moment in telly, not something to be revered in posterity. We’ll leave that to the box sets and deservedly so.
PS. Er. The link got put back up. So I’ll stand by what I said about the box sets but if you do want to watch it, you can see it HERE. *Oops*