BBC TV Breakfast discusses Downton Abbey

BBC Breakfast

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).

me in gym

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*


9 thoughts on “BBC TV Breakfast discusses Downton Abbey

  1. I’m glad I saw the youTube clip before the BBC took it down (is my guess, as they have a whole department watching for copyright infringement and since Google bought it, youTube has got very watchful too – I’ve been questioned a couple of times about my right to post this or that film).

    It was a very intelligent discussion, unusual enough for BBC Breakfast, and whatever I might be supposed to think, I am intrigued by the lasting interest in Downton Abbey. It’s a soap, after all, but with the qualities that distinguish that paradigm of great soap opera, Coronation Street i.e. real characters, a brilliant mix of drama and comedy, splendid lines and one-liners (for Maggie Smith mainly) and plots that really compel you to watch the next episode – thank God for the Record facility I have at last got now I have a place in Dublin and have cable TV!!

    And at the centre of the clip, my gorgeous daughter! What more could a man ask?!!

  2. You are as interesting and hilarious as usual here. I forward your Now and Thens to Downton friends and my step mother and her English best friend are come to one of your teas very soon (did I do my bit?).

    I hope you are cultivating your own writing and that we might look forward to some fictional work from you.

    In the meantime, with your appearance, wit, and interesting conversation, I don’t see why you wouldn’t be invited to host your own tv show in England or the U.S. I’m sure you’d be more fun and conversational than most of the ones I’ve seen (and tuned out). But then, that’s a bit more of a schedule than you might want . . . .

    So funny about the swear words time slots . . .

    Appropo of nothing you’ve said, here’s my random comment about something that bugs me: why do Americans, including PBS commentators and the Masterpiece host, Laura Linney (sp?) refuse to pronounce the “t” in Downton. Can’t they hear themselves?

    • Donna – too many things to thank you for here so here’s one giant THANK YOU! I haven’t heard the missing ‘t’ in Downton – the one that makes me laugh is Downtown Abbey, especially when P Diddy says it…Have you seen his video pledge to join the cast? Absolutely hilarious.
      Hope you keep enjoying the blog!

  3. As usual, love the post and I too was able to see the entire piece before it was taken down. Totally enjoyable and I’m mildly ashamed to say that I had to watch it again to figure out the forbidden word. Years ago, you wouldn’t think of hearing the word “bastard” on American television but now there are not many words that surprise us anymore. Your comments, as those of Paul’s, were insightful and, well…just fun.

    The truth is, nowadays, when you watch American television, a good number of the actors are likely to be British, Australian, Canadian, and Irish. And they all do very good (translation: indistinguishable) American accents. In fact, I live in Nashville and the new American television series by the same name that supposedly takes place in Nashville, Tennessee (the South, where we have a dialect all our own) is populated by Australian and British actors whom the locals believe to be our own!

    I certainly don’t watch Downton (and I always pronounce the “t” and hadn’t really thought about it…) for American connections or ties. I agree that the inclusion of Shirley MacLaine caused a stir but I thought it well handled and moved the story along effectively. American television, if anything, panders to obtain the greatest number of viewers and loses the story. I’ve not felt that way about Downton. I’m so looking forward to season four and although it will not arrive here until the Sunday evening after New Year’s, I do appreciate PBS carrying it commercial free. I can honestly say (no pandering here either…) that our very favorite televisions shows are the British movies and series, both drama and comedy that are shown on PBS.

    So glad for you experience, both for you and for us. So glad for your respite and your adventure. Kind thanks for all of your posts. Always lovely hearing from you.

    Best always, Terry

    • Terry – thank you so much. A kind and generous posting, as always. You make a good point about Brit actors in American shows. We rarely, if ever, have American actors portraying English people (I can only think of Gwyneth Paltrow doing it) but the Brits are always muscling in on the US movies and tv shows! All the very best, Jessica

      • Lovely to hear from you. Just a general curiosity…what was the general feeling about Renee Zellweger playing Bridget Jones in the films? I heard before the release that the British sensibilities were offended but didn’t hear the consensus as to the actual performance.

      • Thanks Terry. With regard to Renee Zellweger, as far as I remember, most people were pretty impressed by her performance. There was a degree of incredulity that a Hollywood star had managed to pass herself off as an intern in a publishing house (which she allegedly did for her research) – she was supposed to have nearly given herself away by sending her car out for an amazing cake when she was asked to buy a birthday treat for someone in the office…! I thought she got the accent brilliantly but was slightly irritated by her Bridget being quite so inept. I imagine all the British actresses thought they could have done the part just as well if not better, but we all have to acknowledge the need for a big star for any movie to get funding and distribution. Still – it makes the point, there aren’t as many US actors hogging Brit films as the other way around, are there?

  4. Fascinating! I had not heard any of these stories. Thanks for sharing. I must confess that I had not read the books but also was frustrated at her ineptness. In fact, it made her hard to be as loveable as I think she’s supposed to be and I wondered if it was faithful to the books. Cheers!

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