People We Love: Julian Fellowes

Simon Hemelryk / 23 May 2017

Julian Fellowes, the writer of Downton Abbey, The Young Victoria and Gosford Park, has moved on to musicals. The Wind in the Willows opens this month.

Why did The Wind in the Willows appeal to you?

It is an iconic book that doesn’t date because it’s about friendship, the most important emotion in all our lives. Most of us fall in love – more than once, as a rule – and get married. But beyond that, our lives are populated by mates, from our school years to our jobs. Films and novels almost never celebrate that, and I like the fact that Kenneth Grahame cornered this particular market.

Do you identify with any of the characters?

Toad, perhaps – particularly when I was younger. The show-off concealing a rather sensitive sense of self who’s anxious to feel he’s getting somewhere in life but has practically no evidence of it. I had great enthusiasms like him, too. If I went on holiday, I had to see every palace, church and gallery. Now, though, three books and a week in Mustique would be just great.

Which other books would make great musicals?

I would be terrified of answering that in print, in case someone else leapt at the idea. But, as a general rule, I think you have to look for things that have an uplifting ending. You want your audience to walk away with a chest full of emotion.

Which books wouldn’t work as a musical? 

I don’t know. I could say Wuthering Heights, or something. Not because I think it’s depressing. It’s my favourite book. But I think it’s complete, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t need to become a film, although they’ve tried it many times. It doesn’t need to become a TV series or a musical. It is what it is. A complete experience.

However, I can give you all that guff and next year someone might do a musical about it called The Yorkshire Moors, or something, and we’ll all go and it’ll be fabulous.

I don’t think there are absolutes. Always remember the old quotation: nobody knows anything. Every year someone does something that everyone swore could never be done, and away we go. How many times have we been told the film musical is dead and here we are bouncing down the aisles to La La Land.

You were primarily an actor until you won an Oscar for the screenplay of Gosford Park in 2002. Do you miss treading the boards?

I plugged along as a performer [Julian’s TV roles included Kilwillie in BBC One’s Monarch of the Glen] and it was the greatest fun. You’re part of a gang where you share extraordinary intimacies working together on set. Writing can be lonely. But I was just OK as an actor and, judging by my success, I think I’m better than OK as a writer.

Did you ever consider any other career?

Not really, but I might have made a good divorce lawyer because of my love of soap opera – particularly Coronation Street. All that emotional travail.

Are there any unexpected subjects you’d like to make into TV series?

No, I think my interests are all quite expected. Historical periods of great change, where customs and prejudices are being challenged, are great for drama – if not to live in. I’m intrigued by the French Revolution, but I see someone’s already doing something on that.

You are successful and have the inherited title Lord of the Manor of Tattershall. How do you feel about bankers and other wealthy people coming under so much fire recently?

In a capitalist society, different jobs fall to different people and there will always be a certain inequality. But I don’t see why various sectors of society should be encouraged to dislike each other. We should celebrate the positive.

As a patron of Age UK South West, do you feel that older people have an untapped role in society?

We don’t yet have the respect for their wisdom that other cultures have. It isn’t a question of being nice to them out of pity. The old are very interesting company. My great-aunt told me all about London before the First World War and what it was like to see the first car.

If families learnt to embrace older relatives, they would feel so rewarded that everything else, such as wanting to care for them, would fall into place.

What’s your next big project?

I really hope the Downton film happens. It’s still up in the air, but I think it must be reasonably likely because we know there’s such a big audience out there.

But I’m really centred on The Gilded Age [a US series focusing on the 19th-century New York upper classes] at the moment. It was announced that I was doing it some time ago, but I blush to say that I haven’t really got into it yet. It’s quite a bold thing, writing a series about another nationality. That’s probably enough to occupy my nervous anticipatory thoughts, for now.

The Wind in the Willows opens at the London Palladium on 29 June, with previews from 16 June. For discounted tickets, visit

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