Downton Abbey: Series creator Julian Fellowes reveals how his own father inspired Lord Grantham – but that none of it would have happened without the real-life Countesses of Grantham



23:35 GMT, 7 September 2012

Over the last two rather extraordinary years, at the risk of sounding vain, I have often been asked why I thought Downton Abbey has been quite such a success.

Of course it is hard to be definite about these things. If television were an exact science, there would be nothing made that did not break records.

But supposing I were to put my finger on one element, it might be that we have made the decision to treat every character, the members of the family and the members of their staff, equally, in terms of their narrative strength.

The third series, set in 1920, sees the return of all the much loved characters in the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey

The third series, set in 1920, sees the return of all the much loved characters in the sumptuous setting of Downton Abbey

They all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions and disappointments and with all of them we suggest a back story. So these extracts from my niece Jessica Fellowes’s new book are an invitation to get to know the characters and their backgrounds more fully.

They will, I hope, build on that and allow the reader to develop his or her relationship with the figures in our landscape.

In a way, the decision to write the show at all came out of emotional, rather than historical, curiosity. When the television producer Gareth Neame made the original suggestion that we should together travel back into Gosford Park land, this time for television, I was initially undecided, but it so happened that I was reading a book, To Marry An English Lord, which was about the Buccaneers – those American heiresses who arrived in such numbers during the 1880s and 90s, to rescue many great houses in distress.

It occurred to me that while people had a mental image of beauties like Consuelo Vanderbilt or Cornelia Bradley-Martin stepping ashore into the (not always very willing) arms of a waiting nobleman, few bothered to think about those same women 20, 30, 40 years later, marooned in some freezing country house in the Midlands, with envious thoughts of sisters in comfortable, centrally heated cottages in Newport.

Most of them outlived the way of life they had arrived to save, dying in the 1950s and 60s, having devoted the years to a social and political system that the century finally rejected.

They all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions and disappointments and with all of them we suggest a back story

They all have emotional lives, dreams, ambitions and disappointments and with all of them we suggest a back story

How did they deal with that It is not surprising that such ruminations led to more thinking and more characters, until I had made the decision to take on the job and the series was born.

So, you could say Cora Grantham was the mother of Downton Abbey, which is no doubt just as it should be.

Few people shake off the family influences they were born into, and I am not among them. My relations, when I was young, were numerous and omnipresent and, inevitably I suppose, they seem now to abandon their graves and settle into the pages of my scripts with increasing regularity.

I have spoken before of my impressive if tyrannical great-aunt Isie who is the principal model for Violet Grantham, a woman whose dry wit concealed a good deal of personal suffering and who was no tougher on the rest of us than she was on herself.

It is perhaps that draconian sense of personal discipline that makes her breed seem admirable to me. But my family has contributed the outline sketches for more than the Dowager. Robert Grantham is definitely drawn, in his personality if not his circumstance, from my dear departed father.

In this, I mean to convey that he was a deeply moral man, cleverer possibly than Robert, who was always determined to do right, but without ever contesting the structure of his own social universe.

One of my brothers remarked that if Pa had crashed in the desert and somehow found a parking meter buried in the sand, he would be sure to put the correct money into it.

It was the maid of a cousin of my grandfather’s, an auxiliary great-aunt to us boys, who inspired O’Brien, one of my favourite characters. She had started out as a lady’s maid, but when the old world disintegrated, she graduated to companion and remained in this post until the death of her employer.

On the surface, she was as polite as a courtier, but she had a black heart, cold and manipulative, and gradually forced all her mistress’s family and friends away, until she ruled their Knightsbridge house alone. Yet my aunt never saw it.

Cora with daughters Edith and Sybil

Cora with daughters Edith and Sybil

As far as she was concerned, she had a faithful retainer who wanted nothing but her good, and she never made the connection with the absence of her family in the later years.

I was once told by a viewer that the only detail he didn’t recognise from the world of his youth was the devious lady’s maid. But the records show he was wrong.

As a breed, they were notorious for their complex and prickly nature, fraught with terrors about any possible challenge to their status. Siobhan Finneran, who plays her, gives a wonderful example of this type; hard, calculating and yet vulnerable when it comes to O’Brien’s own feelings. I love her.

And so their parentage continues. Thomas the footman descends from a dresser in my theatrical past. Isobel Crawley owes much to the wife of my godfather, a psychology professor. Carson is partly inspired by my dear friend Arthur Inch, a retired butler who was the principal adviser on Gosford Park, dead now, alas, but a really lovely man.

Mrs Hughes I have invented, but she represents what must surely have been the majority of servants who regarded service as just a job; servants who neither hated nor worshipped their employers, and who would meet the different future without either passion or regret.

Mary, I have been told, is modelled on my wife Emma, and they are quite similar physically, but I would suggest my indomitable mother plays a part in her, although she and Emma share the quality of shaping their own destiny, rather than abiding by the rules of others.

In fact, they all, I hope anyway, have some corresponding inspiration in the real world, which only goes to make the world of Downton Abbey more real. Certainly, it is pretty real to me, and I hope these extracts from our new book will make it even more real to you.

Julian Fellowes’s screenplay for Gosford Park won an Oscar in 2002.