The Rules of Etiquette with Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes portrays the manners of past eras in projects including Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age.

Some men are misters, others are just guys. Julian Fellowes is a lord. He is also an actor, a novelist, a producer, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (best original screenplay for Robert Altman’s Gosford Park in 2002) and the epitome of old-fashioned British high society. Above all, as the creator of hit TV period shows Downton Abbey and The Gilded Age, Fellowes is the go-to person to talk about what “etiquette” really means.

Most of Fellowes’s writing career has been devoted to dissecting the lifestyle of the rich and entitled, as well as those employed to serve them. A conservative peer in the House of Lords since 2011, Fellowes steered clear of politics throughout our conversation, while happily engaging in social commentary and sharing his opinions on the contemporary world.

CLÉMENTINE GOLDSZAL You like to write complex characters and seem to have a kinship for the ones that might be categorized as “bad people.” Do you apply the same generosity of spirit to your personal life?

JULIAN FELLOWES I hope so. My main failing as a human being is that I have a very short temper. I lose it too much, and being aware of it doesn’t mean you can control it. If my wife was here, she would no doubt echo that. She is very good-tempered and very seldom loses hers. I admire her restraint, but I cannot emulate it.

CG Is anger necessarily bad-mannered?

JF I don’t necessarily think getting angry is bad-mannered. What is, is making other people feel uncomfortable. The point of etiquette and of most good manners is or should be about helping people feel at their ease even if they’re slightly out of their comfort zone. There is a very famous story of when King Edward VII was entertaining a foreign guest. When the fruit course came, the guest picked up the finger bowl and drank out of it, and the legend goes that when someone laughed, the king picked up his and drank, too. That, for me, is the essence of good manners. That’s what they’re about: making people have a nice time.

julian fellowes

CG We are doing this interview via Zoom, and I would love to hear more about your own Zoom etiquette.

JF I once was asked, in the very early days of Zoom, to contribute to a program on PBS, which has been a marvelous partner for Downton Abbey. I watched the edited film later and there I was sitting in a sort of open-neck shirt, looking as if I’d just come in from gardening! It felt so disrespectful to this company that had served me very well, and I thought of how much I’d misrepresented myself in this program. I showed myself as someone casual, when, in fact, the contribution of this company was so important to me. So, now, when I have a Zoom call coming up, I dress and present myself as I would in an in-person interview. When I was a little boy, I had a milk bottle on the table once, and my mother said, “It starts with a milk bottle on the table, and pretty soon there’s chaos.” I never forgot that.

CG Did you get your sense of etiquette from your upbringing?

JF I suppose so. One thing that was quite an influence on me is that I got interested in the history of my family when I was very young. Many of my great aunts were still alive then. My oldest great-aunt was born in 1880. She was presented in 1898, married before World War I. She only died when I was 21. That gave me a real curiosity about how things were done in the past. I once opened a kitchen drawer, and there were a lot of teaspoons. I asked, “Why are they all different shapes?” And she said, “Because they’re not teaspoons!” She then came behind me and said: “This is an egg spoon. This is a melon spoon,” etc. At that moment, I caught a glimmer of this world of rules, etiquette and formality, much of which had been swept away by the war, but that had left all this debris. I would be staying with my parents in someone’s country house, and you would be walking through empty stables and old kitchens, and you had this sense that you’d just missed this life. That never really left me. I became labeled as the go-to guy for period drama, but because I had all this going on in my childhood, the people of the past were very real to me. I saw them as real people, and I think that did influence my writing.

CG What was your relationship with TV growing up?

JF My parents, although quite traditional, were also unusual in their own way. One of these ways is they were very interested in films from quite early on. It was a ritual: we were all encouraged to go with them and discuss the film we’d all seen afterward. And then television appeared. They got it because a play written by some friend of theirs was being televised. Then the Queen was being crowned three weeks later, and my mother said, “Let’s keep it for the coronation!” Of course, they never let it go again. So, although I’m obviously aware of the snobbery about television, it became more obvious when I joined the industry. When I went to drama school and started studying acting, the posh thing to do was theater. Being a film star was sort of acceptable, but TV was very much a second banana. I was faced with this neo class system in the industry, which had its own reality.

"The point of etiquette and of most good manners is or should be about helping people feel at their ease even if they’re slightly out of their comfort zone." Julian Fellowes

CG You are a very stylish writer. What can you say about style in screenwriting?

JF You have to find a style that works for you. What I’m striving for is a kind of adult entertainment. I want it to be entertaining, usually quite funny, but funny coming out of reality. And essentially, I want what I write to be about recognizable adult issues. I hope that when young people watch my stuff, they get a sense that life is sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always complicated. I always felt as a sort of outsider observing the world going on around me, be it the world of theater, or the London season, or life in the country. I’m always amused by each period taking up new causes and each time people proclaiming them as if they thought of them. I know, having lived through seven or eight quite distinct periods, that they are just put into them, and that they will adopt these new prejudices and passionate feelings and will sit down on crossroads and glue themselves to railway lines simply because they’ve been told to. I find that both funny and sad. That’s my standpoint as a writer.

CG In your work about other eras, you never use the past to comment on the present. Is it an active decision?

JF I hope that I manage to convey the different values and beliefs of a different time, but also the common elements that run through and just have to do with being a human being. What I’d rather shy away from is judging people in the past by our own standards and finding us to be morally superior to our ancestors. I think, on the whole, most societies have good and bad bits, and I hope that I allow people to get a kind of understanding of the reality of being in a different time than our own. Sometimes I try to show the limitations of a particular society, but I do it as they would. Because, of course, they were critical of contemporary prejudices!

CG You have an extensive experience of Hollywood. And of aristocracy. Do you see fame as a new aristocracy?

JF I think the whole business of making these human gods and goddesses is as old as times. So, I think the star system is a reworking of a very old tradition. As America coalesced in the period right after the Civil War known as the Gilded Age, the great hostesses of palaces of Fifth Avenue were made into stars. But when filmdom came along, suddenly there were all these legends and true stories of waitresses who were suddenly worshiped in Hollywood, and that created a sort of accessible royalty, a royalty to which, unlike previous royalty, you could dream of belonging. That made it vivid, in a way. Of course, stardom is a cruel royalty because it’s not indefinite. When you’re a successful monarch, you’re respected lifelong. That’s not the fate of most Hollywood stars, so I think you have to be philosophical if you’re a star in order get the most out of it. If you’ve had the chance to make your mark and have your moment, you’re the lucky one. Nothing can take that away from you. I feel it’s important to remember that. I, for instance, have been very lucky: I’ve had opening nights on Broadway and hits and Oscars and everything else. They’re wonderful and enjoyable moments, and you’re allowed to feel that you’ve done something with your life, which is all most of us crave.

This feature was originally published in issue 12 of Mastermind – buy it here.

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