Gareth Neame, the man who created Downton abbey, think we were wrong on the hit TV series. He insists that it was never intended as a fantasy land of aristocrats and servants.
“We wanted to say that these characters look a lot like you. They want to get married, start a family, pursue their career. Just like us, they have new technologies to struggle with. Mrs. Patmore [the cook] doesn’t like refrigerators in her kitchen because she sees something in them that will put someone out of work. In fact, he concedes, “the public, especially the American public, [watch the show] because it’s very exotic.
Neame, who relaxes in the living room of his home in Chiswick, west London, is one of Britain’s best-known theater producers, behind shows such as The ghosts, Babylone Hotel and The Lost Honor of Christopher Jefferies. Downton abbey – for which he proposed the premise and Julian Fellowes wrote the screenplay – was Britain’s main contribution to the so-called golden age of television.
The soap opera ends after its sixth series this year, but Neame is busy plundering Britain’s past for other shows including The last kingdom, a series on Alfred the Great, which will air later this year. As the head of Carnival Films, now part of US studio NBCUniversal, Neame’s job is to bring together ideas, writers and actors – and convince broadcasters that their stories need to be told.
It seems a little strange to argue Downton abbey, a drama that glorifies the English countryside, sitting in the suburbs of London. Until December, Neame lived mainly in a converted 17th century barn in East Kent, with 63 acres of land. He has sold this property and is looking for another location in the country. “I miss it a lot, especially at this time of year,” he says.
His house in Chiswick, on the edge of Bedford Park, a garden city built in the 1870s and 1880s and characterized by solid red brick construction and crisp white doors, was previously used only on weekdays. It is one of the few houses on the street that is not listed, so it was able to break through the ground floor to create a contemporary feel.
A narrow, polished kitchen – with a large fridge stocked with wine (Neame is a collector) – leads to a long living room stocked with books and artwork. A bronze by Salvador Dalí, “The surrealist angel” (“it’s not unique”, he almost apologizes), captures the attention. Neame shares the house with his partner, but given that he spends most evenings outside, he hardly feels inhabited. Even the huge TVs – one in the living room, one in a media room on the first floor – are underused: he says he now tends to binge on shows on his laptop.
Neame, 48, is fourth generation show business. In the living room, he browses rows of framed family photos and pulls out one of his great-grandmothers, the Daily Mirror’s first beauty queen, her portrait taken by his great-grandfather, a photographer.
Another image shows his father sitting on his grandfather’s lap, looking through a camera. His grandfather was Ronald Neame, a Hollywood filmmaker whose credits include the 1972 disaster film, The Poseidon adventure. Ronald’s son, Christopher, was a producer, who worked with Peter Sellers and Christopher Lee.
Neame’s own path in the industry was ordered: as a baby he appeared in the 1969 film The Premier of Miss Jean Brodie, run by his grandfather. But her late father believed advancements in technology meant there was no point in getting into the business. “It will all be over. Don’t do that, ”he warned his son.
In fact, the real threat was not technology, but reality TV. At the turn of the century, shows like Big Brother and Survivor dominated; Neame, who had worked his way up the BBC to become drama boss, felt on the sidelines. “I had just got a divorce and was sitting in my bachelor pad rather lonely. I watched an episode of Survivor, and I thought, ‘We can’t compete with that. . . The drama has had its day ”.
That has changed, he says, with The ghosts, the spy drama he commissioned at a time when it seemed like spies didn’t have much to do. Less than a month after filming, September 11 happened. “It was just amazing timing,” he says. The show “Modernized British TV Drama”.
We chat in the neatly tidy dining room, where a large photograph of an English beach hangs over a dark table. It faces a patio garden, where the only floral blossoms – sprigs of wisteria and roses – are intruders from neighboring gardens.
Neame speaks in a deep, nasal voice, much like Simon Cowell’s. Like Cowell, he knows his own mind. He asks the photographer to read the date of an old advertisement for one of his grandfather’s films. “1945”, she replies. “It must be later. I’ll get my glasses, ”he said, adding dubiously,“ I could be wrong. A few minutes later, he reluctantly concedes, “I think you might be right.” “
He discusses frankly Downton abbey. What was Lord Fellowes’ first reaction to the idea of an Edwardian soap opera? “Muted. Then I said ‘I think you could make a lot of money,’ then her expression changed a bit.
Neame distinguishes the show from costumed dramas, which he says tend to have only one script which “very often tries to find the codicil of a will or it’s a woman trying to find a husband” . Instead, he compares the show to West wing – a unique home and workplace, where life is centered on a key authority figure, but no one dominates.
Critics, one of whom ridiculed the series as “Brideshead Regurgitated,” say its writing is lackluster, its plot sloppy, and its aristocrats incredibly enlightened. However, unlike Lord Fellowes, Neame is not an apologist for the class system. “Overall this has been a pretty negative thing,” he says. “A lot of the problems we have in modern Britain come from the tribal society that existed. . . even 50 or 60 years ago.
Neame was one of many British television executives to quit the BBC taking advantage of new legislation in 2003 which helped independent producers. He was among the first to sell his company, Carnival Films, to a US studio, in his case NBCUniversal for an estimated £ 30million in 2008. The deal would have been even more lucrative if Neame had waited a few months. more until Downton abbey had been ordered. Did he sell too soon? “Yes,” he replies firmly. “I brought in £ 23million the year I sold and last year we made £ 90million.”
Despite his transition to the commercial world, Neame argues that the Conservative government should protect the BBC, whose funding and size are currently in jeopardy. “The reason we are above our weight, as the second largest exporter of television programming in the world, is firstly the English language and secondly the BBC,” he says. “The BBC is like what Hollywood is to American television. There is no one else about to fill their shoes.
While politicians are sometimes frustrated with the BBC’s managerial mini-dramas, Neame has an answer: “In my experience, all great organizations are dysfunctional.
On the other side of the Atlantic, the risk is not too little quality production, but too much. “The problem with the golden age is that you overdo it,” says Neame. “Every television station in America wants to commission a drama.” In a few years, “a lot of channels that buy drama may feel like it hasn’t worked for them,” he predicts.
The paradox is that with so many dramatic productions, audiences naturally turn to the few shows they know well, Downton among them.
Henry Mance is the media correspondent of the FT
Photographs: Victoria Birkinshaw