How did the project come about?
"Ever since Gosford Park came out, I have been toying with returning to the territory for another look, and of course television offers a rewarding opportunity for further exploration, since there are none of the time constraints of a feature film. When Gareth Neame approached me with the idea of a series looking at the lives of servants and employers, I knew at once this was the opportunity I had been waiting for."
Who are the main characters?
"I never know how to answer this one. The main character may vary for every viewer. The family consists of the Earl of Grantham (Robert) and his wife, Cora, and their three daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil. There is also Robert's imperious and, to a certain extent, unmanageable mother, Violet, the Dowager Countess, and the young, more liberal cousin, Robert's heir, Matthew Crawley, and his mother, Isobel. Among the servants we have the butler, Carson, Robert's valet, Bates, the housekeeper, Mrs Hughes, the head housemaid, Anna, Cora's lady's maid, O'Brien, and the first footman, Thomas. These are the principals. But then again, there are other characters that the public may take a shine to."
Who's really in control of this household?
"The obvious answer is Robert Grantham, but of course that isn't the whole story. Robert and even Cora know little of what goes on in the servants' domain. Probably the figure of the greatest authority, with the most knowledge, is the butler, Carson. Then again, Mrs Hughes has more to do with the daily running of the house. The truth is Downton is a complicated community. The Crawleys, Earls of Grantham since the eighteenth century, have the privileges and responsibilities of a great family. They are part of Downton, Downton is part of them. But the servants also have their own agenda, with their different ambitions, different dreams, different rivalries, different jealousies. The main difference between these two groups is that the servants know so much about the secrets of the family, while the family knows so little of theirs."
On the surface this is quite similar to Gosford Park, although the latter is 20 years down the line. How much difference does 20 years make?
"Gosford was the original inspiration, but starting it in 1912 instead of 1932 does make a real difference. Although this way of life survived the First World War for the aristocracy, it was nevertheless under threat during the 1920s and '30s and, for most of them, never recovered its feet after the Second War. In 1912, as a way of life, it was essentially unchallenged. Few people who were young in the early years of the twentieth century had any idea that these values and customs had such a short time to live. It gives a slight sense of underlying irony that I think enriches the series as a viewing experience."
What dramatic possibilities does setting the show in the Edwardian time bring? Are there typical Edwardian values?
"I should point out that the Edwardian period had finished two years before we begin. It ended with the death of King Edward in 1910. But, even so, I think there were values, typical of the era, that we bring to the programme. Mostly, there was a kind of universal confidence in the British way, among all classes; confidence in the Empire, in the structure of society, in the benefits of our civilisation, that we would never, as a country, enjoy to the same extent again. The Edwardians were not full of doubt as we are. In fact, by and large, they had no doubt. As a people, that can make their decisions seem insensitive and even bullying at times. But there is something enviable about confidence, too. Both in a person and for a country."
One national newspaper has already described Downton Abbey as a "bodice-ripper". How do you feel about that? Are bodices likely to be ripped?
"This period was not a promiscuous one, long before the pill, when there was little reliable in the way of contraception, there were, considerable risks involved for any unmarried woman, of any class, were she to engage in an illicit relationship. They were unforgiving, these people, and a broken reputation usually resulted in a broken life. So the stakes were very high. All of which lends itself to drama."
How different is writing for TV as opposed to film?
"The great freedom of television is that you have the time and space to explore the characters, to develop them, to take them through different stories. I am enjoying that very much."
What other projects are you working on?
"I have a second draft going of a film about Callas, Onassis and Jackie Kennedy, and I am working on a pilot script about the Vanderbilts for Showtime."
Additional reporting by Nick Levine