Creatively Bringing Histories to Life for Stage and Screen

Interview with Lord Julian Fellowes in Singapore when “Downton Abbey the exhibition” was launched at Marina Bay Sands. By Ken Hickson for The Avenue for Creative Arts

Creatively Bringing Histories to Life for Stage and Screen

Will Julian Fellowes ever weave his own fascinating Asian past into a screenplay?

A secret past with a naughty foreign connection? Yes, there was one or two in Downton Abbey, but this one is from the real-life history of the creator of what’s regarded as one of the world’s most popular television series ever.

Yes, Lord Julian Fellowes revealed to me a little of his distant Asian family history.

Admitting that he’d never been to Singapore, or anywhere in Asia for that matter, he then let it slip, quite deliberately, I might add: “I certainly want to go to India, as I have a past to unravel there”.

Tell me more?

It all started a long time ago – in the 1790s – when a very British gentleman called Fellowes was in India and developed a liking for local girl. She became his mistress and a baby appeared a few months later.

According to the latter-day Lord, the baby – not sure about the mother – was bundled off to England and became very much part of the aristocratic family.

When photographs were inspected over the years, the very “English Rose” members of the family did wonder about the distinguishing features of “a dark lady” and her subsequent offspring. As was the practice in those days, it was put down to perhaps a little Latin influence – Italian or Spanish perhaps? – not unlike Shakespeare’s “dark lady of the sonnets”, who was in all likelihood a real person of Italian extraction.

It must be tempting for such a creative mind as his, to find a way to weave such a fascinating first-hand family history into one of his dramas.

Maybe he will, for despite of his massive current workload and past play-full portfolio, he has never yet ventured to include Asia or Asians in his episodes. There was mention – an appearance in fact – of a very British Ambassador to India. But that was about it.

There are, of course, some other very good reasons for Lord Fellowes to delve into Asia, and India in particular.

His wife, whom he joined in holy matrimony on 28 April 1990, was Emma Joy Kitchener, born 1963, a Lady-in-Waiting to HRH Princess Michael of Kent and also a great-grandniece of Herbert, 1st Earl Kitchener.

So significant was his wife’s maiden name, that on 15 October 1998 it was officially arranged to change the surname from Fellowes to Kitchener-Fellowes.

A little bit more relevant history: The very same Lord Kitchener was of course appointed Commander-in-Chief of India in 1902 and immediately began the task of reorganising the Indian Army. He had an illustrious and at times turbulent military career, serving in Africa and Egypt. He was also the face – they say – of the memorable “your country needs you” poster in the war years.

We could go on, as there’s so much more to the life and times of Julian Fellowes (as he insists to be called) and his distinguished career and family.

Wikipedia might be able to sum this up in a few lines: “Julian Alexander Kitchener-Fellowes, Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, DL (born 17 August 1949) is an English actor, novelist, film director and screenwriter, and a Conservative peer of the House of Lords.”

But we must try to concentrate on more recent prodigious products of this man of letters and secrets. Even though it’s hard to know where to start (or finish) with someone as versatile, creative, multi-talented and aristocratic as Lord Julian Fellowes?

When in Singapore for the launch of the “Downtown Abbey, the exhibition”, at Marina Bay Sands, it’s only right and proper we should be discussing that, but he’s as eager as anything to talk about all the other things he’s working on – or seeing the fruits of his labours- on the West End stage or on the screen.

He turned down the chance to hob nob with the elite while in Singapore for the annual Queen’s Birthday party at Eden Hall, still the historically significant residence of the British envoy here, as he had to be back in London to see some of his “creations” on the stage.

Four productions, which he had quite a lot to do with, are all concurrently doing time on the West End or some other stage in the UK.

There’s “School of Rock, the musical” which he worked on with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Then comes “Half a Sixpence”, which he helped revive to very positive reviews. And if that’s not enough, there’s the timeless “Wind in the Willows”, which he helped turn into a musical.

If you’re lucky, you might still find the musical adaptation of the ever-popular “Mary Poppins” popping up somewhere at a theatre near you, with a Fellowes credit or two.

On the subject of Downtown Abbey, which is still wildly appreciated and acclaimed on both sides of the Atlantic and in many other places in the world.

To be precise, it’s been seen in 220 countries and territories.

Singapore embraced it – and broadcast episodic repeats a few times – so that was one very good reason why the exhibition started its world tour here. It is certainly a wonderful way to bring television viewers into a very life-like studio/museum experience.

People around the world are still able to catch various episodes of Downton – there are 47 in total, plus five specials,  in the mammoth mix. Then there’s the relatively minor movie matter – what comes next?

Besides taking the wonderful museum-class exhibition on tour – Sydney, New York, Shanghai?  – there’s also the much-vaunted movie to visit the cinema screen.

Yes, he and the producers from NBC Universal International Studios and Carnival Films – all in Singapore for the exhibition lunch –  did confirm that there will be “Downton Abbey, the movie” and work is expected to start on it next year.

The six cast members who visited Singapore for the Marina Bay Sands Oscar-style Red Carpet treatment, were just as curious – even intrigued – about the movie plans, along with the inquisitive Singapore media.

Of course, cast members are all hoping that their own special Downton character will be written into the movie, which is expected to pick up where the sixth television series left-off – around 1926.

But it must be noted, as it was by the screenwriter Fellowes, that many of the cast have been very gainfully employed since getting worldwide attention from the TV series exposure, so they might have to be written out of the movie if they aren’t available when shooting commences.

Yes, he has written a Downton movie screen-play of sorts, but that’s expected to evolve more once the production team sits down to talk it through.

There were many questions to be asked and answered. And he was more than happy talk on, well over the appointed half hour.

As he’s never been to Singapore before, he certainly wanted to make the most of it. He was trying to see something other than the hotel and the vast Marina Bay Sands complex, so he did check out at least some of the “Colonial quarter”.

He was pleasantly surprised to see ample evidence of the British influence in the buildings and streets, still named after a Monarchs past and present, like the Victoria Concert Hall and Queen Elizabeth Walk.

He certainly wants to explore more of Singapore and Asia, as he can knows there’s so much more to see and appreciate. And he’s been agreeably surprised over the years, by the massive global fan base that Downton has garnered, even in China!

There so much more we could write about, but it’s best to just encourage you to see the exhibition, see all the episodes of Downton Abbey – and even if you have already, watch the repeats – it’s just as enthralling the second or third time around.

We can also recommend links to other interviews and reports on this special person, who we believe will be recognised – one day, if not already – as the most illustrious and prolific creative contributor to stage and screen, literature and the arts, in British entertainment industry history.

And we can only hope that his own past – spurious and/or genuine family connections included – might in fact inspire at least one more television series, film, book, musical or play.

We could imagine an Indian Downton Abbey. How about using the wonderful Taj Mahal Hotel in Bombay (Mumbai) or the Taj Mahal monument to love itself?  Or perhaps one of the many wonderfully grand homes of Maharajahs dotted around the sub-continent.

Meantime, you’ll have to settle for one of the many creative outpourings of Lord Julian Fellowes at a theatre, on a book shelf or a television screen near you.

And expect more – much more – from this seriously addicted (and addictive) storyteller. He did admit that there’s at least one new novel that he’s coming up with.

If you would like to hear more from Julian Fellowes listen to this recent radio interview with Graham Norton: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0575k21

Or visit Wikipedia or see an even more complete biography here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0271501/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm

There’s also much more in print in Singapore in the Straits Times or Business Times, plus Channel News Asia: http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/lifestyle/downton-abbey-stars-in-singapore-for-world-premiere-of-8964914

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