Thursday, 8 May 2014

The once-broke 'Downton Abbey' writer who riles his Left-wing critics.'Snobs': The Nonworking Class. Fellowes of finite jest.

The once-broke 'Downton Abbey' writer who riles his Left-wing critics
Is Julian Fellowes, creator of 'Downton Abbey’, really Britain’s biggest snob?
By William Langley

What do you say when the shiny-chopped chap seated next to you at lunch opens the conversation with: “My wife is Lady-in-Waiting to Princess Michael of Kent”?

There’s only one response: “You must be Julian Fellowes.” It isn’t as though the 62-year-old creator of Downton Abbey hasn’t been warned. Last week he was fingered as “the biggest snob in Britain”, and with the second series of ITV’s smash hit period drama arriving tonight, those critics of a certain persuasion – the ones Fellowes portrays as “socially insecure, Left-wing nitpickers” – are mustering for a new onslaught.

Downton tells of life at the fictional stately pile of the Earl and Countess of Grantham, but is heavily overlaid with the class attitudes of the Edwardian era. The look is lush and the dialogue clever, but it is Fellowes’s sympathetic view of the aristocracy’s treatment of the lower orders that has caused upset in the reliably liberal arts-and-media world.

“For all that Fellowes pays lip-service to the social revolution that will come with the Great War,” sniffed the New Statesman, “his working-class characters say things like: 'Just because you’re a lord, you think you can do what you like with me!’ The script oozes nostalgic approval for the days when people not only knew the difference between an Earl and a Duke, but cared about it, too.”

Fellowes makes no secret of either his big or small C conservatism. A lifelong Tory, he used to write speeches for Iain Duncan Smith, and earlier this year was elevated to the peerage by David Cameron. These achievements alone would make him something of a rarity in his profession, but it’s the way that he trumpets his old-fashioned toffishness that really gets up his detractors’ noses.
The lunch incident was reported by the veteran society columnist Taki, who wrote in The Spectator: “I burst out laughing, but in order not to be rude I said nothing. My first thought was, 'Is he bragging or complaining?’”

Quite possibly neither. Before he ascended to the title of Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, and became an habitué of St James’s dining clubs, he spent three lost decades adrift in outer-showbiz darkness. He toiled as a minor character actor, playing the parts of vicars, colonels and hospital consultants in provincial rep or, if he was lucky, the West End, sensing all the time that even these parts were only coming his way because he was perceived as a caricature buffer.

Almost everyone else in the theatre was dangerously Left wing, the entire trade taking its cue from the likes of the Redgraves and Pinters, and even if few actors really were working class, it was wise to pass as such. “I didn’t subscribe,” Fellowes has said, “to the kind of romantic version of socialism. I found it bogus then, and I find it bogus now.” Yet he suffered endlessly for the sin of being a Tory, and in the early 1980s, decided to abandon the struggle and head for Hollywood.

His thinking seems to have been that plummy-voiced English actors would always enjoy a certain cachet, and he wouldn’t have to put up with agitprop lecturing and backstage whip-rounds for striking layabouts. But although he landed a small role as Lynda Carter’s chauffeur in Rita Hayworth: The Love Goddess, after two years, lonely and disillusioned, he returned home.

The irony of Fellowes’s career as a token toff is that, for most of it, he was broke. He recalls sleeping in rented rooms, “with damp coming through the walls”, and says he delayed getting married because he couldn’t afford to support a wife and family. If he crows a little too loudly now – as the husband of Lady Emma Kitchener, a descendant of Lord Kitchener of Khartoum – it is surely because his success is a sock in the eye for everyone who told him that the theatre wasn’t the right place for his sort.

But what sort is he? He comes from a comfortable background, the son of a diplomat-turned-oil-company executive. Educated by monks at Ampleforth, from where he went to study English at Cambridge, he drifted into the theatre after a stint at the Footlights. “I wasn’t handsome, titled or rich,” he says. “I was always the man who was asked along because they were short, or because someone had dropped out, and I think that allows you to be some sort of fly on the wall.”

It was in this way, thinks Fellowes, that he first developed a feeling for dialogue and character. His breakthough came when, in the mid-1980s, he decided to try his hand at writing.

His first 12 screenplays were rejected, and he struggled by doing sitcoms and a little acting, until, in the late 1990s, he was approached by the Hollywood director Robert Altman, who was toying with the idea of an English upper-class drama. Fellowes’s brief was to produce a story “set in a country house in the 1930s, and to have a murder in there somewhere, but for it to really be an examination of class”.

The result was Gosford Park, and its global success – $87 million grossed – catapulted the writer to unforseeable stardom. It also made Fellowes realise that just as the British are fascinated by class, so the rest of the world is fascinated by the British fascination with class. It has been a lucrative discovery.

The return of Downton will see a return of the critics who accuse him of glamorising snobbery. Fellowes isn’t worried. “You could only represent it to their satisfaction,” he says, “if everyone downstairs was writhing in a state of permanent torment while everyone upstairs was vicious, violent, horrible and dishonest. The idea that both groups were just trying to bash through their lives is alien to them.”

'Snobs': The Nonworking Class

This is what the world has come to: Now even the English are Anglophiles. Nothing is authentic any more. Everything is nostalgia. Everyone wants to live in the past. The present has no style. The present is ugly. The present is gross.

But nobody has ever liked the present, as far as I can tell. In the current zero-decade, we look back fondly on the 90's and the 80's; in the 90's, it was the 70's and the 60's. Hell, during the Jazz Age they were all moaning about what it was like before 1914.

It's part of the human condition to look to the past, because if you look to the future you have to look toward your own death. The sands of time are always doing their sands-of-time routine and the clock is always ticking. It's relentless. It's enough to drive a person crazy.

So the past is where we all want to be, and we shouldn't feel bad about it. A lot of great thinkers concur -- Proust, for one, and look at the last lines of ''The Great Gatsby'': ''So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.''

This brings me -- since this is a book review and not a flippant essay on time -- to the novel ''Snobs,'' by Julian Fellowes, which is about a people that is dying out, the English upper class, and the arrivistes, the middle class, who want to be just like them -- glamorous and rich, though not dying out. But the odd twist is that the upper class wants to be like the upper class. They've all watched the great British TV shows ''Upstairs, Downstairs'' and ''Brideshead'' and countless movies, perhaps even ''Gosford Park,'' written by the very same Julian Fellowes, and so the upper class find themselves imitating the imitators. It's sort of what I imagine has been happening to members of the Mafia ever since the emergence of ''Godfather'' and on through ''The Sopranos.''

Furthermore, as we learn in ''Snobs,'' the English upper classes know they're on the verge of extinction, so it makes them try to hold on to the old ways all the more -- those who can afford it, anyway. Because what's killing off the upper class is how expensive it is. Nobody can afford to be that rich any more. Well, a few aristocrats can, but their numbers are dwindling, which is completely understandable -- to heat a castle in damp, chilly England takes great financing.

''Snobs'' concerns itself with a middle-class girl named Edith Lavery and an earl named Charles Broughton. The Broughtons still have their money and their land; they're one of the few families who still manage to live like nobility. Edith wants that lifestyle and a title, which means she'd like to marry Charles. In essence, it's a very old-fashioned story: girl marries for money, not love. But why do girls keep doing this? It never seems to work out. And why can't a girl get money and love? Why is it always one or the other? And poor Edith -- love aside, even the sex is no good. Charles, furthering an unfortunate rumor about English men, is absolutely terrible in bed.

''Snobs'' is Fellowes's first novel, and, to be snobby for a fleeting moment, it's a good book but not a great one, though it has many great passages. It's sort of a field guide to the behavior of the English aristocracy, which Fellowes, seemingly, has had access to -- he's the son of a diplomat and went to the right schools. For years, he's been a character actor in English films and television, and he's also a director and a screenwriter (he won an Oscar for writing ''Gosford'').

Fittingly, the unnamed narrator in ''Snobs'' is a character actor of upper-class background, and his voice is what I admire most -- the effortless hyper-articulation and erudition. We Americans tend to think all people with an English accent sound intelligent; well, it's the same with their prose practitioners -- they come off so terribly smart and worldly! And I love it! I've been accused of being an Anglophile myself, and it's because I love the way the English write, and Fellowes certainly scribbles with the best of them.

Edith's quest to marry into the aristocracy is the frame for Fellowes's observations on the upper class, as well as the middle class, with a few tangents thrown in about the world of actors, which, I guess, is a nod to the lower class. The book is rife with these bons mots, and they're ultimately more interesting than the actual story of Edith and Charles. Here's one on the middle class and their attendance at the famous horse race Royal Ascot:

''For a day or two every year these working people allow themselves the luxury of pretending that they are part of some vanished leisure class, that the world they mourn and admire and pretend they would have belonged to if it still existed (which as a rule they would not) is alive and well and living near Windsor.''

And on the upper class:

''I have always been uncomfortable with the jejune pseudo-informality implicit in the upper-class passion for nicknames. Everyone is 'Toffee' or 'Bobo' or 'Snook.' They themselves think the names imply a kind of playfulness, an eternal childhood . . . but they are really a simple reaffirmation of insularity, a reminder of shared history that excludes more recent arrivals.''

The Broughton matriarch is one Lady Uckfield. Why she's called Uckfield, I can't decipher; the Brits are like the Russians when it comes to names. Still, she's the most interesting character in the book and also, of course, known by her nickname, Googie.

''For her there was no merit in the changes the 20th century had wrought,'' Fellowes writes. ''Time had blurred her memory. . . . She could think of nothing harsh or mean in the England of her beginnings. . . . She had that absolute faith in the judgment of her own kind, seldom seen since 1914.''

So we're back to idealizing the pre-1914 years. It does seem that the world has been steadily falling apart since then, but weren't things also a mess before 1914? And this makes me realize there is nowhere to turn: the present is lousy, the future is morbid and the past is a sham.

But there are books. When you read a book, you're lost in time. All the more reason to read ''Snobs.'' It will distract you pleasantly. It's like a visit to an English country estate: breezy, beautiful and charming.

Jonathan Ames's most recent book is a novel, ''Wake Up, Sir!''

Fellowes of finite jest
Julian Fellowes' Snobs should have been a rip-roaring satire on the upper classes. Alas, it misses all its targets, says Rachel Cooke 
Rachel Cooke   
    The Observer, Sunday 4 April 2004/

by Julian Fellowes
Weidenfeld & Nicholson £12.99, pp320

Because I am always in search of the new Nancy Mitford - this is a kind of literary holy grail with me - I had high hopes of this novel. Not only does its author, Julian Fellowes, have form (he won an Oscar for the screenplay of Gosford Park); he also has suitably U credentials. He is one of those robustly fat posh types, the kind of man who always packs a jar of Gentleman's Relish when he goes on holiday, and whose wife, a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael, parades in outré velvet numbers matched with red Hunter wellies.

The thought occurs that in this, the age of the people carrier, there could hardly be anyone more qualified to turn out a volume both waspish and wise, something a little bit Nancy, a little bit Evelyn and, if I am honest, just a little bit National Trust guidebook.

But - oh, misery - Snobs turns out to be none of these things. Yes, it is about genuine, hardcore toffs, with a bit of social climbing thrown in for good measure (though we are talking half a rung on a delicate library ladder at most). And yes, the action, if you can call it that, takes place in a stately in Sussex.

But waspish and wise? Pah! To be truthful, I found this novel completely bizarre. I was baffled by its pious tone; by its dreary preoccupation with dismantling 'truisms' that I, for one, had never considered to be indisputable facts in the first place; and, most of all, by its cardboard cut-out characters, a bunch so entirely uninteresting I was longing for Jago the butler to come over all revolutionary and torch the lot of them.

Snobs is narrated by a 'journeyman actor' who, like his creator, was born into a world of big houses and silly buffers but who is also, thanks to several wholly educational years in repertory theatre, able to stand apart from it and thus illuminate its foibles for our benefit. One day, at Ascot, our actor introduces his friend, Edith Lavery, a Sloane who works in a Chelsea estate agent, to his vague acquaintance, Charles Broughton, heir to the Marquess of Uckfield. Charles, who is straightforward but stupid, rapidly falls in love with Edith.

Tired of answering telephones and not averse to the idea of becoming a countess, beady-eyed Edith encourages him in this affection. He takes her for dinner at Annabel's, kisses her with his mouth shut and soon afterwards asks her to be his designated brood mare.

Fellowes presents this marriage as a mistake, not merely because Edith is not really in love with Charles, but because she is unable to cope with life on a planet where everyone went to school with everyone else. In other words, she is simply too common. Unfortunately, the majority of readers will be hard-pressed to find much evidence of this vulgarity. Granted, her father is a businessman, not an earl. But it is hardly as though she swans round in a shellsuit, bag of chips and saveloy in one hand, copy of the Mirror in the other.

She, too, came out (don't panic - I mean as a deb) and she likes Alice bands and sweaters that feature little rabbit motifs. Then again, perhaps my failure to grasp - or even to care about - the apparently myriad subtle differences between the upper middle classes and the upper classes in twenty-first century Britain is just another sign that I'm unlikely ever to be a countess myself.

But back to the bat-squeak of a plot. Edith, unfathomably, elects not to sleep with Charles before their wedding night (though he doesn't seem terribly keen either, rearing up like a prudish ninny every time her hand so much as brushes his fly), only to find that he is an in-and-out merchant who opens his mouth solely to issue a clipped: 'Thank you, darling' before he begins snoring.

So when a film crew pitches up at Broughton Hall and she catches sight of Simon Russell (an actor reputed to be - wait for it - the new Simon McCorkindale) in breeches and frilly shirt, the stirrings in her undies are entirely understandable. The question is: will 'taking a lover' quell these urges? Or will she mistake sex for substance and ditch the servants and the house parties and the shooting talk forever?

I can't say I was bothered one way or the other, though I will not be so unsporting as to reveal all here. What does interest me is that no one at the author's publisher saw fit to wrestle with his material before it snuggled between hard covers. Fellowes can certainly write a decent sentence; his prose is as refined as his vowels.

But what is the point of his book? However rarefied their realm, novels must speak of the wider human condition, of universal truths. The characters in Snobs don't even run the gamut of emotions from A to B; they start at A and then, distracted by the sight of dear old Googie guffawing at the other side of the room, they hiccup to a standstill.

Which would be fine were this a biting satire. It is not. One can can only assume that a kind of snobbery also played its part as a deal was struck at Weidenfeld & Nicolson. The kind that takes a shiny gold statuette and the dropping of a few grand-sounding names a bit too seriously for its own good.

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