Could this Sunday night drama be the new Downton Abbey?

He’s best known as the mastermind behind Downton Abbey, but now Julian Fellowes has turned his hand to the novels of Anthony Trollope, creating a special three-part series based on 1858’s Doctor Thorne. According to Executive Producer, Mark Redhead, it’s an idea that’s ‘been cooking quietly for a very long time’, but Downton Abbey happened in the middle of it all, so it took Fellowes some time to get round to finish writing it. Fingers crossed the wait will have been worth it!

Set against the familiar backdrop of a large country estate, Tom Hollander takes the title role as the doctor who lives with his
young niece, Mary (Stefanie Martini), a girl blessed with every gift apart from money. Mary’s been brought up alongside the Gresham family, whose estate at Greshamsbury Park dominates the county, but with Francis Gresham Senior (Richard McCabe) having frittered away the family fortune, his wife Lady Arabella (Rebecca Front), their two daughters and their handsome brother Frank face losing their home. And when romance blossoms between Frank and Mary, a way out of their problems looks increasingly unlikely.

With themes of changing fortunes, family conflict and the hope that love
will conquer, plus a stellar cast, this period drama is bound to have
the country gripped. What’s even better is that authenticity has been key in its creation. According to Redhead, Julian’s ‘keen on the authenticity of a production. For example, he had opinions about the hair because he wants the historically accurate version of the hair of the period. He likes people to behave as they would have done, within limits.’ We caught up with Julian Fellowes himself to find out more…

What inspired you to do this adaptation in particular?

Anthony Trollope has always been one of my favourite novelists; he was on television in the 70s and 80s, but I wanted to see him come back more and not just have the 38th version of Pride and Prejudice – not that I don’t love Jane Austen! I think his characters had extraordinary insight. They are nuanced and grey – you start off not liking someone and then you come round to them and I think that makes him very contemporary.

Is rank and money a real focus in the series?

What’s interesting
about Trollope is that he did understand the romance of the aristocracy
and the ancestors who were crusaders and people of the court of the
restoration – all that was no good if there was no money. He had a real
understanding of the reality of that life. Many other writers did the
romantic version, not the cruel reality that money is essential and that
is doesn’t matter where it comes from, just as long there is enough of
it!

Why did you go with three episodes, instead of a longer run like with Downton?
It worries me slightly when I see ‘Doctor Thorne – The New Downton‘ on the cover of the Radio Times. It’s just a little love story for spring for people to enjoy – drink while they watch it and cry at the end. I don’t want people to think this is the next Downton and that we will still be here in seven years’ time because we just won’t.

What have you taken away from the experience?

It’s
always extraordinary for a writer to see the characters come to life.
You write them in your sad little garret somewhere and you hope the
scenes work, but if you get very good actors, it will always add a whole
other layer. I love all the scenes between Arabella and Thorne because
they are very evenly matched. Each scene, Arabella thinks she is going
to win before it starts and each time on whole they are equal on points –
and I love that.

Is a Downton movie in the pipeline?

A Downton movie
is a possibility. My own belief is that it probably will happen, it’s
just not yet happening. I’d love to tell the story in a different way,
structure it slightly differently from the television. I’m fairly sure
it will come down to which actors can do it and are available because I
think we’ve got to get the team – or it wouldn’t really have lift off.

Doctor Thorne starts this Sunday (6th March) at 9pm on ITV.

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