Thursday, January 12, 2012

Before "Downton Abbey"...There was SNOBS

Photo of Julian Fellowes © Giles Keyte

I still remember the day in late 2004 that an unexpected package arrived from St. Martin's Press. Inside was an advanced reading copy of SNOBS, the debut novel of Julian Fellowes. Stephen Fry's blurb on the back cover got me hooked: "A delicious thoroughbred delight, a guilty treat that is awake to every maddeningly and appallingly attractive nuance of English social life."

I gobbled up the book, then snagged a phone interview with Mr. Fellowes courtesy of my new best friends at St. Martin's. The piece ran in in Feb. 2005. It seems to have been pulled, but my interview with Mr. Fellowes about his second novel, PAST IMPERFECT, is still there. Fans of Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess in "Downton" will enjoy Lady Uckfield in SNOBS (soon to be rereleased with a new cover, per today's NYT.

At the tender age of 55 [in 2005], Oscar-winning screenwriter Julian Fellowes has just had his first novel, SNOBS, published in the United States. Born in Egypt, where his father was in the Foreign Office, Fellowes grew up in England and attended Cambridge. After going to drama school, he was a “jobbing actor for ages” and appeared in more than 40 movies and TV shows. Fed up with going to auditions, Fellowes turned to writing and worked for a while for BBC TV, where he adapted LITTLE LORD FAUNTLEROY and THE PRINCE AND THE PAUPER for the small screen. Subsequently he wrote a screenplay for Anthony Trollope’s THE EUSTACE DIAMONDS, which caught the eye of producer Bob Balaban, who was looking for a British society insider to write a screenplay for a murder mystery. “And so ‘Gosford Park’ was born, and so was the rest of my life,” Fellowes explains.

In addition to "Gosford Park,” Fellowes wrote the screenplay for “Vanity Fair” and the book for the new London musical "Mary Poppins." He also wrote and directed "Separate Lives," a film starring Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson and Rupert Everett, which opens in the U.K. in March. He describes it as “a little art house British movie about middle-class people being unhappily married, and so will doubtless be steamrollered in the Big, Bad World but I love it and I loved making it so I have no sad tales to tell.” Never one to sit idle, Fellowes is currently writing a family movie for Columbia pictures; SNOBS is in the works as a three-part series for British TV. He and his wife Emma Kitchener, a descendant of Lord Kitchener and a lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent, live with their teenage son in “Hardy country” near Dorchester.

January 17, 2005
Narrated by an actor with an aristocratic pedigree, SNOBS is a delicious social satire set in 1990s England, in which a beautiful middle-class young woman claws her way into British society by marrying a dim-witted earl. Though its setting is modern, the wry sensibility and gimlet-eyed deconstruction of social morays put SNOBS firmly in the tradition of Jane Austen, E.F. Benson (especially the “Lucia” series) and Anthony Trollope. Fellowes talks with’s Bella Stander about mental toughness, second chances and the tribulations of the acting life.

BLS: How did you come up with the idea for SNOBS?

JF: I live in two secret worlds: show business and high society. People know them from magazines but not from the inside. I thought it would be fun to go into those worlds in a reasonably clear-seeing vein.

When I was a young man, I came from the bottom end of the landed gentry. Now I get the glad hand; in those days I made up the extra--the one who gets invited when someone else can’t make it. At house parties I had the bedroom next to Nanny with the uncomfortable bed. When you're a minor player, you're in a better position to see people as they really are than if you're a grandee.

BLS: There are many references to Anthony Trollope in SNOBS. You write about Lady Uckfield, the mother-in-law of protagonist Edith, “She did not know what it was to be bored--or rather, to admit to herself that she was bored…In our sloppy century, one must at least respect, if not revere, such moral resolution. And after all, to borrow a phrase from Trollope, when all was said and done, ‘her lines had fallen in pleasant places.’”

JF: Yes, it means that without planning, your life has entered a pretty nice area. Mental toughness is becoming increasingly a class thing. The twentieth-century concept is that we should only consult our private wishes and always live in accordance with our personal tastes and desires. Trollope would regard that as a recipe for an ultimately disappointing life, and on the whole, I would agree with him. It is a false notion that the more rules we abandon, the freer and more fulfilled we will become. One only has to look around to see that a great many people are floundering because of the abolition of all rules.

SNOBS is a rather caustic look at the British upper classes and their obsession with rules. They don’t see themselves as others see them, to quote Burns. They believe they live in a world whose values are more broadly held than they are. However, I am unable to keep from a feeling of respect for their un-breaking standards. The Lady Uckfields of the world are still capable of self-discipline, which is the key virtue. Our education system avoids giving children a clue that the world is going to be a tough place. Adulthood comes as a horrible disappointment to them, because they believed that the whole thing was going to plop into their lap.

One of the most important elements of the book is that it’s about choice. All our lives, we’re the product of our choices. We’re all at the point that our choices have taken us. We can set off in a new direction, but what we can’t do is start again. The great advantage of America is its optimism; it’s always open to new ideas. You don’t drag your past around with you like a heavy chain.

BLS: Americans believe in second chances, in starting over. Miss Manners recently wrote, “This country was founded by people who weren’t doing well at home.”

JF: The notion that you can get a facelift and be 33 again is a false one. You have to take the consequences of your choices: That’s the one you married; that’s the mother or father of your children; this is the career you chose; you have to make this career work for you. You can’t spend the rest of your life regretting that you didn’t go to med school. You have to have the strength to realize and accept when there isn’t still time. I’m all for doing something for yourself and not allowing other people's expectations to steamroll you, but you should choose something where you have a reasonable expectation of fulfillment.

BLS: That’s certainly hard when you’re an actor. You get rejected all the time.

JF: This business continually tells you you're nothing until you start thinking you are, and finally you collaborate in your own humiliation. That’s the horrible truth of it. The great challenge of acting is to hold onto your own self-worth despite constant attack. Actors have my sympathy. A lot of them don’t hold on. The only real protection is to have people believe in you.

When our son Peregrine was maybe four, I was leaving for an audition for a commercial. Emma had gotten stuck in traffic and I had to take him with me. They were totally hostile to this little boy and this poor actor who had to take him in. This was one of those key moments. I thought, I don’t have to involve my child and myself in this. I am too old to justify myself to people I don’t even like! That was the last audition I ever did for a commercial. I retook ownership of myself and my own dignity. It was a curative, positive step for me. However, I’m not saying that everyone who turns down commercial auditions will go on to write a screenplay and get an Oscar.

BLS: What was the reaction of your society friends and acquaintances to SNOBS? Did any of them think you were betraying your class?

JF: There certainly were mixed feelings as to whether or not I had, in some way, betrayed my own kind by holding them up to ridicule. Of course, lots of people thought they had sat for the portraits--although they were mostly wrong. Characters, as you know, are usually an amalgam of different acquaintances and seldom drawn from a single model. Having said that, there were one or two pretty close depictions, and one person in particular was very annoyed. "Really!" she said. "A lifetime of avoiding the newspapers, and now look!" Although, in my defense, I never gave away her identity.

At the risk of vanity, I would say the accuracy of the book was what irritated them most. Like politicians or show-folk, toffs usually shrug off any criticism of themselves in fiction by pointing out the inaccuracies which demonstrate that the author cannot have had a close view. One senior aristocrat was reported as having said, "The problem with SNOBS is you can't fault it." An old pal telephoned with the greeting, "It's a wonder to me you have any friends left!" However, all in all, I would say more of them were amused to find their world in print than were offended. For which I am heartily grateful.

BLS: Will your screenplay of THE EUSTACE DIAMONDS be made? It certainly should be, as Lizzie Eustace is a character for the ages. I saw shades of her in Edith.

JF: No, "Eustace" is still looking for a home. You're quite right about Lizzie. I always think of that trio--Becky Sharp, Lizzie Eustace and Scarlett O'Hara--as being identical triplets, and I love them all.