Despite my abiding interest for speculative fiction, now and then I enjoy stepping off my well-traveled paths to sample something different, and this is one of those instances…
When I received this book as a Christmas gift I was very pleased, because I knew it would offer me the opportunity to revisit the first season of one of the best shows I’ve ever encountered, a well-written, carefully plotted and wonderfully portrayed little masterpiece.
As I read on, I discovered that the revisitation was just the tip of the iceberg: the footnotes added by the show’s creator Julian Fellowes are much more interesting than the episodes themselves, as they relate the day-to-day choices in the filming of the series as well as conveying many fascinating details on the period’s customs and social interactions.
I would go as far as saying that after a while I focused less on the scripts and more on the commentaries, actively looking for them rather than refreshing my memory on the story-lines.
The time frame of the show – the very beginning of the 20th Century, starting in 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic – was a time of great changes, the birth of the modern world if you want, and the microcosm of the residence where the action takes place is a faithful mirror of those changes, and of the forces that either propel them forward or try to stop them.
Fellowes gives the readers a historical context for the story unfolding on the screen, and also a more important social one, explaining the complex web of relationships between the Crawleys and the house staff, and the inner dynamics of both groups. Many of those dynamics appear strange, if not downright silly or outrageous, to our modern sensibility, but the way the author puts them in relation with the period’s mentality helps the readers better understand where they come from and how they fit into the narrative.
One of the pillars of this informative corpus of notes is Fellowes’ constant praise of the actors for their contribution in creating depth and believability for their characters, while the author’s admiration for Ms. Maggie Smith – in my opinion the best of them all – shines clearly through in several places.
Even more interesting are the fascinating minutiae concerning the production itself, like the need to keep a close watch on the way the actors gave life to their characters, and therefore avoid mistakes in their portrayal. One such example remains fixed in my memory: Fellowes speaks of a particular scene in which Dan Stevens (Matthew Crawley) did not rise from his seat when Maggie Smith (the Dowager Countess) came into the room. For a man of that era it would have been unthinkable to remain seated when a lady, and especially one of high standing as the Countess, entered a room, but the author sadly admits that it’s by now a long-lost habit, and that he had to re-shoot the scene to correct the mistake.
This is just one of the many details, big and small, that made me appreciate even more the huge amount of work and dedication that went into the creation of this amazing production, and helped me to better understand the reasons for the huge, and well deserved, success of the series.