Creator of Gosford Park, Julian Fellowes, talks to Steve Pratt about creating a costume drama for today which isn’t too posh. While actors Rob James-Collier and Hugh Bonneville reflect on their upstairs-downstairs roles.

OSCAR-winning writer Julian Fellowes recalls that hearing someone on ITV’s Loose Women say that they hated posh people. “What does that mean?,” he asks.

“You can’t say you hate posh people, it’s like saying you hate Norwegians or blondes. “I don’t believe in any of those group judgements and I don’t think the audience does either. You have to make interesting characters. If the audience don’t get interested you’re dead in the water.”

You can understand why people associate Fellowes, seen as an actor in BBC1’s Monarch Of The Glen before winning an Oscar for his Gosford Park screenplay, with the aristocracy. He’s well spoken and has an upper class air about him (and that’s not meant in a derogatory way).

As for being called posh, he says: “There’s no point in minding it. Like that minister said about something else, it’s like minding rain. The only thing that annoys me – and I really shouldn’t say this I suppose – is that I don’t think these shows are about class. They are about people and the analysis of people.

“But think what an actress has to put up with – she does Hedda Gabler and they ask her about her hair. That’s pretty boring too and in the end you just have to accept that’s what you’re going to be asked.

“No one is rich to themselves or posh to themselves because they always know someone much richer or much posher than them. With my parents, at the time I thought we never had any money but I look back on this parade of ponies and birthday cakes and realise I had a very privileged childhood. But it never felt privileged at the time because we seemed to have less money than anyone else. You have a different perception of things.

“According to a profile in Sunday Times I grew up in Scotland in a castle with 19 servants. Why 19? What an odd number to pull out of the air. Having grown up in Sussex with no servants, it’s so peculiar.

Presumably there is some internet site that has invented an alternative Julian Fellowes.”

What has prompted all this posh talk is the new period drama he has created and written for ITV, Downton Abbey. Set in an Edwardian country house in 1912, it follows the lives of those both masters and servants. Fellowes has been here before – in his Oscar-winning Gosford Park script although, being a TV series, he’s been able to create more fully rounded characters and storylines.

Obviously, he’s thought of as more upstairs than downstairs but he says people don’t want to live that life any more, the upstairs people as much as anyone else.

“They don’t want to have to get into evening dress every night and be in the dining room by half past eight and have to be here and have to be there. They’ve got out of the habit.

“On the whole they like to live, however rich they are, with a cook and maybe a butler, but keeping it much looser.”

TV and film, he continues, has been “nervous of aspirational narrative drama” for a while. That’s why screens are awash with police and hospital dramas, and reality shows.

“If we were French it would be very easy to do a film about the contemporary French aristocracy. Or in Italy or Germany or America. But British television has been nervous about it since Look Back in Anger. Maybe there is a slight loosening up of that and why one is able to do it.”

It’s a situation that has clearly irked him. Like the time the idea of filming Snob, a modern novel about the upper class, was put forward. “One executive said ‘I won’t make a drama about contemporary upper class, it’s a resigning issue’. But there are more of them than there are steel workers and you’d make a drama about them.

“That world of a century ago has changed but the rich are not a dying world. There are far more rich now than there were 40 years ago. There’s a whole tier of the rich. What hasn’t come back are the rules and the style.”

This is the first TV series he’s written and the advantage for a writer is that there is more time to develop characters and storylines.

“Sometimes with films, you feel very battered by the time everyone’s girlfriend and chauffeur have rewritten the script. I didn’t have that here. Because I’m also a producer I had an input in the final edit that I wouldn’t have in a film.”

He has no great longing to have lived in the period depicted in the series, or any period from history for that matter. “At least I don’t have toothache and if I get cancer I have a reasonable shot at it,” he says.

“The allure of period drama is that you can enjoy the disciplines, the rules and regulations, and enjoy the comfort of them but don’t have to live them. You don’t have to get up change your clothes five times a day, always do this and always do that and be uncomfortable a lot of the time. This applies for employers as much as the servants.

“There is a comfort in a rule-governed world which is why they’re popular – that it seems to us a more straightforward existence.

“When you stay in a very ordered house even now and there are houses that are kind of staffed and all of that, for a few days it seems like a wonderful relaxation away from the real world and then of course you go back to reality.”

...with male snogging

VIEWERS were shocked when actor Rob James-Collier exited Coronation Street, being mown down by a hit-and-run driver on the orders of his wife’s lover.

Fans of the actor who played Liam Connor, who featured in sexiest soap star lists during his time on the cobbles, are in for a bigger surprise when ITV1’s period drama Downton Abbey debuts on Sunday.

For the soap heart-throb is not only playing a nasty piece of work – ambitious valet Thomas – but is seen snogging a man. The kiss with Charlie Cox’s Duke of Crowborough was James-Collier’s idea. “It came out of rehearsals. It felt like the time was right for it,” he says.

The fact that Thomas is gay emerges towards the end of the first episode of the series about life upstairs and downstairs at a grand Edwardian country house.

“Originally there wasn’t a kiss written into the script but it felt there was a point where Thomas would naturally kiss the Duke,” says the actor.

“When I mentioned it to Charlie Cox I said ‘don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not coming on to you...but’, he was like, ‘no, don’t worry about it, I think it would be good’. And it did add an extra dynamic to the scene.

“The thing I loved about this aspect of Thomas is that he’s not a gay character but a character who is incidentally gay, which is how it should be.”

He actually found it easier to kiss a man on screen than a woman. When you’re kissing a woman, he says, you want to make it look realistic but are thinking, “Am I taking advantage of her? is her boyfriend going to think I’m over-stepping the mark?”.

That’s different with a man. “Those thoughts don’t cross your mind. I’m more scared of it looking false so I went for it fully to make it look real. Hopefully I’ve achieved that.

“I think Julian, being clever, didn’t write it in, but had a sixth sense that we might arrive at that point ourselves, which we did.”

Playing Corrie’s Liam was “an amazing experience and an opportunity I’m really grateful for” but he felt it was the right time to leave the show and try other roles. After leaving two years ago, he took his time and waited for the right script to come along.

“I was offered a number of jobs but none of them really felt right and I knew I wanted to wait for something big. I just hadn’t found the part yet.”

Perhaps this attitude stems for getting into acting by accident. He was studying for a degree in business and a masters in marketing at Salford University when a student failed to turn up at a film shoot. A friend on a performing arts course was making an end-of-term film when one of the actors dropped out.

The director thought of a friend – Rob – to stand in for the absentee. “I hadn’t any acting experience, apart from the donkey in the school play with a cardboard box on my head,” he admits.

But he loved every minute of filming, found an acting coach in the Yellow Pages and began going to classes once a week after work. Three months later, he had an agent and an audition for BBC1’s Down To Earth with Ricky Tomlinson.

That was his first acting role. “I made loads of mistakes on screen, but what an opportunity to have for your first TV appearance and I was really lucky to learn on the job,” he says.

“That’s why I appreciate everything I get, because I know how hard it is and there are loads of actors out there better than me, so I’m just grateful to be in work.”

HUGH Bonneville found himself married to Elizabeth McGovern for the third time on ITV’s new period series. He plays Robert, Earl of Grantham, with McGovern as his American heiress wife Cora. The Downton Abbey of the title is their home and scene of all the upstairs, downstairs drama.

“I love being married to her. And her husband doesn’t seem to mind either,” he says. “Anyway, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable shorthand. We even know which side of the bed each other insists on sleeping, so that saves a lot of faffing about in rehearsals.”

The series also reunites him with Dame Maggie Smith, who plays his Dowager Countess mother. The two also appear in the film From Time To Time, which Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes directed – but didn’t share any scenes.

“There’s that overused tennis analogy, isn’t there, about how working with the best makes you raise your game. It’s entirely appropriate with Maggie. She has a devilishly witty first serve, a razor-sharp backhand but woe betide you if you’re on the receiving end of her drop shot.”

Another co-star about whom he sounds less enamoured is a golden labrador called Roly, who plays the Grantham famiy dog Pharaoh. “Roly is a single-minded labrador, it has to be said. The focus of purpose is to find where the next piece of frankfurter is hidden,” says Bonneville. “During filming I kept finding bits of manky sausage in my pockets, reminders of various days I’d had when I’d tried to lure Roly into pretending to be my constant, devoted companion. He’s a good-natured dog, but boy does he have a one-track mind.”

■ Downton Abbey begins on ITV1 on Sunday at 9pm