‘Downton Abbey’: Maggie Smith Is the Reason the Show Exists, Julian Fellowes Says

The cast of Downton Abbey has all become famous thanks to the hit show. Creator Julian Fellowes credits Downton Abbey to Maggie Smith. Smith was already a name when he cast her as Violet Grantham, the matriarch of the Crawley clan living in Downton Abbey. Fellowes said Smith was the “get” that attracted the rest of the cast. 

'Downton Abbey': Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton stand together in the new film
L-R: Penelope Wilton and Maggie Smith | Ben Blackall / Focus Features LLC

Fellowes is hosting a series of fireside chats in anticipation of the release of Downton Abbey: A New Era. We’ll have more with the cast and director of the film before its May 20 release, but here’s what Fellowes said about Smith joining the show. 

‘Downton Abbey’ cast Maggie Smith before most other roles 

By now, Downton Abbey is one of Smith’s signature roles. Prior to the show, Smith had appeared in the Harry Potter movies, Fellowes’ Gosford Park, the Sister Act movies, and many more since the ‘60s. She’d only occasionally done television miniseries and one-offs. 

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“I think we knew we were going to sink or swim on the basis of the cast we could attract,” Fellowes said in the video. “I think we knew that there were certain parts that would be our starting point. Violet Grantham was pretty early because if we could attract Maggie into doing her first open-ended series… She’d done terribly smart television with [Capturing Mary director Stephen] Poliakoff and that kind of thing but she’d never done a popular series that just went on and on and on and on.”

The ‘Downton Abbey’ cast wanted to work with Maggie Smith 

Fellowes said that casting Smith became a magnet for talent. Downton Abbey would also star Hugh Bonneville, who sat with Fellowes by the fire, as well as Michelle Dockery, Joanne Froggatt, Laura Carmichael, and many more. 

“Of course, she was marvelous and came on board,” Fellowes said to Bonneville. “By the time you’d come on board, you started to get the feeling this was a show people wanted to be in.”

Julian Fellowes says there were no bad guys on the show 

Bonneville asked Fellowes why he thought Downton Abbey caught on. Modestly, Fellowes said he didn’t know, but speculated it was the good-natured characters. There were few villains, and even they were sympathetic to a degree. 

I don’t really know the answer. I think it’s most of the characters are decent people trying to do their best. The feeling of the show is a positive one. There are very few that you dislike and even the ones you dislike, what I have hoped to do is to explain their predicament so it’s not so simple to dislike them when you get hold of all the facts. That was quite deliberate. I think the inter-relationship of them is attractive, that they’re all interdependent. This way of life was an interdependent way of life. You couldn’t just go off and live it in a room. That’s not how it was. I think that’s quite attractive. We touched on some kind of diurnal truths of being alive and getting through being alive that had relevance all over the world where that way of life was not particularly known at all. 

Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey: A New Era Fireside Chat Ep. 1, 4/26/22

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