Q&A with Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes and former PBS president Ervin Duggan

Charleston to Charleston


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  • Nick Briggs
Tomorrow night, Wed. Jan. 11, Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, sits down with former PBS president Ervin Duggan for a chat. Why? Well, other than picking the brain of a wildly successful author, director, and producer, Duggan, along with Fellowes, are here to celebrate the launch of a collaboration between the Charleston Library Society and The Charleston Trust, a charitable organization in Charleston, Sussex.

Charleston, Sussex is a farmhouse in the South Downs, near the English Channel, and the former home of the Bloomsbury Group's retreat. This group included writers, artists, and intellectuals like Virginia Woolf, E.M. Forster, and occasionally T. S. Eliot, among others. Every year this Charleston-across-the-pond hosts a literary and ideas festival, The Charleston Festival.

Proceeds from tomorrow's conversation with Julian Fellowes will go to a new cultural attraction debuting November 2017 called, Charleston to Charleston Literary Festival. Details on the festival are scant, so until then check out what Fellowes and Duggan have to say about the arts. It's also not too late to get tickets to the talk. Grab those here.

CP: How important do you think art is today, especially in this political climate? How do we cultivate the arts, and how do we make sure we’re cultivating valuable art?

Julian Fellowes: This is a very large question. The word 'art' can be a little misleading. In other words, I think it is always useful and productive to encourage people to appreciate art, and to be creative in their own lives. Clearly, not everything they produce would qualify as art, but that doesn't mean that they will not have benefitted from the process in a way that may open them up to all sorts of experiences and aspects of life they had not previously considered. So I would say creativity, especially in education, is definitely a good thing, whatever the standard of work each individual actually produces.

CP: Downton Abbey became a huge part of a lot of viewers’ lives when it was on (mine included). Do you have a book, story, movie from your youth that defined a part of your life?

JF: I am always flattered when I feel that Downton and the Downton characters played an active role in people's lives. I know they did because I have had many men and women pouring out their feelings about the whole thing to me, which I take as the highest compliment. I certainly understand it. In my own life, various books and films and songs and television shows have sparked feelings in my breast that have in many cases stayed with me. I have magic films in plenty, The Third Man, Breakfast at Tiffany's, LA Confidential, and many more, as well as a long list of magic books. Wuthering Heights was a novel that took me by surprise as a boy, when I thought I was ploughing into a dusty old Victorian tome and discovered a tale of white hot passion that enthralled me. I loved Jane Eyre and Bleak House and Dombey and Son, at the same time, and all for much the same reason.

CP: How important is the idea of home and place to the stories you create? Do you want someone to read a book or script and think, “Ah, this is such a London book”? (I know I have that experience with Charleston-based books, for better and for worse.)

JF: I suspect that pretty well all absorbing narrative is rooted in a sense of place. What would Wuthering Heights be without the Yorkshire moors or Gone with the Wind without Tara? Somehow, you have to have a real awareness of the place these events are taking place in, and the more the writer can convince you of the reality of the setting, the more chance you have of getting hooked. Certainly in Downton, the Abbey, itself, was very much a character, a rather demanding character, in fact, that expected the Crawleys to put the health and prosperity of Downton before any other consideration in their own lives. Just as, in life, these places, these houses and estates, can be very beautiful, and the owner may feel him or herself to be extremely privileged, but they are demanding mistresses too. If one is not prepared to take them on, body and soul, they can rapidly turn into an anchor around one's neck.

Charleston, Sussex was once a retreat for writer's like Virginia Woolf. - FLICKR USER JR P
  • Flickr user JR P
  • Charleston, Sussex was once a retreat for writer's like Virginia Woolf.
Ervin Duggan began his career at the Washington Post in the 1960s, after serving as an officer in the army. He has served as Federal Communications Commissioner, appointed by Pres. George H. W. Bush, and as the President and Chief Executive Officer of PBS.

CP: How do we keep history relevant?

Ervin Duggan: I worry about this, because in many schools today, history has been replaced by a vague category called "social studies." This means that as parents and mentors, we have a gap to fill. Fortunately, we South Carolinians live surrounded by history: our very environment is full of drama and history. I grew up in Manning, for example, on the upper edge of the Lowcountry, surrounded by old churches and graveyards, venerable family houses and ancient plantations. In that environment, one's whole childhood was an education in history. We need to use that environment to teach our children, to give them the gift of history. Simone Weil, the French mystic thinker, said that we need to give our children both roots and wings. Learning and knowing history — family history, local history, national history — does that; it gives us roots and wings.

CP: How has television evolved in recent years?

ED: In the late 1960s, to take an arbitrary date, there were only three major commercial networks, plus PBS — which meant that all of us shared the same television culture. When people met at the office water cooler, they had all seen the same televised events and programs, and they had that shared experience to talk about. Today, with cable, satellite and streaming, television is atomized across literally hundreds of channels. People don't have the common viewing experience they once had: that shared televised culture. This is just one more way that as a people, we're more divided than we used to be. And in the future, alas, it will probably only get worse.

ED: One more point, though not in answer to a question. The more our culture becomes dominated by television and digital media, the more important books, newspapers and reading seem to me. Film, video and television are edited in a way that is fast, episodic and fragmented; they favor short attention spans. Reading is linear; it encourages sustained concentration. In a world that's increasingly jumpy and hopped-up, I think we need books and reading more than ever. That's why I'm impressed by the Charleston Library Society, and excited by the idea of a literary festival based in Charleston.


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