Is Doctor Thorne the new Downton Abbey?

Is Doctor Thorne the new Downton Abbey?

Written by Alison James

It is testament to Rebecca Front’s ability as an actress that such a smiling, friendly lady does such a good job playing haughty, snooty noblewomen from literature. She played Anna Mikhailovna Drubetskaya in BBC drama War and Peace and her new role is the equally arrogant English aristocrat, Lady Arabella Gresham in Doctor Thorne.

Set in Victorian England, Dr Thomas Thorne lives in the village of Greshamsbury in Barsetshire, with his beautiful niece, Mary, a girl blessed with every gift except money. Mary Thorne has grown up alongside the Gresham sisters – Augusta, Beatrice and Alexandrina and their handsome brother Frank  – whose home is the great house and estate at Greshamsbury Park.

When the formidable Lady Arabella Gresham discovers that Frank has fallen in love with Dr Thorne’s penniless niece, she is horrified. Her husband has frittered away the family fortune so she believes it is Frank’s duty to make a rich marriage and save the family fortunes.

Rebecca is sympathetic to Lady Arabella’s plight... “She is quite terrifying and it’s very easy to judge her, but these are different times and situations. You have to understand the jeopardy she faces. It’s not just about affording new dresses; if Frank makes a bad marriage the Greshams will lose everything – their servants will lose their livelihoods and their daughters will lose respect.

“Lady Arabella does have a point. I’m a modern mum, I’ve got teenage children and I only want them to marry for love, but Lady Arabella is in a different time and situation – and I have to look at it from her perspective.”

“Rebecca is quite marvellous in the role,” pipes up Lord ‘please call me Julian’ Fellowes.

“As well as writing the screenplay, I also co-produced and so had a hand in the casting. The cast are all wonderful – we have Tom Hollander playing Dr Thorne while Ian McShane plays the character of Sir Roger Scatcherd, a rich railway millionaire who is drinking himself into an early grave.”

Doctor Thorne is the first TV period drama Julian has penned since Downton Abbey so it’s inevitable people should look for similarities. Is Doctor Thorne the next Downton? Julian smiles.

“Like Downton, Doctor Thorne is an historical drama but it’s a very different proposition. It is a three-part adaptation of an Anthony Trollope novel, whereas Downton was an original work which ran for six series. When you are the master of all, as I was with Downton, you can do whatever you like – add more characters and storylines – but with something like Doctor Thorne you have to work with what you’ve got. You can’t add new characters just because you feel they’d fit in well,” he says.

“There’s not much focus on ‘below stairs’ in any of Anthony Trollope’s work. He wasn’t interested in servants, while I think they’re every bit as fascinating as the people they served. But it’s the conflict and dynamic between the two families in Doctor Thorne that we’re concerned with.”

It has long been an ambition of Julian’s to, “get more Trollope on TV”. He’s been a fan since school, but there’ll be a bit of a wait if he’s asked to adapt further works as his Lordship is seriously busy.

Like Downton, Doctor Thorne is an historical drama but it's a very different proposition

Next month Orion Publishing launches Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia, a ground-breaking new publishing project which will marry cutting-edge technology with storytelling.

Belgravia is told in 11 instalments published week by week in the tradition of Charles Dickens, delivered in text and audio versions directly to mobile phones, tablets or desktop via an app. You can read it, listen to it, or jump between the two. 

“There will be extra content, videos, and other bonus features such as music, character portraits, maps of Belgravia, family trees, and period fashions within each instalment,” Julian explains.

He’s also entered into a deal with NBC and Universal Television to create, write and produce the dramatic television series, The Gilded Age, an epic tale of the princes of the American Renaissance and the vast fortunes they made – and spent – in late 19th century New York.

Then there’s the writing of the script for the musical adaptation of The Wind in the Willows, not to mention the script for a new stage production of Half a Sixpence, based on the HG Wells novel, Kipps: The Story of A Simple Soul.

“I do think I may be a bit of a workaholic,” admits Julian.  “I don’t think I’ve got the work/life balance quite right. The other day, I was putting back some books on our shelves, having had some building work done, and I felt guilty because I wasn’t working. I had to say to myself, ‘Come on! This is your life here’.

“I am quite disciplined when it comes to writing and on days I’m not in meetings or doing things like publicising Doctor Thorne, I start work as soon as I’ve had breakfast. I’ll break for lunch but then carry on until around 7pm.”

Julian started out as an actor – in fact, it was how he and Rebecca (51) initially met.

“I worked with him on a production we were both in a very long time ago,” she smiles. “But although he was very involved in Doctor Thorne, I only met him once or twice on set.”

“That’s because I wasn’t there much,” Julian (66) smiles. “When you’re the writer, I think it’s a bit tricky to be on set too often. By the time the production gets to this point, it’s what the director wants from a scene that matters, rather than how the writer envisaged it. Most directors are pleased to see the writer on set... as long as it’s only occasionally!”

  • Doctor Thorne is on Sundays on ITV
  • Doctor Thorne will be available on DVD on March 21
  • There's more star chat in every issue of Yours.