Cambridge graduate and one-time member of Footlights Julian Fellowes talks to Jan Gilbert about his latest film, The Young Victoria
Screenwriter, novelist, actor, director, and producer. Is there anything Julian Fellowes can’t do? The answer is navigate, or so he tells me as we sit in a huge multiplex cinema in Milton Keynes. I’m here thanks to an invitation to a sneak preview of his latest film The Young Victoria, a wonderfully lavish drama about the turbulent early years of Queen Victoria’s reign and her romance with Prince Albert. Julian’s here thanks to a satnav.
Apparently he doesn’t possess the same ‘inbuilt compass’ as his wife Emma Kitchener-Fellowes, lady-in-waiting to Princess Michael of Kent. Instead Julian relies on his TomTom which, he says in cut-glass tones, is like ‘having my own coachman’. Yet, despite years without an electronic gizmo to guide him, Julian’s come a long way since his student days at Cambridge where he was a member of Footlights, the University’s famous comedy troupe.
‘We were slightly the bread between two fillings,’ he remarks about his Footlights experience. ‘Before us there was Peter Cook and after came Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Nevertheless it was fun. However, they wouldn’t let me into the Amateur Dramatic Club, even though I think I’m pretty much the only person in showbiz from that generation, so last laugh!’, he says jokingly.
Still it wasn’t the smell of the greasepaint or the roar of the crowd which appealed to Julian; it was the lights, camera, and action. ‘I was in love with film,’ he recalls. ‘In those days there were masses of film societies and cinemas in Cambridge and I used to go to about eight films a week.’
In fact it was a film he saw in the city, I’ll Never Forget What’s ‘Isname starring Oliver Reed and directed by Michael Winner, that decided his future profession. ‘You know sometimes there’s a pop record you just can’t hear enough of? Well I saw that film again and again. And during that week, I remember quite clearly thinking I didn’t want just to have an interest in films and a career doing something else, I wanted my career to be films.’
Julian didn’t have long to wait for his small-screen debut – representing Magdalene College on University Challenge – although it didn’t go exactly to plan, as he recalls. ‘I woke up on the day of the show and had this incredible sore throat. I told my mother I was too ill, to which she replied, “You are not!” At the studios they told me they had someone to stand in for me, but my mother told them they were talking nonsense!’
Fortunately Julian made it through the show. However an unhealthy dose of throat lozenges had an undesired effect. ‘You weren’t meant to take more than four in any 24-hour period but my mother gave me about 80 and on the way back my throat locked because I’d taken so much anaesthetic!’
After leaving the academic world, Julian faced a fresh challenge. ‘After Look Back in Anger dramatists had fallen in love with a romanticised version of the working class,’ he says matter-of-factly, ‘and every actor was expected to serve that. And there was a kind of assumption that if you were public school you were amateurish, you weren’t gifted, you hadn’t lived.’
Having been turned away by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre, Julian tried his luck in America. ‘At that time British drama schools ran on the basis that theatre was it and camerawork was secondary, something you did to pay the bills. I’d gone into acting to be a movie star and gradually had that pressed out of me. But during two and a half years in America I rediscovered my love of film.’
An Oscar (Gosford Park) and Best Directorial Debut award (Separate Lies) later, Julian’s love affair with film looks set to continue with his latest project The Young Victoria. ‘I was absolutely thrilled to be offered a film about Victoria; I’m mad about her,’ he tells me. ‘The really interesting story is how this girl, who was kept almost under house arrest, became an incredibly successful queen. It’s a miracle she kept such a sense of self through all the terrible shenanigans she had to survive.’
To Julian’s delight, a stellar British cast including Emily Blunt (The Devil Wears Prada), Rupert Friend (Pride And Prejudice), Mark Strong (Body Of Lies), Miranda Richardson (Harry Potter And the Goblet Of Fire), and Jim Broadbent (And When Did You Last See Your Father?) bring his screenplay to life. ‘I’m really thrilled with the cast. And the producers [Oscar-winners Martin Scorsese and Graham King] were wonderful to work for. I’d work with any of them again at a shot!’
In the meantime, Julian turns to the county of his alma mater, not Hollywood, for inspiration for his next film From Time to Time, which he directs and adapts from Cambridgeshire author Lucy M. Boston’s Chimneys of Green Knowe, the second in a series of children’s books based on Boston’s Hemingford Grey home. Watch this space.
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