Julian Fellowes: “I proposed to my wife 20 minutes after we met”

Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes on his teenage transformation, Anthony Hopkins - and the need to fund working-class drama students

I wasn’t happy as a teenager. I was overshadowed by my next brother up. He was handsome and looked like an actor called Terence Stamp. I did not look like Terence Stamp, I was quite plain. After I was in a car crash at 15, I missed a term from boarding school and was at home doing nothing. That made me examine my life.

Between 15 and 18 I completely reconstructed myself. When my aunt’s husband died, she turned their Colombian country house into a summer camp and asked to borrow one of us. My father worked for Shell and got me a cabin on an oil tanker. There were no other passengers, so for two weeks I had another incredible period of introspection. I was going to stay with people who didn’t really know me, and realised I could get off the boat as anyone I chose to be. Having been a social failure, I bounced off the boat as the life and soul of the party and spent two months riding, swimming and dancing at the disco. This new version of me was much less depressing than the sad fatty sitting in the corner. I decided that is who I’d be when I got home.

If you feel you have been born at the bottom and that is where you are staying, that is intolerable.

I had a crush on Audrey Hepburn. Everyone did. And I was rather keen on Hayley Mills. She was in my first West End show, and you couldn’t meet a nicer person. It was like completing the circle, imagining at 14 that I would like her, then finding out at 23 that I did.

My father was a bluff, tweed-clad colonel type but he was film-obsessed. We would watch films then have high tea with sausages and discuss them: what were the good points, why didn’t you like the heroine? That was all rooted in me. He hoped I might be a diplomat but I was so not what the Foreign Office was looking for in the 1970s.

My mother didn’t mind. She was a sort of anarchist. I remember telling her: “I’m going to drama school to be an actor.” After a long silence, she said: “Don’t tell your father.” That summer I went away for two months – as I drove out of the gates, she told my father, knowing he couldn’t stay angry at me for that long.

Anthony Hopkins was an important influence. At drama school it is all about the stage. I was cast in a television show with Tony. He told me: “You are coming to the first day of filming as if it was the start of stage rehearsals. It is not. It is opening night. What you do will be on the screen in six months.” He also helped me see that working in camera drama was legitimate, not some poor second place.

The Downton Abbey cast

I proposed to my wife 20 minutes after we met. At a drinks party a friend asked if I knew Emma Kitchener. She looked at me, and I thought, here you are at last. I’m 39, it was a long wait but you have arrived. I just knew. She didn’t know anything of the sort. She wrote in her diary: “A funny little man asked me to marry him!” I wrote asking her to dinner. We went to an Italian restaurant with pictures of Venice on the walls. I said: “Shall we go there for our honeymoon?” And 15 months later, we did. My only psychic moment.

I would tell my younger self that the career he wants will materialise. Then he can relax and have more fun. I was too anxious, even desperate at times. So to be reassured that I wasn’t putting all this effort into my career for nothing would be music to my ears. Sometimes I drove people back by my eagerness.

I had to wait for success but not as long as the newspapers think. Getting married changed things. I started to smell less of desperation! I got back from my honeymoon and got a lead role in Danny Boyle’s For the Greater Good. I filmed all over the world, worked with Catherine Deneuve, did a Bond movie. I wasn’t famous until Monarch of the Glen in my late 40s but I was having an interesting career.

When you get your big break, you need it to be doing something you are unusually good at. Mine was Gosford Park. They needed a writer who knew about the workings of an English country house. I had it from the horse’s mouth since I was 14, talking with my great aunts who were born in the 1880s about social history and how people lived. They offered Gosford Park to everyone. Christopher Hampton and Tom Stoppard turned it down. I think my dead mother came to them and threatened them!

Winning an Oscar changed my life. From then on, I was offered more interesting work as a writer than actor. I was writing a script for Martin Scorsese but trying to get an acting job on Casualty. The two didn’t really match. But I loved acting and missed it very much.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue magazine is a social enterprise, a business that reinvests its profits in helping others who are homeless, at risk of homelessness, or whose lives are blighted by poverty.

Etonian actors? I have nothing against them. I’m hardly in any position to object to someone from a privileged background doing well in showbiz. But we have to fund working-class drama students. In my day, you got three years of further education – you could go to university, learn ballet or be a drama student and get a living allowance. We need a realistic grant if we want our entertainment industry to reflect society, which seems a basic requirement.

There is nothing less healthy than to have no opportunity. If you feel you have been born at the bottom and that is where you are staying, that is intolerable. It is frustrating the ambitions of these kids. I get so many letters from people looking for help through drama school.

No one expects to become a global phenomenon. I thought Downton Abbey was top-quality television and the cast was terrific – I don’t want to sound too modest! But I didn’t expect it to feature in the US presidential campaign when they were all claiming to have watched it. That was dizzying. In a way, Downton Abbey was rooted in American television. Sure, it is fundamentally English but the structure was nearer ER or The West Wing than The Jewel in the Crown. I still think about the characters – they were with me a long time.

Doctor Thorne will be available on DVD and Digital Download from March 21