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Fellowes, Julian (1950-)

Actor, Writer, Director, Presenter

Main image of Fellowes, Julian (1950-)

Although it is not unknown for people to achieve success in both writing and acting, it is much rarer for them to change course halfway through their careers. Julian Fellowes, however, is an exception. He was born on 17th August 1949 in Cairo to parents who had some minor aristocratic links, and, after studying at Cambridge and the Webber Douglas drama school, found himself typecast from an early stage as junior vicars or youthful dons. Amusingly, he also had a sideline as a romantic novelist, writing under the nom de plume of Rebecca Greville; when this was exposed, it brought him more fame than anything until Gosford Park.

He made a striking impact in the controversial Alan Bennett/Lindsay Anderson collaboration The Old Crowd (LWT, 1979), but little in his early television or film work was as interesting or worthwhile. He had a bit part in the D.H. Lawrence film Priest Of Love (d. Christopher Miles, 1981), a more substantial appearance in the forgettable Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend (US, 1985), and a camp, witty turn as Noël Coward in the TV drama Goldeneye: Secret of the Lost Legend (Anglia, 1989), about James Bond creator Ian Fleming. The Bond links continued with a small cameo in Tomorrow Never Dies (d. Roger Spottiswoode, 1997). Yet more substantial fame continued to evade him. Even when he appeared in more artistically successful films, such as the underrated Damage (UK/ France, d. Louis Malle, 1992) or Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands (1993), he was typecast as, respectively, an MP and a don.

However, a change came about when, in addition to playing a small part in the TV drama Little Lord Fauntleroy (BBC, 1995), he also wrote the script. At the time, this had few immediate repercussions, and he continued to play minor parts, often in period dramas such as Regeneration (UK/Canada, d. Gillies Mackinnon, 1997). However, his writing brought him to the attention of Robert Altman, who commissioned him to write the ultimate English country house murder mystery, Gosford Park (UK/US/ Germany/Italy, 2001). Drawing on his extensive knowledge of aristocratic circles (his wife, Emma, is a great-grand-niece of Lord Kitchener), as well as paying a substantial debt to Jean Renoir's La Règle du Jeu (France, 1939), his script combined waspish one-liners with movingly understated pathos. In a very strong year for original scripts (including Memento and The Royal Tenenbaums), it was Fellowes who won the Oscar, jokingly comparing his situation to being in A Star Is Born as he collected it.

Unsurprisingly, his acting career then took a back seat, although he continued in the recurring cameo role of Lord Kilwillie in Monarch of the Glen (BBC, 2000-4). He adapted Jean-Jacques Annaud's script Two Brothers into English (France/UK, 2004), gave Mira Nair's re-imagining of Vanity Fair (UK/US, 2004) a fair amount of witty dialogue, and indulged his love of P.G.Wodehouse with his adaptation of Piccadilly Jim (d. John McKay, 2004). However, his most significant achievement was in directing and writing the Nigel Balchin adaptation Separate Lies (2005). Again proving that he was without peer at capturing the rhythms and mannerisms of modern middle-class British life, it also showed that he was a magnificent actors' director, eliciting close to career-best performances from Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson. Although its view of England occasionally verged on the anachronistic, it nonetheless presented a darker alternative to Richard Curtis fantasy.

Fellowes is in great demand as a witty, accessible TV personality, often appearing on talk and quiz shows, and he added another string to his bow with his acclaimed novel Snobs (2004), which, in its depiction of the narrator as a likeable second-string television and film actor, appeared to have autobiographical overtones. He has also dabbled in presenting, with the series Julian Fellowes Investigates: A Most Mysterious Murder (BBC, 2004-).

Alexander Larman

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