Julian Fellowes, the creator and writer of "Downton Abbey," doesn't take long to say what he thinks is the message of his smash television drama.
"I think the—well, not even the subtext, the supertext—of 'Downton,' " he says not five minutes after we sit down for coffee Monday morning at the Savoy Hotel in central London, "is that it is possible for us all to get on, that we don't have to be ranged in class warfare permanently—that for the general public, the fact that people are leading different lives with different economic realities and different expectations is perfectly cope-able with.
"If you can't deal with that," he continues, "then your life would be unlivable. And I think politicians try to encourage us to think in a hostile sense [of] people who have a different circumstance to our own. Which I find very unproductive and uncreative."
"Downton Abbey" chronicles the lives of the patrician Crawley family and their servants in a fictional country house in Yorkshire, in northern England. The first season opens with the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912, and ends with the declaration of war against Germany. The second season covers the war years, and the third season, which airs Sundays on PBS, takes us into the Roaring '20s. The show is a hit in Britain, the U.S., Sweden, South Korea, Russia, Israel and beyond.
I've caught the 63-year-old writer and producer on his way to the House of Lords, where he was made a Life Peer in 2011. His full title is Baron Fellowes of West Stafford, Lord of the Manor of Tattershall, Deputy Lieutenant of Dorset. He is properly addressed as Lord Fellowes.
"But do call me Julian," he says toward the end of our two-hour chat.
He talks freely and voluminously, his thoughts unspooling in long, liquid sentences. "I think America has dealt with—I mean, this is simplistic and of course I don't live in America—but the impression I get is that there is not a kind of obligation to dislike those who are better off or be frightened of those who are worse off . . . The Americans, I think, are better at seeing themselves as a kind of community—that the important thing is to be American."
In Britain, he says, "we've had a century of being encouraged to dislike each other. And I suppose 'Downton' is in a different position to that."
This nonjudgmental embrace of the highborn life has exposed the show to the criticism, leveled widely, that it celebrates Edwardian opulence without due regard for the period's inequities. Lord Fellowes disagrees. " 'Downton,' I think, has achieved its success for the opposite reason, which is that all the characters are taken seriously," he says. "I don't think we patronize the servants, we don't make them comedic. Nor do we automatically hate the family or regard them as selfish and mendacious and so on."
He continues: "I like the characters to disagree and the audience can see both points of view, so that neither is being ludicrous or unreasonable. It just always seems to me more interesting if you're slightly torn as to which side you're on."
Hence "Downton" has characters who are skeptical of class hierarchy and ones who worship it. It has servants who are unflinchingly stoical and masters whose self-restraint deserts them. It has guardians of the old order and torchbearers of modernity, a whole gallery of them: an Irish socialist, feminists of various stripes, American nouveaux riches. It's a funny aspiration for a soap opera, ideological balance, but evidently a winning one.
The "Downton" creator admits that its appeal relies, to a degree, on not getting too deep into the messy realities of the history. "What you have to understand about period drama," he says, "is that it's history light. You can enjoy it, but you don't have to get up at five in the morning. You don't have to get on your hands and knees and clean out the grate. If you're upstairs, you don't have to change your clothes five times a day. You don't have to sit there in a corset. You don't have to leave food on your plate and pretend the man next to you is interesting."
He also makes no apology for feeding an escapist impulse. The "Downton" world "seems like an ordered world at times, and ours feels like a rather disordered world. This is an era of insecurity, both in a very real sense for a lot of people, economically. Their jobs are either gone or insecure, and they haven't got as much money to spend, which is very tough. And a lot of people are going through that."
Beyond the financial insecurity in the air, he says, the "political structures seem a bit wobbly, and we don't seem to have quite the faith in them. I always remember that movie with James Cagney, 'Yankee Doodle Dandy.' He goes to see the president, and we see him sitting opposite the president. And there's a light on his face, as if the president is actually shining.
"I must have loved that, really. I love that faith in the institutions. And I don't think we really have that any more. We don't think our leaders shine in that way."
So is Julian Fellowes a fantasist or a fabulist? Does "Downton" offer comfort or critique? I suggest to him that his show is of a piece with the recent slew of stylish TV dramas set in rigid, patriarchal societies: "Mad Men," "Game of Thrones," "Deadwood." "A lot of these stories are about how to achieve your own personal goal within the rules," he says. "Most of us don't want to be outsiders. . . . We want our achievements, but we want still to be inside the tent. And you can make that impulse clearer in a world where the rules were clearer.
"I think it's still true, actually. But our rules are so nebulous. None of us quite know what they are. It's like 'casual chic.' We don't know what it is."
That's not quite a full-throated defense of a world in which people know their place. Wistfully sympathetic, maybe. The "Downton" characters bear witness to many innovations of the day: the telephone, women's suffrage, the cocktail party, the toaster—and the idea that one can choose one's own path in life, regardless of birth. I ask Lord Fellowes about the motto on his family coat of arms: Post Proelia Praemia ("After battles come rewards" in Latin).
That too few ordinary people's battles were rewarded in the era of "Downton" is "the indictment of the age," he replies, but the motto "is quite apposite for me." He labored in obscurity as a character actor and television writer for more than two decades until he was tapped by director Robert Altman to write the screenplay for "Gosford Park," a 2001 pastiche of the manor-house murder mystery. The screenplay won an Academy Award.
Work was abundant after that: two best-selling novels, screenplays for "Vanity Fair" and "The Young Victoria," a musical-theater adaptation of "Mary Poppins," a "Romeo and Juliet" film adaptation that will be released later this year—and "Downton Abbey," which "has been sort of a huge hurricane."
"It's fun to be part of a success," he says. "God knows you spend a lot of time in the industry beavering away without that."
Here is the slightly un-British attitude toward status and achievement that has gotten him into trouble in his native land. Certain quarters of the U.K. press have accused him of being a parvenu—of obsessing over the upper class, both with "Downton" and in his personal life, to compensate for his own not-especially-aristocratic provenance. He was born in Cairo to a diplomat father, Peregrine Fellowes, and enjoyed a comfortable early life with ample opportunity. But the family was not surrounded by servants, as he has read in the British papers. "All complete tosh," he says.
In another time, being "lower-upper class" might actually have freed him to explore a few rungs up the social ladder. Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald were distant enough from the blithe lives of their subjects to tinge their depictions with tragedy—but near enough to be persuasive about it. Yet the idea runs deep, in British life of the past half-century, that a true toff must be hushed and slightly ill at ease with his own toffery.
"That is written because they have to say something," Lord Fellowes says of his detractors in the British press. "And in this country, you have to say something nasty. I think the truth of the matter," he continues, "is either you're interested in social history or you're not. The minutiae of behavior, the motives that change our behavior, why we follow certain patterns, the preconditioning of class, the attitudes that are class badges as opposed to the areas where there's a free vote—all of that I find very interesting, and I'm happy to say, so does the public. Or enough of them.
"But what I never really understand is the accusation of snobbery. Because I would have thought it was the exact opposite of snobbery. Once you're analyzing it and trying to understand why people do this and why they are persuaded of that, I would have thought that was anti-snobbish."
How did he become interested in the minutiae? The question sends him into dreamy reverie. "It was a sort of gradual thing. When I was a child—I mean, I'm 100 now, I reach back into another time—when I was a child, it was just coming to an end for a lot of people. In the '50s, the butler retired and they didn't get another one. They finally decided to pack it in and sell the house. The stables were all empty of horses, and there'd be old perambulators and signs for the village fête in there."
He continues sketching the scene: "And you'd go into the attics of some of these houses and there would be lines of bedrooms, and in some cases, there'd be nameplates, and it would say 'Mary' on it, and inside was an old iron bedstead. And you had a real sense, then, of a life that you just missed. And sort of, cupboards lined with blue felt with nothing in them."
His father had aunts who were born in the late Victorian era, and regular tea with his great-aunt Isie provided firsthand access to a bygone existence. "I was a little bit of a nerd, I think. I think I was a sort of anorak [an obsessive], aged 12, sitting there learning what the duties were of a still-room maid, d'you know?"
Those silver-tongued aunts were also the cause of formative traumas. His mother grew up in an upper-middle-class family but was descended from less-than-noble traders and farmers. Peregrine Fellowes married her "in the teeth of his family's opposition," Fellowes fils says. "And they always disapproved of her, and were always sort of slightly dismissive of her.
"By the time she produced four sons, that sort of made it all better. . . . But there was that kind of dismissal. And I was aware of it, and as a child I was puzzled by it. But as I got older, I did understand it."
Lord Fellowes may not wish "Downton" to take sides. But in his family, as in the Crawleys and numberless less-glamorous families, sides were taken. "My father's ancestors were this kind of person, and my mother's were this kind of person. And I think that did influence me."
Mr. Zhong is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Europe.
A version of this article appeared February 2, 2013, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Anti-Snobbery of 'Downton Abbey'.