I think the episode of Sybil’s death turned out very well. I think all the actors played it really well. I loved the fight between the doctors, because it was so irrelevant and so stupid. So often when you’re having a family crisis, in parallel you’re having a fight with the garage because they haven’t changed the wheels properly or something—the sort of petty and the enormous in our lives are so inextricably entwined. I felt we sort of got that. Each actor individually defined what their response was to the death of Sybil. And the actual death scene I thought was really terrific. It made me cry, and I wrote it!
Dan Stevens didn’t really decide he wanted to leave the show until we were just about to start filming. I thought, "We can’t have another episode about a person dying, because then the whole thing turns into Six Feet Under. Everyone’s dying." I thought we also can’t put it right through the Christmas episode, because it airs on Christmas Day here, so we decided to hold it until the very end. I didn’t want to ruin all these people’s Christmases. I thought, "Dan, could you just be happy with the baby, haha, everything lovely, and then come back next year and we’ll kill you?" And he just didn’t want to do that. He wanted to walk away clean. But I did feel strongly that these people had tuned in for the Christmas show and they were all stuffed with turkey, and I thought we can’t have the whole evening in sobs again. So we decided to have a completely normal Christmas episode, and then, right at the end ... bang! That’s what we went for. Of course it is very shocking.
Thomas Saves James
I always knew from the beginning when I made Thomas gay that his justification for trying to protect himself and look after his own interest and manipulate people is that he’s walking on eggshells. He’s having to deal with the fact that his emotional makeup could land him in jail. The simplest and purest emotions that he feels are criminal. I think finally that makes him kind of sympathetic. When he takes the beating for Jimmy, that was just a noble act. That was just an act of love. There was no other motivation for it. There was nothing else in it for Thomas. I think that makes him a noble person. What I hope is that even people who are fairly homophobic, without really having realized that they were, would watch that story and examine their own motives the next time the subject came up.
Martha Meets Violet
We wanted this feeling that Violet was essentially a nostalgic character for the way things used to be in the 19th century, whereas we wanted Martha to be the absolute opposite. We wanted a woman ready for the future and excited to embrace it. I think that in the two actresses—not that Maggie Smith is particularly nostalgic for the past, but she knows how to play that very easily. And Shirley MacLaine is someone who is sort of up for anything. If you went to her and said, "I have a great idea for a movie with you and you’ll be in a rubber suit and the whole thing takes place under water," my guess is she’d say, “Wow, how are we going to do that?” And I love that. I’m fond of them both, but they have this energy that was very distinct.
Ethel Gives Up Her Son
I liked the Ethel story with the baby. She kind of knew that when she’d refuse to let his grandparents take the child, it wasn’t really in the child’s best interest, and that she’d eventually have to make the sacrifice. In those days, to deprive her child of the best education money could buy when she had nothing to offer him because society was not kind to women like her, it made—I hope—a really difficult moral predicament. In one way, you wanted her to keep the child and keep her life, but in another way you understood why she felt she had to give it up.
Edith Is Left at the Altar
I love Edith. I love Edith. Edith is an unlucky person, and when good things happen they so often seem to unravel. I’m afraid that, based on my observations, some people are just unlucky and things don’t seem to go right for them. Other people, I’m sure they do have some sort of trouble somewhere, but most of the time they just seem to be dancing through a field of icing. Edith isn’t like that. But there’s a gallantry about her because, yes, as another blow falls, she sort of soldiers on like Mother Courage. That’s very good to write for.
As told to Kevin Fallon.