The RNLI and me: Julian Fellowes

The multi-award winning creator of Downton Abbey tells us about visiting a lifeboat station and imagines it as a setting for a new drama

Novelist and screenwriter, Julian Fellowes

Photo: Tom Keller

Why do you support the RNLI?

My parents were very keen on the RNLI. My grandfather was a great supporter and died in the First World War, quite young. I think my father felt that he needed to go on with it, as a link to his own father. And I have a certain amount of naval history in my background. It’s in my blood. Also, my godson Olly is on the crew at Padstow. He finds it very rewarding.

What do you think of the RNLI’s volunteer crews?

I really do admire these volunteers because they’re often called out when the sea is at its most ferocious. They are a tremendous asset to the community. These are men and women deciding to give up their time in the interests of others. We are all increasingly dependent on that, so it does seem very, very important that we should support people who are good enough to do it. With the lifeboat crew, it’s not just giving up time to help – these people are risking their lives, and showing a considerable degree of courage. That deserves to be recognised and saluted.

You supported the RNLI at Lyme Regis Lifeboat Week. What was that like?

It was rather an extraordinary visit, because of this incredibly dramatic tug of war they do each year when they pull across the mouth of the harbour, so one team or another is pulled into the sea! I did the ‘ready, steady, go’ bit and had a ringside seat from a boat. They were so phlegmatic about being plunged into the water.

Julian Fellowes and David Dimbleby at Lyme Regis Lifeboat Station

Photo: Richard Horobin

Julian Fellowes and David Dimbleby during Lyme Regis Lifeboat Week

What did you get out of your visit?

That being on a lifeboat crew is a dangerous and brave activity that is tremendously needed in our seagoing community. Clambering up into the lifeboat was the most testing thing, physically, I’ve done recently! You have to remember they’re doing it at speed and they have to get out of their clothes and into their suits in seconds, because seconds may make the difference between life and death.

Do you think a lifeboat station would work as a setting for a period drama?

I think it could be a very good contemporary drama. Because one of the things you want from a workplace drama is a believable context where people can come from very different backgrounds, occupations, ages and so on – like hospitals or lawyers’ offices. A lifeboat station is a pretty classic example of that; volunteers come from every walk of life and a wide range of ages. There could be some good dramatic material there.

About Julian Fellowes

Julian Fellowes is a novelist, Conservative peer, actor and screenwriter, best known for creating Downton Abbey and writing the script for Gosford Park, which won him an Oscar. Upcoming projects for Fellowes include the Downton Abbey movie, the dramatic series The Gilded Age, a series about football called The English Game, and a miniseries of his own novel Belgravia.

If you'd like to visit a lifeboat station too, find your nearest station, call ahead and organise a trip. Our volunteers would love to meet you!