Time and place: Not quite Gosford Park - Julian Fellowes
18 December 2005 The Sunday Times Home
I was the youngest of four brothers and when, at last, I went off to boarding
school, my mother, Olwen, decided to exchange our home in South Kensington for
a country house and a London flat. My father, Peregrine, was reluctant, so Mummy
moved us all into a flat where we were so squidged it was intolerable. After
that, househunting began in earnest. It was exciting when they found a place.
The seller allowed us to install our furniture early, so we had the most untraumatic
moving day. When we arrived, I ran from room to room. I was only 10 and couldn’t believe that everything was already there.
It was a thriller house with lots of panelling and passages. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was owned by a whodunnit writer called Clifford Kitchin. To us boys, he was a figure of immense glamour. He once gave a party with a shipboard theme. All the gardeners stood around the house throwing buckets of water rhythmically against the windows, which I thought was fabulous.
It wasn’t a grand place, not Gosford Park at all. There were about seven bedrooms, but the great luxury was that Mr Kitchin had installed four bathrooms, which in those days a lot of people thought rather common. The oak-panelled drawing room had a sort of library at the end. My mother decided the room was too dark and had the panelling painted white, which shocked everybody, but she was quite right. She’d studied design and had a good eye. My father was inclined to think that the decoration of the previous owners was what God intended.
We weren’t a Sussex family. There were Felloweses in Aberdeenshire, Norfolk and Huntingdonshire and almost everywhere except Sussex. My father had been a diplomat, but by the time we moved to Chiddingly he worked for Shell. He was that last generation of men who lived in a pat of butter without knowing it. My mother put him on a train on Monday mornings and drove up to London in the afternoon. When the Shell car dropped him off at the flat she’d be waiting in a snappy little cocktail dress with a delicious dinner and a drink. Lovely, really.
As soon as we arrived in Chiddingly, we were enrolled in riding lessons. The instructor was a terrifying woman with the most enormous rear end. We had to learn to ride without a bridle, so you controlled the horse with your legs. If you fell off you had to pay a shilling. I remember once slipping and clinging around the horse’s neck until I was allowed to fall without having to pay.
Our main friends in the village were the Kingsleys. David, the father, was head of British Lion films, responsible for all those Peter Sellers comedies. Every now and then these glamorous figures would come down to their house. My parents loved film, and I grew up going to the cinema, but I think I learnt from David that you could actually make a living in the film business.
There was a wonderful shop run by a Mr Robinson and his two sons, which we called Robbie’s. My mother was a strong believer that you had to support the village shop. Sometimes, if she hadn’t placed an order, Robbie would put things in the house just in case. It was a different world. You didn’t lock your door and you’d come back and find a note saying: “Looked in, helped myself to a gin and tonic. How about lunch on Sunday?” Our butcher also put food in the fridge on the off chance. When he first rang up he said his name was Mr Warren-Butcher and for ages, that was what we called him. After about 15 years we discovered his name was just Mr Warren. And he was a butcher.
At Christmas there were always lots of people staying, but usually there would be one person whom we didn’t know all that well. Years later, I asked Mummy why she always had somebody extra. She said: “It was the only way to make you all behave.”
I’m a cradle Catholic and went to Ampleforth, although I can’t pretend I really enjoyed school. I knew I was a much more interesting person at home than I seemed to be anywhere else. I wasn’t good-looking and when you are plain in your teens it’s difficult to feel successful. My brother Rory, who is three years older, was the double of Terence Stamp and got into the Sixties more than me, although I did see the Beatles and the Rolling Stones perform live. I remember thinking those were the two groups of the era anybody would be interested in later.
My mother died in the house in 1980. When my father remarried a couple of years later, I bought the place, but I sold it in 1988. I felt guilty, but he said: “Just because something is wrong for you now, it doesn’t mean it was wrong for you then.” That was so generous. I had a last lunch with various relations and the Kingsleys. We all walked to the churchyard where my mother was buried. It was very sad, but time to move on.
Julian Fellowes won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gosford Park. As an actor, he is best known as Kilwillie in BBC TV’s Monarch of the Glen. Julian Fellowes Investigates: A Most Mysterious Murder is on BBC1, Dec 27, 10pm