Rob James-Collier: Oh, You Handsome Devil!
By Aaron Hicklin
We are in Bloomsbury, London, sitting in a tiny French patisserie hardly big enough to contain James-Collier’s boundless energy. When he walks in, he immediately begins by quoting lines from articles of mine that he’s found online. It’s discombobulating. Research is my job. At another point, he puts me on the phone with a friend summoned to serve as a character reference. I feel like a luckless audience member at a comedy show, plucked from the front row as a volunteer for a gag. When I accidentally insert a “Smith” into his surname (it’s that damn hyphenate), he is gleeful as hell. “Aaron has got my name wrong, and he’s now floundering, trying to think of it,” he dictates into my recorder.
That double-barreled name, incidentally, was not his choice. He grew up in Salford, near Manchester, as plain Rob Collier, and might have stayed that way had actors union Equity not intervened to avoid confusion with another Rob Collier. “I said, ‘Can I have Rob James Collier, and they said, ‘Yeah, if you hyphenate it,’ and I said, ‘Well, can I have Rob-James Collier?’ and they said -- and this is true -- ‘No, you have to hyphenate the James and the Collier.’ ” He wasn’t happy. In England, hyphenated surnames are for posh people. “I was, like, ‘That sounds like someone from the aristocracy, as if I’m being somebody I’m not.’ But they insisted,” he recalls ruefully. In Britain, still today, there’s little more disreputable than the man or woman who puts on the airs and graces of the upper class.
I went to school with boys like James-Collier. You probably did, too. They are the entertainers and comedians, who laugh at their own pratfalls. What they lack in confidence they make up for in banter. It’s no surprise to hear that James-Collier is the joker on set, and the one with the loudest mouth. “Most actors are really shy and insular creatures,” he explains. “I’ve just always been a dick.” He remembers his first day at acting class (he found it by consulting the Yellow Pages), and realizing that he’d liberated himself. “We were doing these warm-up exercises, running around doing crazy things with our voices, and, rather than feeling stupid, I just felt that I’d come home,” he says. He was working as a marketing assistant at the time, “listening to Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon -- great album, bad album to listen to if you’re in a rut, ticking away the hours that make up a dull day.” Watching Ricky Gervais’s masterwork, The Office, compounded his sense of futility. “It was my office,” he says. “I thought, I can’t do this for the rest of my life, surely?”
Oddly, that is the same dilemma facing Thomas Barrow, shackled to servitude as a footman at Downton Abbey, always looking for an opportunity to elevate his station in life -- and failing. His pitiful efforts to establish a black market in rationed goods during season 2 spoke volumes about the limitations confronting Britain’s working class in the Edwardian era. It’s moments like those that save Downton Abbey from being merely an exercise in sumptuous costume porn.