Rob James-Collier: Oh, You Handsome Devil!
By Aaron Hicklin
Although not gay in real life, he says he has empathy for misfits and outsiders, perhaps because of his own atypical route to acting. Even now it’s clear that he can’t quite believe that he’s earned his place as an actor. He recalls sitting opposite Maggie Smith during the first read-through (“a proper pinch-yourself moment”) and feeling that everything out of his mouth sounded like wooden splinters. It can’t be easy playing the least lovable character on the show. When she arrived on set, guest star Shirley MacLaine greeted him with the words, “It’s you -- the evil one! Why are you so evil?” The answers, apparently, are all in season 3. “With O’Brien and Thomas, you’ve got these two forces, and it’s a kind of paradox -- they work for this great house that keeps them off the streets and from starving, and yet they absolutely despise the system they’re in, because there’s no other option,” he says. “In a weird way Thomas wants to bring down the system, but if he did he’d be putting himself out of a job and a home.”
As he was talking, I remembered something: My own grandmother, now 92, had started her working life “in service” as they say, at the age of 14, still a child herself. That would have been in the 1930s -- the same era as Julian Fellowes other big country–house hit, Gosford Park, for which he won a best original screenplay Oscar in 2002. At the time my grandmother went into service, her father was ill and her mother was struggling to hold things together. “It was an awful wrench to leave my sisters and brothers at home, but it was one less pair of shoes under the table,” she explains when I ask about her experiences. My grandmother, a country girl, didn’t work in the big house (as one of her sisters did), but for a doctor’s family, where she was excruciatingly lonely.
“I think that’s the reason I got married so young -- to get out of it,” she says. “I did all the cooking and all the cleaning, and had one half day off a week, and a whole day off once a month.”
“No weekends, then?” I ask.
“Oh, there were no weekends,” she says, conjuring Maggie Smith’s glorious bafflement in season 1. It is to Downton Abbey’s credit that this stark double meaning isn’t entirely lost on the audience, or that the disparity between those upstairs and those downstairs isn’t varnished into oblivion. It’s left to us to imagine how people of O’Brien’s resourcefulness or Thomas’s ambition would fare in our own age, but one thing’s certain—they wouldn’t be spending their weekends polishing the silver.
Downton Abbey season 3 premieres January 6 on PBS.