Last March, when The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch declared an “epidemic of Downton Abbey fever,” he wasn’t wrong. The show has been nothing short of a phenomenon, a runaway success for dowdy old PBS, far outpacing in ratings that other popular period drama, Mad Men. It’s a classic tale of love and fortune with a fundamental mystery at its core, namely: How can something this schlocky be this good? Maybe it has something to do with its formula, equal parts high class to high camp (yes, Dame Maggie Smith, we’re looking at you); or its bucolic English setting; or, more likely, its blatant appeal to our closeted hankering for a butler fully versed in the art of decanting vintage port. After all is said and done, who has not wished that they, too, could be in the position to declare, like the Dowager Countess with her imperious mix of disdain and perplexity, “What is a week-end?”
Indeed, what is a weekend without Downton Abbey to cozy up with on Sunday nights? And here it is, back again to keep winter from the door—season 3, and with it the Roaring Twenties to blow away the agony of war and the insult of rationing. Expect flappers and the Charleston, and a Marcel wave or two.
Let me come clean: I haven’t seen a preview of season 3 -- in my home that would be cheating; it’s what we still call appointment TV -- but I have it on great authority that this is the season in which that villainous gay footman-turned-valet, Thomas Barrow, experiences the tender love that his poor, neglected heart so craves and needs. It’s about time. His dalliance with the Duke of Crowborough in the opening episode of season 1 turned out to be a tease. He ended season 2 in the arms of the Dowager Countess, twirling around the dance floor at the Christmas party like a neuter content to spend his prime escorting ladies of a certain age to the ball.
We should have known that creator and writer Julian Fellowes would not disappoint. Season 3 is where it all changes for young Thomas. And for us, too. Although there clearly were gay men in Edwardian England, they’ve been in scant supply on television. There was, of course, Sebastian and Charles in Brideshead Revisited, whose “naughtiness [was] high on the catalogue of grave sins,” as Evelyn Waugh wrote, but they merely hinted at what happened when the lights were off. Thomas promises to go somewhat further. It’s what makes Downton Abbey feel, well, modern.
No one, of course, is more excited by this turn of events than Rob James-Collier, the actor who secured the role of Thomas with the understanding that it was a one-season deal. “My agent said, ‘Listen, you’ve got the part that everyone in town wants—he’s a villain, he’s a great role, the only bad thing is that he dies at the end of the first series,’ ” recalls James-Collier. But Thomas clicked with the audience, and his on-screen chemistry with his maid counterpart, O’Brien (a wonderfully surly Siobhan Finneran), was irresistible. “I gave it 110 percent, and after the first couple of episodes, Liz, the producer, came to me and said, ‘We want you to stay on. Will you?’ And I was, like, ‘Fuck, yeah.’ ”
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.
If you grew up in Britain, as I did, the world of Downton Abbey is a familiar one, conjured in an endless parade of finely wrought television shows, which we send across the oceans like telegraphs from our gilded past. Some of them, like 1981’s 11-hour miniseries, Brideshead Revisited, which introduced Jeremy Irons to the world, or 1995’s six-episode serialization of Pride and Prejudice, which did the same for Colin Firth, strike gold. Few, however, receive quite the rapturous reception of Downton Abbey. The reason, perhaps, is fairly simple: Although Downton wears the clothes (and production values) of quality drama, it has the soul of a soap opera. As my boyfriend likes to say, it’s very efficient, meaning that things happen at lightning speed. Resolutions come thick and swift, which is all part of the pleasure.
Fellowes himself takes credit for modernizing the format by borrowing his style from U.S. shows like The West Wing, but it’s also that the concerns of the show are discernibly our concerns, albeit in Edwardian costume. For James-Collier, “Downton Abbey is a workplace like any other. You’re going to get cliques of people who don’t like each other -- Thomas and O’Brien versus Bates and Anna -- and you’re going to get people who really love doing their jobs and people who are bitter and feel they’re just a number. It’s about relationships in the workplace environment, and people can identify with that because the same problems and political conflicts you have in work today were relevant back then.”
Coincidentally or otherwise, almost all the actors who play servants in Downton Abbey got their start in English soap operas -- gritty exercises in social realism, fully rooted in working-class culture. The oldest of those shows, Coronation Street -- set in Manchester -- has run continuously for 52 years, and nurtured generations of acting talent. James-Collier arrived on the series in 2006, as “loveable rogue” Liam Connor, and stayed for two years before deciding he wanted to take on a different kind of challenge.
“It’s a great, brilliant show, but you have to make a decision,” he says. “I’m not knocking anyone for going that way [of soap operas] -- you can get security, and God knows we need that, but I think you’re limited then in terms of your options as an actor.” After Coronation Street, he was out of work for 15 months, waiting for the right thing to come along. “I watched people who had left these kinds of shows and had seen what happened,” he says. “So I knew you had to literally put the shutters down and just pray and hope that something would come along, and when the wolves were near the door, Downton Abbey came.”
James-Collier has joked that his character’s sexuality became so muted in season 2 that he called up Fellowes and asked, “Am I still gay?” Yes, it turns out. In season 3, we get to see Thomas outed in a powerful sequence of episodes that James-Collier considers the best acting of his career. “It’s the series where we really comes to grips with Thomas’s sexuality and the impact being gay must have had on him, in Edwardian times,” he says. “If you’re including a gay character, there’s an onus and responsibility to at least show what the impact of the time will be on him, and of him on that time. Thankfully we’ve done that, and I’m so proud that I’ve been used to tell that tale.”
A confrontation between Thomas and the butler, Mr. Carson, proves to be a high point, and one that confers uncommon dignity on the footman. “It’s a lovely, beautiful moment,” says James-Collier, clearly delighted by the opportunity to redeem his character. “If you were gay in those times, the fact that you’re even functioning, how you’re not completely fucked up by that, is beyond me.”
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.