Penelope Wilton plays Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey. She is a veteran of TV, stage and film and has starred in the popular British TV series Ever Decreasing Circles and The Borrowers. Her film career includes The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Cry Freedom, Iris, Calendar Girls, Shaun of the Dead, Pride and Prejudice, Match Point and The History Boys. She has twice won the Critics’ Circle Theatre Award…
Q: When you meet the public, Penelope, what do most people remember you from?
A: I think a smaller number of people would remember me from theatre more than television and film, but I did do a number of series on television, like Ever Decreasing Circles and then The Borrowers. I also did a number of films before then, like Cry Freedom with Richard Attenborough, so I’ve done a few things that people would remember. But my life has been mostly in the theatre.
Q: Have you been able to enjoy some anonymity in your life?
A: It depends what’s been on television at the time. When I was doing Ever Decreasing Circles, of course people recognised me. Then, when I did Shaun of the Dead my kudos went up in the street. My daughter’s friends were all absolutely thrilled to have a friend whose mother was in that film! There have been certain highlights in my life.
Q: And where does Downton rank in terms of career highlights? Quite highly, one imagines…
A: Oh, absolutely. It has been the longest-running series I have been in and it’s been phenomenal. It has gone to so many places. Before, my career was more of a European and English thing, but this goes all over the world. It goes to 250 countries and is very big in China, Japan and Brazil. To me, it’s amazing. For all those reasons it makes Downton a completely different cup of tea, really. It opens you up to different parts of the world. Downton is very popular in America so it’s meant I am known more over there, which is extraordinary. I’ve only been there once since it’s been on television. I had to go to LA recently, and they’re mad about the series over there.
Q: Have you noticed more interest through your agent since Downton?
A: I just did a film, the BFG, where I play a queen. That was for Steven Spielberg and that came out of Downton, though I think Steven had also seen the Best Exotic Marigold films as well.
Q: Have you received a lot of personal fan mail through your involvement in Downton?
A: I have received mail because of the show. I get a lot of letters from Brazil, for some reason. I am big in Brazil! That is very interesting. I don’t know why I am big in Brazil. I get a lot of letters from China as well. The Chinese seem very, very keen to get replies. They send very elaborate cards. That has been very nice. Sometimes they can be very amusing but they’re always very charming. There have been a lot and I reply to them all, of course.
Q: People love the verbal duelling between your character and Dame Maggie Smith’s. Has there been any repartee that you’ve particularly enjoyed?
A: What is so good is that you go in on a very high level. Usually, the tension is quite high at the start of any given scene. What Julian Fellowes writes are often very short scenes. So you often come in on an argument, and you are in and out very quickly. You have to build a scene in a very short time. It’s often just a page or a page-and-a-half. A little story has to be told in that period and he writes it very pithily. You have to deliver it to fit it in with what else is going on around you. You also have to remember that you might come back to that scene in between other scenes. So you have to keep your thread going, and keep the argument going because often the argument is returned to, time and time again. And it’s the same argument. They score off each other. Sometimes she wins, sometimes I win and that has to be maintained. It can be quite hard sometimes to remember where you left it. If you come in on the wrong tone, it can become flat. It’s hard to think of an exact moment, although the very first one was wonderful when I say, ‘What shall we call each other?’ and she says, ‘Why don’t we start with Mrs Crawley and Lady Grantham?’ That laid the foundation for the relationship, which has changed over the years. They need each other later on.
Q: You must love the fact that Mrs Crawley straddles both worlds — she’s neither fully upstairs nor properly downstairs? She’s like Branson in that way…
A: It is very interesting and I think Julian uses those two characters for the audience to get into the respective worlds. You see that they don’t entirely belong in either world. They come from another world. They weren’t born into the bubble that is Downton Abbey, so they bring another eye, an outside eye. That is what the audience sees; they too are outside eyes looking in. I think sometimes Isobel is used as that character, to give a window into that world and to question some of the ideals that keep the place afloat, especially during the War. By the time we get to the sixth season, she has changed somewhat. When her son died they embraced Isobel and brought her into the family, so later on she’s much gentler with her critique.
Q: What do you recall of your last day working on Downton?
A: I had a very tricky day because everyone else had gone. There was just me on the set and one other actor. All the sets were coming down and it was a very lonely hospital corridor that I had to walk along. And that was the only thing left, so what had been a teeming, busy studio with hundreds of people dashing about, became this shell. That was difficult. I shed a tear. I was sad to see it all go.
Q: How do you hope the show will be remembered?
A: I hope it will be remembered as something special. I don’t know if anyone will ever repeat it. I hope they do because it’s important to realise that drama on television is perfectly viable. Before Downton Abbey there was very little. It was completely out of fashion and there were a lot of reality shows on television in the UK. Suddenly, very good storytelling came back into fashion again and I think Downton Abbey contributed to that. It wasn’t just police shows and cops and robbers. It was stories with characters that all sorts of people could get involved with. Young people could get involved in the lives of the younger people and the older people could get more involved with mine, or Phyllis Logan’s characters, for example. There was something that could be related to everybody. Downton’s great strength is in its storytelling. Julian is a page-turner. You want to know what is going to happen next. It is very interesting because he has 18 main characters. He doesn’t only concentrate on two lead people. It throws the thing open to a much wider and diverse group of people and you follow all their lives. You are equally interested and so you get into that world.
DOWNTON ABBEY SERIES 6 IS AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD ON 16TH NOVEMBER, COURTESY OF UNIVERSAL PICTURES (UK)