Love, lies and petticoats

22:17, May 10 2011
Downton Abbey
SIBLING RIVALRY: The Crawley sisters Edith (Laura Carmichael), Mary (Michelle Dockery) and Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) in Downton Abbey.

Penelope Wilton had a dame good reason to want to be part of lavish British period drama Downton Abbey - a chance to work with legendary performer Maggie Smith.

Wilton says as a younger actress, the person she admired more than anyone else on stage and in film, was Dame Maggie (she was officially bestowed with the title in 1990). She saw everything Smith did at The National Theatre and is relishing the chance to work with her "heroine" in Downton Abbey.

Wilton and Smith arguably share some of the best exchanges on television in years as the worlds of the two matriarchs collide in the hit seven-part series.

Penelope Wilton
DRAMA QUEEN: Peneople Wilton as Isobel Crawley in Downton Abbey.

"[Oscar-winning writer] Julian [Fellowes] has written the most wonderful dialogue for both Maggie and I and we were in fits of laughter delivering these snippy lines to each other."

The series takes place just before World War I inside the grand estate of Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle in Hampshire, on England's south coast, in real life).

Downton is home to the aristocratic Crawley family, headed by the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) and his wealthy American wife, Cora (Elizabeth McGovern).


Maggie Smith
PERIOD DRAMA: Dame Maggie Smith as Dowager Countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey.

They have three daughters and an army of servants.

Like the popular 70s series, Upstairs, Downstairs, the drama plays out "above and below" with the servants' lives just as intriguing, and often as scandalous, as their masters.

Downton Abbey was watched by more than 10 million viewers in Britain and garnered glowing reviews in the United States. A second series is being filmed.

Wilton plays Isobel Crawley, a widow whose son, Matthew (Dan Stevens), unexpectedly finds himself next in line to inherit Downton when the intended heir goes down - literally - with the Titanic.

Isobel and Matthew leave their home in Manchester and move to the Downton estate where Matthew begins to grasp the full responsibility of his inheritance and butts heads with acid-tongued eldest Crawley daughter, Mary (Michelle Dockery), who has no legal entitlement to Downton.

Then there's the town's Queen Bee, and Mary's grandmother, Dowager Countess Violet Crawley (Smith), to contend with. Isobel's modern ways particularly ruffle Violet's expensive feathers.

"[Isobel] trained as a nurse during the Boer War and her husband and brother were both doctors and so had a very full life," Wilton says. "We discover that her husband specialised in children's diseases and out of his notes Isobel published a book of his work."

Soon Isobel is volunteering at the local hospital, which does not go down well with the Dowager Countess, whose late husband set up the service.

"Maggie's character and mine clash terribly over the hospital as Isobel wants to get involved and put her skills as a nurse to good use. She has lived in the real world and knows a bit about medicine and basically thinks the hospital is stuck in the Dark Ages.

"Matthew and Isobel are part of the middle classes, the educated, the lawyers and doctors and as such, even the servants are snooty towards them. They represent change and I suppose present a new threat to their way of life."

Wilton, whose credits include a memorable stint on the reboot of Doctor Who, as well as films Cry Freedom, Calendar Girls, Shaun of the Dead and The History Boys, says costume dramas present special challenges.

"When you are older you need a bit of makeup, but they didn't wear it in those days so we only had the very barest of makeup bases," she says.

"I do wear a wig because they had a lot of hair then, which took quite a while to put on. And, of course, the corsets meant we didn't eat much lunch on set. It's no surprise they had to have maids in those days - it must have taken ages to get ready!"

The residents of Downton Abbey might grapple with newfangled technology like electricity and the first home telephones, but they seem to have no problem with modern social media. The show has an official Twitter account (@DowntonAbbey), with updates about the daily goings on at the mansion from an inside character who addresses fan queries in the language of the era. More than 7000 ladies and lords follow the account, which posted this amusing tweet before Prince William and Kate Middleton tied the knot: "The family will be travelling to London on Friday, the #royalwedding invite has not arrived yet, but her Ladyship is ever hopeful." - ERICA THOMPSON

Downton Abbey, Tuesday, 8.30pm, Prime.

The Dominion Post