The Halcyon: Could this be the show that makes Olivia Williams a household name?

Olivia Williams plays Lady Priscilla Hamilton in The Halcyon.

Olivia Williams plays Lady Priscilla Hamilton in The Halcyon.

In another life –  and with, perhaps, a different set of choices – Olivia Williams might have been a lot more famous. After she played Bruce Willis's wife in the supernatural thriller The Sixth Sense, she came dangerously close to Hollywood superstardom herself.

"The fact that, 20 years on, I don't happen to be a well-known celebrity in every home strikes me as a bullet dodged," she says.

"It may have cost me professionally but, on the plus side, I can take my kids out without putting a bag on their heads to protect their identity. I wouldn't want to be as famous as you'd need to be to get some of the jobs that I've missed out on."

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Now aged 48, this witty, toweringly elegant, crystal-vowelled, Cambridge-educated actress is doing perfectly fine, thanks. She may not command the US$20 million pay-outs once demanded by her Hollywood co-stars, but she works consistently, on both sides of the Atlantic and in every medium- stage, TV and movies. She was also, by the way, a judge in last year's Man Booker awards. Looks and brains combined.

Williams will soon be seen supplying an aristocratic element to The Halcyon, ITV's sparkling new eight-part, period drama, which is set in a swanky five-star hotel at the heart of Blitz-torn London society. Think Downton, with bellboys on.

She plays Lady Priscilla Hamilton, the hotel's reluctant proprietress, who is chilly but, beneath the surface, wounded, and, when we meet, she's in full regalia – silk pyjamas and dressing gown, topped off with a velvet turban.

"We're filming an air-raid scene where everyone has to troop through reception and into the bunker, and this is how Lady Hamilton dresses for bed," she laughs. "Just as well it isn't me: I'd probably be wearing a slightly too short T-shirt that was a freebie from the gym and nothing else. And that would be embarrassing."

Olivia Williams is relieved she can venture out in public with her children "without having to put a bag over their ...
Gareth Cattermole

Olivia Williams is relieved she can venture out in public with her children "without having to put a bag over their heads" to protect their identity.

Laughter – hers and other people's – matters to Williams. "Perhaps it's because I came from a family who thought that what I did and said was entertaining. Trying to get a laugh for everything, whether it's funny or not, is now a default position."

Just as Lady Hamilton is a product of both her class and her era ("Let's just say that she lacks what Kipling would have called 'the common touch'"), so too is Williams, who was born in 1968 and brought up by two "pinko Lefties living an unostentatious life" –barristers Anna Worrall, who was attached to a famous set of Left-wing chambers, and the late QC Graeme Williams.

"Really, they were examples of a benevolent London socialism, as am I – when I'm not drinking cocktails and playing aristocrats. I am aware of that hypocrisy," she adds, ruefully.

The Halcyon promises to deliver plenty of drama and intrigue as it brings 1940s Britain to Thursday night television.

The Halcyon promises to deliver plenty of drama and intrigue as it brings 1940s Britain to Thursday night television.

Not surprisingly, she's rather stunned by recent political events. "Trump's America is both fascinating and desperate, because it represents a nation turning its back on the principles of society. Instead, they have elected a man who believes, for example, that smart people don't pay their taxes – someone fundamentally ignorant of the structure of civilisation. How depressing is that?"

A staunch Remainer at the EU referendum, it's understandable that Williams feels uncomfortable by the Brexit result. "As a family, we have taken our kids all over Europe – France, Italy, Slovakia, Austria, Spain, Germany – showing them the breadth of the possibilities that used to lie ahead of them. I do feel sad that, in the future, they won't be able to work in and move around all these European cultures in the way that I have. It's a loss of the freedom that I've always relished."

Williams is married to the actor, comedian and writer Rhashan Stone, the American-born, UK-raised son of black singer Joanne Stone, one half of the Seventies' duo R&J Stone, whose hits included We Do It.

The Halcyon has been described as a cross between Mr Selfridge and Downton Abbey.

The Halcyon has been described as a cross between Mr Selfridge and Downton Abbey.

"My husband was born in New Jersey but raised in provincial England, so I can't claim any massive Rainbow Nation thing going on in our kitchen," she laughs. "But one of the striking advantages of where we live is that the colour of my children's skin is commonplace, and the fact that they are mixed race is not an issue.

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"We are very lucky that they have grown up largely unaware that there are places in the UK where it doesn't feel so inclusive, especially now.

"We had our first uncomfortable encounter as a family in a pub in the week after the referendum. We were in Hampshire, close to the village where my husband grew up. When he went to the bar, the man standing next to him pointedly moved away in a 'I don't need to stand next to people like you any more' gesture. The staff apologised, but the damage was done."

In this new British period drama, The Halcyon is a five-star hotel at the centre of London society.

In this new British period drama, The Halcyon is a five-star hotel at the centre of London society.

She's fiercely defensive of her husband – quite rightly. Until they finally got together (and they'd known each other for eight years beforehand), Williams had had a chequered love life. She was once engaged to her drama school sweetheart, Jonathan Cake, but the engagement ended three weeks before the wedding. However, Williams remembers the "Cake years" with good humour. More than can be said for some of the unsuitable beaus of the "wilderness years" that followed.

"Before Rhashan, my experience had been along the lines of the Zoe Wanamaker series, Love Hurts. I thought that, unless something was painful and dramatic, it couldn't be love. But with Rhashan it was instantly, 'I like you very much and I'll be calling you next week'. That was a sea change. I finally learnt to be happy about being happy."

The couple married in double-quick time and swiftly had two daughters, Esme, now 12, and Roxana, nine. "When my daughters were born, it felt to me that the midwife was handing me my liver or my heart, an exterior vital organ. It was mind-blowing to think that we were now responsible for how this new life would turn out.

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"Eventually, of course, they stop being entirely dependent on you and they start being smart and hilarious in ways that have nothing to do with either of their parents. And, at that point, you realise you need them around just as much as they need you. My life has been so enriched by my children. I can't conceive of not knowing them."

Williams's continuing success has meant that she and her husband split the parenting 50-50. It's a marriage, she says, not unlike that of her own parents. Her mother, Anna, was perhaps the more ambitious one – "women at the Bar had to be, to succeed. But the parenting was shared and both were incredible mentors and supporters, who encouraged us and turned up for everything that I and my elder sister, Sophie, did.

"If you have amazing parents, you look for them again in other people that you love. It's not very rock'n'roll, but I am prepared to accept that much of what I fell for in Rhashan is what I admired in my father."

We'll be seeing more of Williams in the coming weeks, not only in The Halcyon, but also in Stephen Frears' film Victoria and Abdul. The ensemble cast includes veterans Sir Michael Gambon and Tim Pigott Smith, with Dame Judi Dench as the Queen who befriends a young Indian clerk.

Williams plays a lady-in-waiting alongside War and Peace star Fenella Woolgar. "We're both in our 40s, but we nominated ourselves the young totty. We relished it far more than we ever did when we were young totty!" she laughs.

She has never had a game plan when it comes to work: "Offer me an interesting role and I'll snatch it up and deal with the consequences later."

Her only unresolved ambition would be for Strictly Come Dancing to call. "I'm the mother of two daughters who couldn't be less interested in what I do, but if I said Strictly to them, they might look up from their e-readers."

In the meantime, if Lady Hamilton were to loosen up a little, she might get to lindyhop as others do in the hotel club.

"Not sure if she's ready to shake a tail feather yet," Williams laughs. "Maybe series two?"

 The Halcyon 8.30pm, Thursdays from July 27, Prime.

 - The Telegraph, London


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