The Halcyon's Olivia Williams enjoys 'appalling snobbery' of new 1940s drama

Olivia Williams says The Halcyon's Lady Hamilton was "glorious to play".

Olivia Williams says The Halcyon's Lady Hamilton was "glorious to play".

The guest always comes first and that's a maxim that suave hotel manager Richard Garland believes at all costs – even if World War II is breaking out.

Inside the plush Halcyon Hotel in central London, Garland and his staff are determined to deliver five-star service to their wealthy guests, no matter what Hitler's plans may be.

But it's a place of secret meetings too where, in a private room, the hotel's proprietor, Lord Hamilton, sits down with VIPs from the British establishment to discuss appeasement with Hitler.

Hotel manager Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh).

Hotel manager Richard Garland (Steven Mackintosh).

This backdrop and a colourful cast of characters offers a Downton Abbey meets Mr Selfridge-style drama series to wallow in and enjoy the secrets, indiscretions, rivalry, romance and snobbery of 1940s London.

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"The beginning of the story is the early days of war in May 1940 so we have this fantastic contrast between the turmoil and potential jeopardy of everything that's about to come with this opulent environment," says Steven Mackintosh, who plays Garland.

The staff of The Halcyon hotel.

The staff of The Halcyon hotel.

"I love the idea that the war may be going on outside but five-star service must continue. Having done a bit of reading about the high-class hotels of London during that period, that really was the remit – 'We must carry on come what may and still find the finest ingredients known to man'."

Mackintosh, 50, who played DCI Ian Reed in Luther and Winston in Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, says Garland is a moral man.

"The guest must always come first with Garland. He's an authority figure who is very tough with staff but at the same time they know him to be a decent and fair man and will speak out if he thinks someone has been wronged.

Halcyon's nighclub singer Betsey Day (Kara Tointon).

Halcyon's nighclub singer Betsey Day (Kara Tointon).

"He has the responsibility too of being a single father to Emma (Hermione Corfield), who he has raised within the hotel after his wife died 10 years ago.

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"Another of Garland's big responsibilities is keeping Lord Hamilton's extra-marital affairs low-key. But his Lordship's carelessness has led to just about all the hotel staff knowing. And when his haughty wife, Lady Hamilton, makes a rare and unexpected visit from their country estate in the opening episode it looks like she might catch him in the act.

"She's used to being in complete control of her life," says American actress Olivia Williams, who plays her. "She thinks she is and then very quickly she finds she is not.

"I've known people in that situation and there have been incredible stories we've all read about where an affair has been going on under their nose for years. There's a kind of wilful denial about it. It's not really whether Lady Hamilton knows or not, whether he has told her or whether it is an arrangement they have, it's that she believes she doesn't know. Her way of coping is that if you don't say it then it doesn't exist.

"The appalling thing about this situation is no one can ignore it. She has been placed in a humiliating position where everyone in the hotel is trying to create an illusion, which makes her look like an idiot. And nobody likes that feeling."

Joining Mackintosh and Williams, who played Anna Crowe in The Sixth Sense and Countess Vronsky in Anna Karenina, are Kara Tointon as the glamorous Halcyon nightclub singer Betsey Day, Mark Benton as the affable concierge Dennis Feldman, Jamie Blackley as the adventurous, fun-loving Freddie Hamilton, heir to his father's fortune, Edward Bluemel as Freddie's clever but shy twin brother Toby, and Matt Ryan as American foreign correspondent Joe O'Hara, who snoops around for the story on Hamilton and his cronies.

"I don't think this story of wartime has been told from this angle before in what is a very international place," says Williams, 48. "Hotels are full of transient people and that makes for fantastic weekly drama. Because you have the staff ... who are the fixtures, and then a constant stream of people coming through for whatever reason from all over the world.

"One of the things people love is watching appalling snobbery and class-stricken society – the worse the better. Lady Hamilton completely embodies that. She demonstrates the very worst of it and makes people she despises feel uncomfortable and miserable. But she was glorious to play."

The Halcyon, Prime, starts Thursday July 27.

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 - TV Guide

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