Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY's Rob James-Collier and Allen Leech


Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY's Rob James-Collier and Allen Leech

The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at DOWNTON ABBEY as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season.

With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award®-winner Shirley MacLaine, DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning on January 6, 2013. BWW brings you a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. Next up, actors Rob James-Collier and Allen Leech.


Unlikely as it may seem, this could be the series when viewers learn to love first footman Thomas Barrow, Downton Abbey’s ultimate villain. Or at least Rob James-Collier thinks so.

“At the end of the last series he lost everything on the black market. People saw a moment of vulnerability in him. Yes it was his own fault - he was doing something illegal – but some viewers felt sorry for him. This series he’s horribly misled, he lets someone in to his heart and his life is hugely affected. When he goes on this journey I hope that people will empathise with him – perhaps even feel a little sympathy with him.”

It might mean that James-Collier finally gets a kinder reception from the public. Playing Thomas – the man we love to hate - has meant that he’s been the recipient of several passing comments.

“Obviously in this country you get recognised and you have that kind of ‘boo hiss’ banter with the public. If they come up to you and they’re not nice that’s not the greatest – but there’s always someone, isn’t there? But 99% of the time it’s from a great place and it’s part and parcel of it. The reason I'm an actor and am trying to make my way in drama is to move people, to affect people, to gain a response – so these people who come up to you in the street are your audience. If you haven't got time for them and can’t be genuinely pleased by the fact that they’ve bought in to the show then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”

After two series of skulduggery in partnership with the fiendish lady’s maid O’Brien, this time round Thomas finds himself at odds with her.

“O’Brien’s nephew Alfred comes on the scene. He’s young, he gets the job and he’s promoted to footman straight away. Thomas sees that as a threat - he sees him as getting the special treatment that he, Thomas, has never had in life. Or at least that’s what’s in his head, because he’s always been an outsider and a loner with his sexuality.”

O’Brien has done everything to get her nephew in the house - and all of a sudden this woman who was always on his side is now helping someone else. Thomas gets jealous, and we should know by now that hell hath no fury like a footman scorned.

“He thought he and O’Brien had a special relationship. He works out everything was fine until the nephew comes along so he tries what he tried with Bates in series one – eliminate the problem by hook or by crook.”

It sets off a vicious circle.

“O’Brien works out what Thomas is up to and thinks, ‘Okay, if you're coming for my family then I’m coming for you.’”

The irony is that off camera James-Collier and Siobhan Finneran, who plays O’Brien, are close friends. But on screen their mutual conniving is about to turn in to a rancorous spat. And James-Collier is under no illusions about which character possesses the greater resources.

“Oh, she’s always the cleverest. Always. All through series one and two anything they did that was mischievous was O’Brien’s idea. He goes up against her and that’s a big mistake – he’s not as clever as her and he never will be.”

But for James-Collier it gives him some of his best scenes yet. “O’Brien and Thomas at loggerheads is genuinely brilliant.”


Few characters in Downton Abbey have risen as far or as fast as Tom Branson. He began as the family chauffeur and yet by the end of last series he had married the Earl’s youngest daughter, Sybil. Does a glittering future await? Not according to Allen Leech, who plays Branson.

“Branson is living back in Ireland with Sybil, and they’re basically paupers. They’re living on Sybil’s money. Which obviously is not where Branson wants to be - he made the choice to leave, he’s become a journalist back in Ireland, and essentially he’s fighting for the Irish Republican cause, trying to educate people. But the problem is he’s not able to provide for his own wife, and now they’re expecting a baby. And then they come back for a big event, obviously, which is Matthew and Mary’s wedding.”

Branson finds himself with a foot in both camps, upstairs and downstairs, and it’s not a comfortable position.

“You see Branson completely lost in this world that he used to work in. No one below stairs wants him because they don’t know how to act with him. And certainly no one welcomes him upstairs so the only person he has to talk to or to confide in is his own wife. Essentially he is completely isolated from these two worlds, and it’s a very difficult place for him to be.”

Not only does Branson have to deal with the domestic politics at Downton Abbey, but politics of another sort also come to the fore.

“One of the worries that Lord Grantham has for Branson is that he’s getting more politically active this series. He finds himself in a very strange place because he rallies against the English in Ireland yet the one place he then looks for refuge is Downton Abbey.”

Leech is the only actor in the series who can claim to have crossed codes – going from taking orders to sitting at the table with those who are giving them out.

“I was used to just getting into my green uniform every day, and then I arrived this year, and the costume department said, ‘You know we’re going to have to get you some suits?’ Doing my first dining room scene, even as an actor I still felt like, ‘I shouldn’t be here.’ I didn't know what to do with the cutlery and whatnot – which of course is great for the character because he wouldn’t know what to do either. Little things kept happening during filming like I wouldn’t put my serviette down – and Jim [Carter, Carson] would have to come over and do it.”

As a character whose role has grown series by series, Leech says he is increasingly recognised by Downton Abbey fans.

“I get a lot of, ‘You look like that chauffeur from Downton Abbey...’ Which is funny. But the other thing is it’s always positive reaction – you get people coming up to you who just love the show, and that’s brilliant. It feels lovely to be part of something that people really enjoy watching.”

His favourite piece of fan mail? “You know those posters that are everywhere saying, ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’? Someone sent me a sign that says, ‘Keep Calm And Bet On Branson.’ I’d love to get that put on a mug for my morning coffee.”