Rob James-Collier on Downton’s viewing figures, finding love and getting back to Thomas’ evil ways

"A life of servitude must be boring. He’s just trying to create mayhem to make one day different from the next. Which, let’s face it, we all do in our workplace, don’t we?"

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Rob-James Collier plays manipulative under-butler Thomas Barrow. Since Downton began he’s got in all sorts of scrapes, from dalliances with visiting Dukes to being scammed by the black market. Last series saw him knocked off his pedestal when the truth about his sexuality became common knowledge in the kitchens. We sat down with the star to find out what series four has in store… 

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What trouble does Thomas get up to this year?

There’s someone who comes in mid way through the series. Thomas has manipulated her ladyship, which let’s be fair is not that hard, to get this maid into the house without a reference. And he’s blackmailing her but we don’t know why.

He has a hold over her and he’s getting her to get the gossip and the scandal, be his eyes and ears… She’s a really nice person. You can see there’s a conflict. Whatever she’s done in the past he’s holding against her and he’s using her to do devious things. She’s his evil implement!

I don’t even know what it is and we don’t find out in this series. So I’m hoping that means I’m back next year, if we go again, so we find out what it is…

So Thomas is back to his usual self then?

He’s trying to replace O’Brien. He’s gone back to his old usual ways. Evil incarnate. I just think it’s because he is bored. It must be boring, a life of servitude, and he’s just trying to create mayhem to make one day different from the next. Which, let’s face it, we all do in our workplace, don’t we? 

It’s great seeing him getting back to his old tricks, recovering from how vulnerable and frail he was last year… You’d think it would humble him… but I think he really resented the fact that it was his nemesis, Bates, who became his saviour. It’s perverse to Thomas because he hates the guy… it makes his animosities increase. He resents Bates and Anna because they have something he can never have: love. He’s not free to love because he’s homosexual. He resents them for that so he’s gone back to his old ways. That’s the way I’m justifying it. Probably going a bit deeper than I need to…

Will Thomas not find love this year then? 

No. If you watch it, there’s a pattern. Series one, romance. Series two, no romance. Series three, romance, well bromance. Series four, ergo, no romance. So I’m thinking if we go again next year and they have me back, he’s got to get a lot of action next year because… the stakes get higher as each series passes. 

Is love what Thomas really wants? 

Yeah. I think that’s all he wants. He’s alienated. He’s an outsider because he can’t be himself. It’d be lovely for him to find someone and have someone to confide in and let all his neuroses, this paranoia and all his animosity come out. I want everyone to find love. I want him to find love. I want you to find love…

Have you experienced any of the reaction to the show in America? 

It’s ridiculous. The enthusiaism is just unbelievable. Americans are generally more enthusiastic… they invented the high five, they invented the whoop. All that. Lot of that going on. Fair play to them – when they love something they really embrace it. I think they love us because we’re British. There’s always been an interest our cultural heritage from America. They find it romantic… they love the class system.

What’s been your weirdest fan experience? 

When I woke up in the middle of the night and a guy was watching me sleep suspended from my ceiling. That was strange…

Hmm. But, seriously, the show must have changed your life?

I wouldn’t go that far, no. It’s a bit extreme, that. At the end of the day we just make TV, it’s just a TV show. And it’s enabled me to get a mortgage and, in fact, pay the mortgage. It’s hard enough being an actor as it is, to be working in a recession is a privilege and it given me a bit of security. I wouldn’t say it’s changed my life. It’s given me a lot more opportunities in life and that’s great. It’s given me potentially a platform to show my limited range off!

Do you get recognised a lot when you’re out and about?

Yeah. Everyone always thinks I’m Phil Mitchell.

You get recognised a little bit. People love the show and if you’re a baddy, a villain or a good guy on the show, they don’t care. It’s all sort of friendly banter. They love him. When I went nice for a bit people were abusing me for being nice. I got more stick for being nice because they liked him being nasty, so you can’t win!

Will you be back for Downton Abbey series five? 

I’d love to be, yeah, if they want me back.

Do you think the show has a sell-by date?

I don’t look that far… I think as long as the main core characters stay it’s got longevity. I think if too many people leave all at once then… You know, people have grown with these characters and watched them grow and they’ve really latched on to them. People love Bates. God, a lot of people love Bates. Mumsnet love Bates. Sexy though isn’t he, Brendan… People love Anna. People love Hugh. There’s something for everyone and if you can keep that core….  If you can keep them there I see no reason why we should not go on. If they audience keep watching it.

You don’t think there’s a point in Downton’s timeline when the concept might not work? 

It’s the audience who’ll decide. You know, we are governed by viewing figures these days so if the viewing figures are high we’ll go again. If they’re not, then we might still go again. And then not go again the next time! 

Downton Abbey returns to ITV on Sunday at 9:00pm. 


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