Downton Abbey: Rob James-Collier and Siobhan Finneran on Thomas and O’Brien’s series three bust-up

Why do the two allies fall out? And who will emerge victorious? Get the gossip from both actors

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Rob James-Collier (Thomas Barrow)

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He’s spent his time so far at Downton sneering in doorways and crafting nefarious schemes while wreathed in a fug of cigarette smoke, but could this be the series where we actually learn to love Thomas Barrow? 

“At the end of the last series he lost everything on the black market. People saw a moment of vulnerability in him,” says Rob James-Collier. “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 into 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.” 

Could any new-found empathy be down to the fact that Thomas will soon find himself at odds with his partner in crime, the calculating lady’s maid O’Brien? 

“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 this as a threat – he sees him as getting the special treatment that he, Thomas, has never had in life. Ot at least that’s what’s in his head, because he’s always been an outsider and a loner with his sexuality. 

“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.” 

So who will emerge victorious in the battle between these two notorious double dealers: O’Brien or Thomas? 

“Oh, she’s always the cleverest. Always. All through series one and two, anything that 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.” 

And has being one of Downton’s main villains had an impact for James-Collier when he meets fans of the show? 

“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 per cent of the time it’s from a great place and it’s part and parcel of it.” 

“The reason I’m an actor and 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 into the show then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”

Siobhan Finneran (Sarah O’Brien) 

She’s known for being bitter, underhand and in possession of the sharpest of tongues, but could it be that we’ve got lady’s maid O’Brien all wrong? 

“I love her,” insists Siobhan Finneran. “She is funny and witty, also I think a lot of the time what gets misconstrued as being rude or unhelpful in a lot of ways is her making sure jobs are done properly. Yes, she is cruel and all of those things but also a lot of things she does are for the good of the house.” 

In series three, O’Brien also tries to advance the career of her nephew Alfred, who is given the role of footman following Thomas’s promotion to valet. But soon all turns sour between O’Brien and Alfred’s predecessor: 

“She tries to enlist the help of her best friend Thomas. But he is really not up for  helping Alfred – he doesn’t want someone getting in the way of his career – and so Thomas and O’Brien become sparring partners. It starts as a battle of wits, just game play to see who falls first really. But actually it gets quite nasty when it kicks off.” 

All of which is about as far removed from reality as it’s possible to get, what with “RJC” and “Shiv” (as they call each other) being two of the closest friends on the cast. 

“I love working with Rob. All my favourite scenes are with him. We get on brilliant on set and off. And the fact hat we are now spatting instead of plotting is fantastic.” 

And does she encounter a similar fan reaction to James-Collier when she meets members of the public? 

“I get away with people not recognising me much. I look different – just a bit. For a start, I don’t have those sideburns! I mean, people genuinely come up and say they really enjoy the show but I’ve not been bombarded. And if there is any nasty fan mail I don’t see it. I’d hate to see that because it’s not me, it’s a character I’m playing so that would be very strange! 

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“It’s all good feedback – in fact people love her being the baddie. They love to loathe her, that’s the great thing.”