Penelope Wilton on Downton Abbey, acting with the greats and why the stage is her first love

"Actors love theatre, because it demands so much of you... It is the one that is the most difficult and in the end the most satisfying"

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When the music strikes up for Downton Abbey – and viewers look beyond the plus fours and dog’s backside to the gorgeous building and bucolic setting of Julian Fellowes’s hit drama – we are entering a world of above- and below-stairs intrigue, love, betrayal and occasionally death. But we are also arriving at Britain’s unofficial dressing room of the great and the good of the acting profession.

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It is a green room populated by theatre giants Dame Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton, of course. But there has been a pretty formidable supporting cast of Dan Stevens (the late lamented Matthew Crawley), Jim Carter (Mr Carson the butler) and guest stars including Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Shirley MacLaine.

Or at least that seems to be how Wilton sees it. The actress who plays the principled (and occasionally priggish) Isobel Crawley says being on the show is “like being in repertory theatre”.

“We have a very close relationship, all of us, because we have worked over four years together. We’ve got to know each other very well professionally, so we do interact very well,” says the 67-year-old actress whose sparring with Maggie Smith’s haughty Dowager Countess has delighted Downton fans for the show’s four-year span.

“It is like being in a company and all the better for it probably because you can talk in shorthand, as it were, and do more of the acting.”

Backstage gossip and fun is also had in spades, she says, but not just with Maggie Smith (with whom she had never worked before Downton) but with all the other noted thespians. So much so that the long series shoot – beginning in February and running until August – flies by.

“We play a lot of Banangrams [a word game]. There’s Jim Carter, who I’ve worked with at the National and Phyllis Logan and Lesley Nicol [Downton’s Mrs Patmore]. We do very short scenes so we come in and out; we don’t get bored with one another. It is the closest thing in television to being an ensemble in theatre.”

A giant of the English stage, with 46 years’ acting experience, Wilton has enjoyed scores of acclaimed stage roles from Chekhov to Lorca, Shakespeare to Ibsen. Having achieved the honour of starring in the first National Theatre production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in 1978, she’ll be performing a section of Alan Ayckbourn’s 1975 play Bedroom Farce as part of the National Theatre’s gala performance of the best productions for its the 50th anniversary celebration.

And, while she admits to being “nerve-racked” about the show (to be broadcast on Saturday on BBC2), playing on stage is her “first love”. “It’s the one I have done most of. It is the one that is the most difficult and in the end the most satisfying – it demands so much of you.

“The most difficult thing in theatre is repetition because you do it multiple times. Normally television works in short bursts that are intense and once you’ve shot it you’ve shot it. That’s why actors love theatre, because it demands so much of you. You become quite close to the piece and your colleagues, you work with them over such a long time and you get as near to what the playwright has written as you possibly can.

“I find it totally ephemeral but the wonderful thing about theatre is that it doesn’t date. In people’s memories it stays very fresh because they remember it how they remember it. If you put something on film, if you look at it after a bit, it often does look rather dated. Theatre never dates in your mind. You carry it around and that is one of the nice things about it. After the performance it is finished, it goes. It is very immediate.”

Wilton’s other key screen roles have included Ann Bryce, patient wife to Richard Briers’s obsessive Martin, in the hit 1980s sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles (she says she learnt a lot about comic timing from Briers). And Doctor Who fans remember her as Prime Minister Harriet Jones who saves the world but gets exterminated by the Daleks.

But she has a particular fondness for her Downton role and says she would like Isobel Crawley if she met her in real life. “She bites off more than she can chew sometimes, makes statements she can’t fulfill. But she’s also quite brave, independent and forward-thinking. In fact, she’s like a real person, with all their faults.

“Julian Fellowes has written a very interesting woman, who is probably led by her heart quite a lot of the time but who nowadays would probably be doing something a bit more fulfilling because women didn’t have jobs like they do now. She would be a career woman and would probably be editing The Guardian women’s page. She would be doing something forward-thinking… she’s a bit of a lefty. I like her very much.”

But Wilton, herself twice divorced, hints that Isobel won’t find love – in this series at least. But will she – or the show – go on and on? “I doubt it. I don’t think anything can go on and on. Everyone would be bored stiff with it.”

In the meantime she is, like her Downton character, enjoying her first grandchild (the 15-month-old son of her only daughter Alice) and is looking forward to reprising her role in the 2011 movie success The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel with a sequel.

Like Downton, that film also brought together some formidable acting talents – Judi Dench, Maggie Smith of course and Celia Imrie – all of whom will be returning for the second film, according to Wilton, which begins filming in January.

But don’t call her – or any of these fine actresses – grandes dames.

“It sounds like the dame in a pantomime,” she signs off with her beautiful laugh. “I’m glad it’s not that.”

Live From the National Theatre: 50 Years on Stage is on Saturday at 9:00pm on BBC2

Downton Abbey continues on Sunday at 9:00pm on ITV


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