Richard E Grant: I asked my agent, am I upstairs or downstairs?

The Withnail and I actor on his new role as dashing art historian Simon Bricker in Downton Abbey and how he had to mind his 1920s manners

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The first question Richard E Grant asked when his agent rang to tell him he’d been offered a part in Downton Abbey was, “Am I upstairs or downstairs?” Given Grant’s long career playing posh, you’d think the answer was obvious. But he was cast as a footman in the film Gosford Park, which was also written by Julian Fellowes and provided the inspiration for ITV’s hit show.

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But on this occasion Grant – best known for his performance as a dissolute actor in Withnail & I – will be playing a quintessential English gentleman. His character, Simon Bricker, is an art historian. “I’m an old friend of the family who has come to evaluate some of their art works, but that’s all I can tell you,” he says enigmatically.

The Crawley family and their servants are now bang in the middle of the Roaring Twenties. Britain’s first Labour government has come to power and the tectonic plates of the class system are shifting. The Earl of Grantham is naturally worried by the changing political climate, but he is also unsettled by the arrival of the art historian.

“The offer of my part came with a sentence from Julian Fellowes, which said this character arrives and shakes things up a bit!” Grant says. “But that’s the only clue I am allowed to give you, otherwise I will have my kneecaps blown off by the producers.”

Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl, was less cautious, joking, “When a good-looking man like Richard E Grant turns up claiming to be an art historian, you need to lock up your etchings!”

Bonneville also revealed that as Robert and his wife Cora (Elizabeth McGovern) celebrate their 34th wedding anniversary, there’s evidence of tension in the marriage, “a slight sense of stasis, they’ve been taking each other for granted”. McGovern fuelled the rumours further by teasingly pointing out that “Cora has a personal passion for art history”.

Grant says that arriving on the set of Downton Abbey was like being a new boy arriving at school in the middle of term. “I’ve worked with Hugh, Elizabeth and Maggie Smith before, so that eased my nerves a bit about being a new bug, but they’ve all been doing it for four years so it’s just another day’s work for them whereas I was coming in as an outsider, all hyped up and nervous.” 

Being a huge fan of the series made it all the more strange. “It was like being summoned to step into the television and join the characters of my favourite programme – crossing the fourth wall, as it were, and becoming part of the story. That’s what it felt like being at Highclere Castle. Everything is incredibly familiar from having watched Downton Abbey on TV for four years, and yet here I was among them pretending to be a character. It was absolutely surreal.”

He spent ten days at Highclere shooting the scenes for the episodes in which he’ll appear. He says the place looks fantastic, but was freezing. “It was cold, even though we were shooting in early summer. The cast told me that’s because of its geographical position; it’s always colder there than anywhere else in the surrounding countryside. It doesn’t feel like a centrally heated, warm, embracing place.” Luckily he was in a three-piece suit “with very high-waisted trousers, the like of which I haven’t worn since the early 1980s. Have you noticed that since then trousers have just dropped lower and lower?”

The Resident Downton etiquette adviser was on set at all times to remind him of his manners. “I had one pavement-walking scene at night and was told the man has to walk closest to the road so the lady is protected from oncoming vehicles. I would probably do that anyway in real life, but it’s useful having someone to remind you. He also told me when to put my hat on and take it off. For instance, should you put your hat on before you walk out of a building? The answer is, if you are leaving a public space you put it on before, if it’s a private home you put in on outside the door.” 

The last television drama series Grant popped up in was Lena Dunham’s US hit Girls, about four 20-somethings living in New York. 

Grant says making Downton Abbey was a huge contrast. “For starters, in Girls they want you to improvise and take your clothes off! Also it felt very odd to be thrust in the middle of this group of young women when I’m older than their fathers. I also had to mount [actress] Jemima Kirke in a moment of high chicanery, which was extremely enjoyable.”

He was invited to be in Girls by Dunham, its creator and lead actress, after she saw him in Withnail & I. He describes it as a huge privilege, having been a fan of the show after his 25-year-old daughter Olivia told him to watch it. “Lena wrote the part specially for me. I played a cocaine-addicted alcoholic who Jessa [Kirke’s character] meets in rehab. They conduct an ill-fated affair until my estranged daughter turns up at a family intervention in a restaurant in New York and gets me back on the straight and narrow and out of these young girls’ lives.”

When I ask whether he had to take his clothes off for one sex scene he confesses that he advised Dunham against the move. “I wisely suggested that I wear what they call a singlet and we call a vest because nobody wants to see my creaky old ribcage on screen, so they put me in that and a pair of shorts to spare the viewers.” 

Inevitably, being on Downton Abbey after working on Girls made him reflect on how much the world has changed for women in the past 200 years. He recalls that when his daughter urged him to watch Girls, she said. “If you want to understand my generation, watch this show, this is how we think.”

His time with the Crawleys has only served to remind him “how much more freedom young women have now, but that it all began at that point in the early 20th century and that’s what we are seeing with the young women in Downton… Although it’s true that the girls there have shed their corsets, they’re still reliant on marrying a rich man. Now you have Lena in 21st-century New York, who writes, produces and appears in her own hit TV series.”

As we speak, he is about to fly off to Dubrovnik to film a new American TV drama called Dig. He plays a British archaeologist in a thriller about an FBI agent investigating a murder in Jerusalem. The six-part series was supposed to have been shot in Israel, but for security reasons once conflict escalated in Gaza they had to move production to Croatia and New Mexico.

Will he be returning to the set of Girls or Downton Abbey in the near future? “Highly unlikely,” he confesses. “In both instances my storyline had a beginning, a middle and end to it, so I can’t see a way back.” More’s the pity, because as Julian Fellowes so rightly recognised, when Richard E Grant arrives on screen, he shakes things up. 

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Downton Abbey is on tonight at 9:00pm on ITV