In a complete turnaround from the roles for which Siobhan Finneran is best known and loved (shown on left as Beverly in The Amazing Mrs. Pritchard), the character of O’Brien is a vengeful, watchful, often spiteful woman who appears to have the welfare of the Countess and family as her utmost priority, but in the servants quarters we see a very different side to her unfold. “I play Lady Cora’s maid, O’Brien, who is a proper, rotten, nasty piece of work,” laughs Siobhan. “O’Brien thinks that she is really in charge, but unfortunately Mrs Hughes and Mr Carson get in her way. She does pay attention to what they say, but she will quite happily go ahead and do things without their permission.”
One of the deciding factors for Siobhan in accepting the role of O’Brien followed a crucial first meeting with lead director Brian Percival. “Brian Percival and Julian’s brilliant script made me want to do it,’ she explains. “I met with Brian and within ten minutes I remember thinking, ‘I hope I get this job because I really want to work with him’ – afterwards I met up with some friends for tea and I asked them all to pray that I got this job – I wanted it that badly.” Three days later she was offered the part and accepted immediately however, that was before she’d met with the costume and make up-designers!
“Let’s see, a corset that makes you wear your breasts as tonsils, a long black frock and a ridiculous hairdo were exactly what I’d hoped for when they’d asked if I’d take the part,’ she laughs. ‘I really wanted to have sideburns and I got them, and as for not plucking my eyebrows for four months, that was fun – the dialogue obviously comes later, but this is what I was really happy about – NOT!”
As Lady’s Maid, O’Brien is expected to do everything for the Countess; from laying out her clothes in the morning to choosing her breakfast; deciding how she wears her hair and what she wears for dinner. “When I’m not actually tending to her daily needs I am doing her washing or mending or ironing and I wouldn’t ever get to go to bed before she does because I have to dress her for bed and then do her hair. In fact, Alastair Bruce, whom we call the ‘Oracle’ or ‘God of Downton’, told me that I should always take the Countess’s hair brush with me at night because I would clean the hair from it before the morning…how on earth does he know that?” she asks.
When Bates, the new valet, arrives at Downton Abbey O’Brien and Thomas quickly close ranks. They see him as a threat to their plans to fill the top two servant positions below the housekeeper and butler. “She is furious when Bates arrives, but quite rightly so because Bates can’t do his job properly because of his war-wounds. Everybody else thinks she’s wrong but she’s not because Bates is going to make a lot more work for everybody else, especially Thomas, and it’s unfair on the rest of the staff,” she explains.
“O’Brien is probably much cleverer than anybody else on the staff because she knows how to manipulate people. If she gets any information whatsoever, she uses it to her advantage, and to the advantage of Thomas, or she stores the information away so that she can use it later on. She’s not nice, but I like her, I really like her,she’s just misunderstood,” Siobhan says wryly. “The thing is, there has got to be a reason for her to be this dreadful and the exciting thing is we don’t know what that is yet - I don’t believe anybody’s born to be that bad.”
During the course of a day a Lady’s Maid would have to run up and down the stairs endlessly, carrying trays of food and jars to the Countess to ensure her every need was serviced. However, things didn’t always run so smoothly in rehearsal. “Hugh and Elizabeth had a bedroom scene together and I had to come in with the breakfast tray, listen to what’s being said then go straight downstairs and report back to everyone. So, we rehearsed this scene three or four times and I had my trainers on underneath my petticoat, you can picture the scene. Then finally it came to the crew rehearsal with everybody in the room so they could watch the scene and I caught the tray of china on the corner of the bed and the whole lot just hit the floor…I was absolutely horrified. Hugh Bonneville roared with laughter. I felt really sick about it because some of the china had broken and I’d just spent four hours telling everyone how beautiful this china was, then I go and chuck it on the floor,” she says.“The art department were very nice to me at the time but I’m sure they thought I was a proper idiot.”
Enjoying her job is hugely important to Siobhan and as with the cast of Benidorm – fun and laughter are high on her agenda of must-haves. “I don’t come to work if I am not going to have any fun,” she says, ‘I can’t see the point in that. What I love about this job and particularly the gang below stairs, is that there is a great buzz between us all. It’s like any family; you can be bickering one minute then making them a sandwich the next. ‘When we were all together as a big group, it was chaos and I’m sure we drove the crew mad, because we’d never shut up. We had really good craic making this and hopefully that warmth comes across in the show.”
Pack produced by Una Maguire and Victoria Brooks, Milk Publicity!
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks