In the space of a few short months, Doncaster born actor, Thomas Howes has gone from playing one half of the CBBC hit show duo Chuckle Vision to one of the most anticipated drama series in the autumn drama calendar. He now finds himself sharing the screen with some of the UK’s most respected film and television actors including Jim Carter, Hugh Bonneville, Maggie Smith, Penelope Wilton and Siobhan Finneran to name but a few.
Playing William, Downton Abbey’s second footman, meant that like his co-stars Jim Carter and Rob James-Collier, Thomas spent a lot of time hanging around in the back of dinner-party shots. “My role is sort of twofold in this, because of all the menial tasks a footman must undertake, which are mostly to do with presentation; I spend half my time down in the kitchens buffing candlesticks and cutlery, ironing newspapers and laying out tablecloths,” he explains.
“The other half of my job is kind of customer service. Rob the other footman and Jim the butler are in the same position of being in the background of the family scenes taking their coats and serving at dinner. A great country house was apparently rated on the look of their footmen and for some reason the taller the footmen were, the finer your staff were perceived to be, so we get very nice costumes for all our front of house service.”
William is a thoroughly decent and well-mannered young man, who was brought up on a farm, has a gift of handling horses and is very close to his mother. ‘William doesn’t have much or come from much so it is a real coup for him to land the job of second footman. His family are thrilled that he has prospects, could one day be first footman and eventually work his way up to Butler,” he says. “He’s a blank canvas at the start much because he was brought up in a family with a lot of love, he has no experience of romance or violence and these two emotions he encounters at Downton.”
As second footman, William is subjected to a campaign of sustained teasing and in some instances blatant bullying from Thomas (Rob James-Collier), which he endures with dignity - but at some points even William can only take so much. “I asked our producer if she would ask Julian whether I could lamp Thomas, (not Rob because I love him to bits) and Julian was kind enough to include it in the script but before I knew it - the punch had turned into a proper fist-fight with a big roll off the table. It was so exciting to come into work and see my small suggestion turn into a full day’s work with stuntmen and mattresses and loads of rehearsal. It was an epic day,” he recalls. “We were bruised for a few days afterwards but it was worth it and I hope it looks convincing on screen.”
A keen pianist, Thomas also talked Julian into allowing him to provide background music in a number of scenes where the staff are finished their duties for the night and relaxing in the servants’ hall. “I just started playing the piano one day on set and thought ‘wouldn’t it be fun if I could actually play in a scene’, so Julian, the director and our producer thought it was a great idea to have William play background music in a scene where Thomas picks up Daisy and whirls her round the room.”
As well as being the victim of below stairs bullying at the hands of Thomas, William also loses out in love to him as well. “William is sweet on Daisy but Daisy, it turns out, is sweet on Thomas and ever cruel and spiteful, Thomas wants to stick the knife into William – he obviously has no intention of courting Daisy but he’ll do anything to stop William from having any chance with her.”
Thomas, a huge fan of the theatre, still lives in Doncaster and is a big supporter of amateur dramatics and directs local amateur dramatic societies when he is home. During the shoot and after a heavy week of filming Monday to Saturday, Thomas would head back to Doncaster to direct on a Sunday. “I am a real theatre animal and still have a great commitment to Doncaster, where I am from, and in particular the Am-Dram groups up there,” he says. “There are loads of actors who leave home and turn their backs on where they’re from and I think it’s ludicrous. These places put you where you are and I’m living proof to any young actor from a small town that you can come from anywhere in the world and end up on telly if that is where you want to be – it is possible.”
For Thomas there were two key factors that made Downton Abbey such a rewarding and exciting job to work on. “It was a real honour to play a character that Julian Fellowes had created and then be given the opportunity to make that character my own was just so special. I will always remember Jim Carter saying that if the writing is really good – and Julian’s is – then an actor can concentrate purely on the job and not on lifting the writing,” he explains.
Pack produced by Una Maguire and Victoria Brooks, Milk Publicity!
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks