Throughout September and October, actress Rose Leslie will be appearing on stage at the Globe Theatre in Nell Leyshon’s new play Bedlam about the notorious London lunatic asylum. At the same time she will be on screen playing housemaid Gwen in Julian Fellowes’ Edwardian drama for ITV1.
Like the rest of the staff at Downton Abbey, Gwen is a country-born girl who comes from a modest Northern background. Despite being born and brought up in Aberdeen and speaking with a well-rounded English accent, Rose had the advantage of spending almost a year playing a character from the North in repertory theatre. This helped enormously when she was preparing for the role of Gwen. “I was in a theatre production where I had to speak with a northern accent which lasted about 6 months. It was an ‘Out Of Joint production’ and we toured the country with it last year. So together with rehearsals, I’ve been speaking with a northern accent for nearly a year, it’s been really easy to just flip in and out of it because I am so used to speaking with it now.”
The accent and dialogue in 1912, however, would have been vastly different from the dialect used in modern Britain and Rose did have to spend time with the Downton dialect coach to perfect Gwen’s speech and tone. “I did some accent training with Penny Dyer who said that all accents now have become quite sloppy! In 1912, it was more acute and there were no long bits at the end of the word, where the mouth drops open. I was in fact speaking with more of a Manchester accent, than a Yorkshire one and Penny had to really teach me to bring it back to the 1900’s,” explains Rose.
“Because most of the actors playing the staff do have northern accents, it was very useful to listen to them and hear how they speak. There was one word that I just couldn’t get,’ she recalls, ‘and I can’t remember what it was now, but I was going round to Siobhan, Rob, Jim, Tom and Sophie, asking them how they thought it was said. So they were all really helpful when I didn’t quite get it right,” she recalls.
Gwen has grown up on a farm, but she harbours a dream to break free from her life in service. She feels there is more to do in the world than making beds and dressing young ladies for breakfast, lunch and dinner and whatever she does it would give her more independence and improve her fortunes. She forms an unlikely alliance with the Crawley’s youngest daughter, Lady Sybil, who is going through similar feelings of desire for independence and change.
“Gwen’s real dream is to become a secretary, she wants to come out of service and make a better life for herself. She’s breaking every rule - women didn’t want to have a profession and work in an office so she is part of the new wave of female independence coming through at that time.” “She is helped by Lady Sybil, who does all sorts of things that Lord Grantham would be appalled by to help Gwen get interviews and write letters. Sybil really compromises her position but they are a similar age and growing up in a time of great political change which has affected them both.”
Gwen’s determination to leave Downton is not just a whim. She has saved her wages in order to buy a typewriter, which she keeps hidden above her wardrobe. “I think the desire to work in an office is very new and exciting to her and something that her friends back home probably haven’t even thought of doing yet. I like to think that she has magazines and newspaper articles stuffed down the back of her bed,” she laughs. “It isn’t all plain sailing for Gwen though and Lady Sybil comes a cropper at times as well…but you will have to tune in to find out how,” she hints.
Pack produced by Una Maguire and Victoria Brooks, Milk Publicity!
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks