Allen Leech plays Branson, chauffeur at Downton Abbey, who falls for Lady Sybil. It would be the sort of cross-class relationship that at the time was strictly taboo. To make matters worse, Branson is politically motivated, and his views frequently bring him into conflict with his employers.
Allen explains where his character is at the start of the second series. “At the end of the first series, we saw that Branson was clearly infatuated with Sybil. The war is now starting, but he is in an upbeat mood, as it seems as if things might be progressing with her. Last year, there was a slight gesture where they held hands, and that was huge for Branson. At that time, physical contact was not allowed between the people upstairs and the staff. In fact, Mrs Hughes warned him, ‘You’ll be left with no job and a broken heart.’ But Branson is so headstrong, that’s not much of an issue for him.”
The Irish actor, who has also appeared in Rome and The Tudors, goes on to outline what attracts Branson to Sybil. “There is a fire and a spirit in Sybil which appeals to him. She also has a real interest in politics, and he stokes that. He sees it in her and gives her pamphlets and tries to educate her about the suffragette movement. He is quite well educated. He is always reading the papers and lecturing the staff about what’s happening in the world. Then eventually, he falls in love with her.”
The onset of the First World War, ironically enough, offers Branson a glimmer of hope that this romance might, against all odds, actually work. According to Allen, “Once the war starts, the class system changes. Everyone is in it together. They are all aiming for the same thing and trying to win the war. Everyone has to muck in. Sybil becomes a nurse. At the time very few women of her class were doing that but it was accepted because everyone wanted to do their bit.”
In the middle of the Great War Downton Abbey is requisitioned by the military authorities as a convalescent home. “Branson sees that as a signal that by the end of the war things will be different,” comments Allen. “The way people view the aristocracy and the working classes begins to change. That gives Branson hope,’ he says, ‘Things won’t be the same after the war.’’
Allen proceeds to speculate about where the burgeoning relationship between Branson and Sybil might go. “He is as crazy about her as ever. In the first episode, he decides he has his one chance before she goes to train to be a nurse, and so he takes the opportunity to tell her exactly how he feels. She says, ‘Maybe it could happen in the future, but not now.’ “He gets slightly knocked back by that, but being Branson he doesn’t give up. Throughout the series we see him constantly questioning her but Sybil is full of hesitation.”
Jessica Brown Findlay describes Lady Sybil's role in Season 2 “We meet Sybil at a point where she has clearly been affected by the war. She’s known plenty of people who have gone away to fight, and she is now at breaking point. She’s frustrated because she feels useless and thinks it’s not right just to stand by. She’s angry about what’s happening to her generation and heartbroken that she has nothing to offer.
“It has always been preached to her that being an aristocrat gives her the ability to do anything she wants, but now she is sitting in this great house unable to do anything and can’t make a difference. She has reached a wall and been worn down by the war. So she goes about changing that.” Jessica explains how Sybil becomes involved by training to be a nurse. “Suddenly she is able to pour all her energy into that. She makes it happen and is determined to do it. In the course of her job as a nurse, she sees things that any normal 21-year-old would be shocked about now, but she is even more horrified because she’s led such a sheltered life.
“Even though 90% of the population at that time lived in appalling conditions, Sybil had previously never been exposed to any hardship. Suddenly she sees men coming back from the war with horrendous injuries, and she realises that is why she has to do that job. It’s a great challenge, but she has to become involved.” The experience of nursing and the horrors that she witnesses deeply affect Sybil. “It really changes her,” says Jessica. “She starts to feel what it is like to be tired at the end of the day for a good reason. She has the satisfaction of doing something worthwhile. She knows she can work and attend to these men, and that sense of liberation is so important for Sybil. It also puts the fear of God into her – she thinks, ‘If the war ends, what am I going to do?’”
The second series also expands on the nascent relationship between Sybil and the family chauffeur, Branson. According to the actress, “He has been thinking about it a lot more than she has. When he suggests advancing their relationship, she replies, ‘Are you serious? You’re doing this now? I’m training as a nurse!’
“Sybil is mostly led by her heart but she does have a sensible head on her. She knows they are living in a time where a relationship between a lady and her chauffeur cannot happen. If it did, she would never see her family again. She is very aware that despite her feelings, it is a very scary thing to consider an affair.”
So all in all Jessica observes, “She has gone from having nothing to think about to suddenly being burdened with the responsibility for her own heart, someone else’s heart and the lives of all these wounded soldiers. The combination is baffling for her. The series feels very contemporary. A young girl struggling with war, career, love, and family – the parallels with today are incredibly close.”
The actress says that before the first series of Downton Abbey went out, none of the cast had any idea the show would be such a hit. “It took me completely by surprise. It felt great when we were making it. But these days nobody expects a period drama to have such huge impact. You do a job because you love the material, and when you’re making it, you almost forget that anyone will watch it. Then suddenly 13 million people tune in and you think, that’s insane!” “People adore watching these lives that are so intertwined. There are moments where the audience are let in on a story that the characters don’t know about. That’s fun. It’s a great pleasure to watch this tight world slowly unravel in some places and knot up in others.
“It is terrific for an audience to have the time to watch the stories unfold and be able to indulge in this sumptuous world. When we watched the first series, we thought, ‘Oh my goodness, it looks so pretty!’ I loved watching it, even though I was in it!”
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