Downton Abbey - Penelope Wilton

Penelope Wilton makes no bones about the reasons why she wanted to work on Downton Abbey. As if the lure of a great script wasn’t enough, the possibility of working with Maggie Smith, an actress she had greatly admired was the icing on a very large cake. “One of the reasons I did this was to work with Maggie Smith’, says Penelope. ‘As a younger actress, (only slightly younger than Maggie) the person I admired more than anyone else on stage and in film, was Maggie Smith and I saw her in everything she did at The National Theatre,” she adds. “I wished I could be like her and now it’s like working with a heroine and one doesn’t have many of those when you grow older,” she laughs. Penelope, like many of her Downton co-stars, is much in demand and is currently filming the BBC’s South Riding, with David Morrissey, Anna Maxwell Martin and Douglas Henshall.

Previously seen in these period dramas...

Mrs. Hamley in Wives and Daughters

Mrs. Gardiner in Pride and Prejudice (2005)

Duchess of Kent in Victoria and Albert

As mother of the future heir to Downton, Isobel finds herself in the unenviable position of having to uproot herself and her son and leave behind her life, home and friends. “Although I am a widow, we live in Manchester and have a happy life, but we come into the story because my son is next in line to inherit Downton Abbey. We are brought to live in a house on the Downton estate so Matthew can learn the ropes,” she explains. “Isobel is not terribly happy about having to move. She had a close group of friends and a life of her own in Manchester. She trained as a nurse during the Boer War and her husband and brother were both doctors and so had a very full life. We discover that her husband specialised in children’s diseases and out of his notes Isobel published a book of his work,’ she explains. “I’ve got a very fulfilled life and this comes as a great interruption to their lives, but there’s nothing they can do about it. And she isn’t about to send him off to Downton alone.”

It is when Isobel and Matthew are introduced to the Grantham household that Isobel realises the enormity of the obstacles ahead and never one to shy away from a battle she steadies herself to face the Dowager Countess. “Isobel comes up against the Dowager, who has ruled the roost at Downton for many years. And although she pretends not to care that her position has been usurped by Lady Grantham, it is obvious that she would actually like to be more involved than she is now and she certainly doesn’t like this new woman coming in.” To make herself useful Isobel offers her services to the local hospital which was set up by Violet’s late husband for the local people on the estate.

“Maggie’s character and mine clash terribly over the hospital as Isobel wants to get involved and put her skills and experience as a nurse to good use. She has lived in the real world and knows a bit about medicine and basically thinks the hospital is stuck in the dark ages. Matthew and Isobel are part of the middle classes, the educated, the lawyers and doctors and as such, even the servants are snooty towards them. They represent change and I suppose present a new threat to their way of life…it’s born out of ignorance really,” explains Penelope. What ensues is a struggle for power between the two women that sees Isobel win small battle after small battle while Violet wins the war of words.

“Julian has written the most wonderful dialogue for both Maggie and I and we were in fits of laughter delivering these snippy lines to each other,” she admits. One of the downsides of filming this period in history is that the ladies wore no make-up and spent their time in corsets. Isobel Crawley was no exception. “When you are older you need a bit of make-up but they didn’t wear it in those days so we only had the very barest of make-up bases but I do wear a wig because they had a lot of hair then, which took quite a while to put on. And of course the corsets meant we didn’t eat much lunch on set,’ she laughs. ‘It’s no surprise they had to have maids in those days it must have taken ages to get ready.”

Penelope - The face that launched a feature
"Can You Place the Face?"


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