As the much-loved series comes to a close, Penelope Wilton opens up about life at Downton Abbey.

For the last six years, the lives of the Crawley family, their social circle and their staff have captivated the world. Premiering to a British audience of nine million in 2010, Downton Abbey has grown to be one of the most widely-watched TV dramas in history, reaching a global audience of 120 million. 

The closing episode of the sixth series is the penultimate glimpse into ITV’s fictional Yorkshire estate. The special episode broadcast on Christmas Day will be the last.

Penelope Wilton, who’s played the kind and principled Isobel Crawley since the first series, is just as sorry as the audiences to see the show end. “It’s been a great experience and it’ll be sorely missed,” she says softly. “You never take anything for granted, I have to say, and we’ve always known it would have to finish.”

Downton Abbey Penelope WIlton

She can indulge, like the rest of us, in repeated episodes (“I do watch it from time to time,” she smiles. “I usually wait for the box set to come out”) but she appreciates that it’s right for the story to come to a close. She adds, “It’s rather better to leave something when people still want to know about it, rather that wait for it to lose its momentum and just become yet another show on TV.”

Of course, with a career spanning four decades, Penelope is certainly an expert on the industry. Born in Yorkshire to a thespian family (her uncle was the actor Bill Travers, her mother was a tap dancer and performer, and her maternal grandparents were theatre-owners), the 69-year-old caught the acting bug at a young age. 
 

"I’d never worked on anything for that length of time before. It really has been extraordinary"
 

Her TV acting career began in 1972 with Mrs Warren’s Profession, and she became a household name thanks to 1984’s Ever Decreasing Circles, in which she starred with the late Richard Briers. Downton Abbey, however, has been a record for her too. “I’d never worked on anything for that length of time before. It really has been extraordinary.”

Aside from the costumes and sets, what she’ll miss most is “the wonderful camaraderie with my fellow actors”. The cast, of course, boasts myriad famous figures, including Dame Maggie Smith, Hugh Bonneville and Brendan Coyle. And many of the younger actors—such as Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens—have become household names thanks to the international success of the show. 

In Calendar Girls

“The relationship with my fellow actors has been hugely important,” continues Penelope, with a touch of shyness. “When you work with people a lot, after a while you develop a bit of a shorthand with them. You can do more subtle things because they know their character, you know your character, and you know them very well.” 

The inimitable Dame Maggie plays the hilariously caustic Violet Crawley, whose traditional views often jar with Isobel Crawley’s more liberal stance. “I certainly have that shorthand with Maggie.” 

“We’ve done quite a lot of scenes together and I’ve also worked with her in other things.” The two together are a joy to watch, where even the slightest lift of an eyebrow can speak volumes. 

The pair have also appeared together in the enormously successful The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and its recent sequel—just two of the films which have peppered Penelope’s diverse career. From the British
feel-good comedy Calendar Girls, to Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, to Woody Allen’s Match Point, she’s certainly no stranger to the silver screen.

 

Read the full interview in our November issue. Subscribe here for more great features

 

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