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18 September 2012

Downton Abbey: An interview with Penelope Wilton (Isobel Crawley)

Isobel Crawley
(Penelope Wilton)
© ITV
When your son is the groom and the venue is Downton Abbey, a wedding can become all-consuming for a meddlesome mother. Not for Isobel Crawley, says Penelope Wilton.

“At the beginning of the series Isobel is looking forward to the wedding of her son to Mary. But the thing is that she’s the groom’s mother, not the bride’s mother. So it’s rather taken out of her hands.”

Isobel is all too happy to take a back seat. “I don’t think she minds too much really. She goes along with it because that’s what Matthew wants. The thing about Isobel is that she’s not a nosey parker - she’s not somebody who involves herself or will interfere with her son’s life. He’s been through a war; he nearly lost the use of his legs; he’s a grown, mature man with a good head on his shoulders. She is perfectly happy to steer him and give her advice when she’s asked, but not unless.”

Besides, Isobel has plenty of other things with which to concern herself. During the war she was involved with the hospital and kept very busy. Now she finds a new project.

“The fall out from the war meant a lot of women lost their husbands - whole villages of men were wiped out. So women found themselves in very difficult positions financially and some of them had to resort to undesirable ways of making a living. Isobel is trying to help women who have found it very difficult.”

Needless to say, Isobel winds up in hot water. “She sometimes bites off more than she can chew! I mean to take on a lot of ‘women of the night’ and not expect there to be a certain amount of difficulty in that situation... But she’s a woman of principle so she fights that. And also she has humour so she understands what she’s doing; it’s just that sometimes she doesn’t always think ahead.”

You can tell by her tone that, three series in, Isobel Crawley is a character Penelope Wilton has rather come to like.

“I do like her; I think she’s a formidable woman but she’s got her heart in the right place. She’s sometimes very misguided in as far as she can be a bull in a china shop, and I also think she feels frustrated by the woman’s role at that time - she would like women to have more freedom to follow their path. Perhaps she should have been born in another time because she sees changes; she’s an intelligent woman. And after the war I think a lot of people found themselves in her position: they had had a role and then they found it difficult to find another role for themselves, especially if they were widowed as Isobel is. She wants to be a useful person, not knitting tea cosies and being kind to people in an arm’s length way; she wants to be hands on.”

Recently, Wilton found herself in America doing the publicity rounds for her film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. The second question, however, was almost always off topic.
“Every person who came in, and there must have been 25 to 50 a day, always asked about Downton Abbey because they adore it over there. They have Downton parties so I was told. It’s extraordinary.”

She puts the continued interest down to Julian Fellowes’ scripts.

“He writes a real page-turner. And I think it’s good story telling - there’s this group of 18 main characters that all have their own storylines. He’s brilliant at keeping all those going. You never stay anywhere for very long but you follow them all, their ups and their downs, their fallings in and out, their sadnesses and their successes. It’s a very interesting pot pourri of people.”

She says that time spent in the early 1920s has taught her to appreciate the attention to detail in the women’s clothes, and the make do and mend attitude – “a world in which you don’t throw everything away is a recycling world, of course,” she says. “But as far as the rights of women and the vote and medicine and education and the hierarchical system go, I’m very pleased we’re where we are.”

As for filming, she admits that scenes round the dining table can drag on, because to make them look suitably grand requires endless lighting set-ups.

“We have ways of dealing with our boredom at those: we play wink murder which is a very good game, because you don't have to do it standing up. Somebody is the murderer and they wink - and then you die if you catch someone winking at you. That keeps us focussed.”

And who are the best winking murderers on the cast?

“Maggie Smith is extremely good and so is Elizabeth McGovern.”

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