Allen Leech on ‘Downton Abbey’, smuggling tea to Dame Maggie Smith and whether the end really is the end
‘Downton Abbey’ star Allen Leech tells us what it felt like to be back playing Tom Branson again, how the recently-released movie really is the end of an era and what the most rebelliously Irish thing he ever did while filming is.
As Downton Abbey fans will well know at this stage, the highly-anticipated sequel movie opened in cinemas nationwide back in April. Brought to us by award-winning creator Julian Fellowes, Downton Abbey: A New Era marks the much-anticipated cinematic return of the global phenomenon – three years after the first movie was released.
Reuniting the entire original cast – along with a few new faces – for another hoorah, the action takes place in 1928, right on the cusp of a new decade. The Dowager has moved back to Downton to be closer to the family in light of her declining health and surprises everyone with the news that she’s just inherited a villa in the South of France.
How she came to be in possession of such a generous gift from the late Marquis de Montmirail remains a mystery though, so some of the family heads off to France to uncover the truth. Meanwhile, Hollywood has descended upon Downton after Mr Barber, a film director from the British Lion film company, expressed interest at setting his latest silent film there.
Much to our delight, Irish actor Allen Leech also plays a significant role in the plot. Previously admitting that the series finale was “a bit of a disappointment” to him personally, the actor told The Los Angeles Times that he was sad his character didn’t quite get the happy ending he was hoping for. Incidentally, that actually turned out to be a good thing for Leech, whose storyline was subsequently allowed to grow and flourish in the successive movies.
“Julian says this, you can’t have every story fully closed. You have to leave some open-ended and Branson was one of those. I just felt that it would have been great to see him find happiness again and the great thing is, in these two movies, he found that.”
Was it easy to get back into character after so long? In a word, yes. “It’s like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes to be honest. We’ve been doing it so long that, genuinely, it’s quite nice when you come back to a character that you’ve played for so long because you do know him so well.
“I think we were all very excited to get back together. Especially given the pandemic, there was a good chance that it wasn’t going to happen, that we weren’t actually going to be able to make the movie. Even with all the Covid protocols, which were obviously very strict – especially around a certain Dame. It was just great to be back together.”
“It’s always a joy to come back to this cast. And we oftentimes, nearly always, will have the same crew, so, that’s also so lovely. We are basically like a family where we just get back together. And the great thing is like families, it’s kind of like going home for Christmas, you know, it’s just for the right amount of time.”
Already dedicating such a huge amount of his life and career to the series, wrapping on the second movie was sort of bittersweet… but is the end ever really the end?! “We keep saying goodbye to this and it keeps coming back,” Allen smiled.
“And like, there is that moment when we all stood saying goodbye to Highclere Castle, just looking at it going, ‘We’ll probably never see this again in person.’ And then three years later, we’re like, ‘Alright, good morning. Let’s go to work.’ For that to happen again two years later, it’s brilliant. So, yeah it is bittersweet, but we keep saying goodbye so then we have to keep coming back. We’re not sure if it is over. Even we don’t know if it’s over.”
Claiming that he really doesn’t know either way, the actor thinks that ultimately, the show’s future lies in the fans’ hands. “I think, to be honest, it comes down to how the fans react and if they if they go out and watch us. And you know, it’ll always come down to that. The fans are the ones who’ve made this show what it is. So it’ll it’ll come down to whether they want to, you know, I suppose vote with their bums.”
Touching on the whole Hollywood coming to Downton storyline, Allen agreed that it’s quite a novel idea – not many of the staff or main family members are happy about the setup and the humour of paid actors complaining about other paid actors isn’t lost on him. Asked what movie he’d love to see a Downton crossover with, his first choice is a little unexpected…
“Immediately, I don’t know why, but immediately I just thought of Downton Abbey: Die Harder. That would be quite funny if it came out at Christmas. I wouldn’t mind seeing Maggie Smith saying ‘yippie ki-yay’,” he laughed. “Of the time period, or even moving slightly forward, I wouldn’t mind seeing Marlon Brando walking around Downton.”
It goes without saying that there have been many memorable moments over the course of the past few years, but Leech’s personal favourites are any scenes that include the full ensemble cast, as that’s when the show is at its best.
“I think any of the scenes where you have us as a complete ensemble, I think that really just sums up the show because it is just that; it is an ensemble piece. People have often said ‘How can all these actors get on so well?’, and it’s because if there’s no ego at the top, then there can’t be any ego anywhere else.
“And when you have someone like Maggie, who is so gracious and so wonderful to work with and she doesn’t have an ego, then no one else can and that’s why we’re a family because we’re all here as a genuine ensemble. She sets the tone and it’s just wonderful to work with great actors. As Julian Fellowes says himself, ‘it’s lightning in a bottle’. Any ensemble moment where you see the whole cast together probably justifies and sums up the show.”
As for the ending, it’s really something. Without giving too much away, Allen described it as “very poignant”. “It was very emotional filming those scenes… it’s the closing of a chapter. That was bittersweet because ultimately you’re really saying goodbye to an essential part of what Downton is and has been. In fact, probably the most integral.”
All I’ll say is, keep the tissues handy.
If he wasn’t playing Tom Branson – the beloved former chauffeur now a mainstay in the Crawley family – Leech says the role of Thomas Barrow most appeals to him. “I don’t think I could ever do the other characters justice, because I think that Jill Trevellick who is our casting director has done an incredible job. Everyone is perfect in their roles.
“But the fun of watching these characters, I would have loved to have been as great at [playing] Thomas Barrow as Rob James-Colliers is. He’s such a great character. I said this to him though, and he told me, ‘Mate, you couldn’t do it. You don’t have the cheekbones.’,” Leech replied, imitating Rob.
Accents are no big deal to the actor though, who actually wanted to do his first audition in a Yorkshire accent in keeping with how the character (formerly John Branson) was originally written. Fellowes asked him to do it in his usual voice though, which he did, and thus John became Tom.
Finishing by telling me about the most rebelliously Irish thing he’s ever done while on set, the Killiney native grinned as he recounted a story in which he and Michelle Dockery (who is basically Irish, as he puts it) smuggled some contraband onto set for Dame Maggie Smith.
“We are a cast of tea drinkers,” he explained. “But we’re not allowed bring tea inside the house, you can only have water. So, myself and Michelle Dockery, who is pretty much Irish – well, her dad is – we found a way of smuggling tea to Maggie Smith. Which I think is quite Irish. To be defiant in the face of Lord and Lady Carnarvon. But it did involve her [Maggie] leaning out a window!”
All’s well that ends well though and Dame Maggie Smith was extremely appreciative for the rebellious move.