In the very first season of Downton Abbey, the Titanic sank, killing both heirs to the Crawley estate. With no other male heirs to take over when Lord Crawley (Hugh Bonneville) dies, he summons a distant cousin, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) to meet with him about becoming the new heir of the property.
Matthew and his mother, Isobel (Penelope Wilton), reluctantly move to Yorkshire out of duty, both uneasy with the Crawleys’ aristocratic lifestyle; Isobel’s forward thinking views particularly clashing with Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham (Dame Maggie Smith).
Now, six years later, the series is coming to an end, and Penelope Wilton joined other members of the Downton Abbey cast at the TV Critics tour to talk about the most successful British TV series in history.
In the series Isobel has always been the one who has tried to pull the other Crawleys into the modern time and getting them to change. I’m curious how you feel Isobel’s changed herself over the course of the series?
I think she has changed insofar as she arrived (in Yorkshire). She had a perfectly good life where she was living before and didn’t really want to be drawn into this world of ‘Downton Abbey’ and be a satellite to this much larger family.
She had her friends and her social life in Manchester, and so I think she did it out of duty, and then she found something to do and she thought she was contributing. And then she found a good foe in Violet, which kept her in their lives.
She wasn’t dismissed when her son died. They embraced her and brought her in, so she became much more of the family, and so there’s been a journey for her. And she’s come to appreciate the love, attention and affection of this large family, and become an integral part of it really.
I think that has been a very interesting journey, and she’s kept all her own interests and her own views. Those haven’t changed. And she occasionally tries to introduce them.
Were you disappointed as an actress not to be able to play the scene where you hear about Matthew’s death?
Normally it’s a year later and everyone’s forgotten it and she’s got a new life. But Julian did deal with her mourning for all of that next season. She was never out of black and she was mourning him the whole time and found it very difficult to come to terms with the fact that Mary might be getting a new life, because she’s a young woman.
So in all those areas, it was rather unexpected the way she showed her mourning. There were moments where you would come in and out of it, sometimes she managed it and other times she said, ‘I can’t go out, I can’t manage it today,’ which is what you do when somebody dies in my experience.
Will you miss being in the 1920s?
I never thought I’d say this, but I got to enjoy wearing those wonderful hats. I think hats should come back in.
When is Isobel going to give poor Dr Clarkson a break?
The doctor nice but there’s also Lord Merton. I like them both. You never know, it might be a ménage! (she laughs)
Is the end of season six closed-ended, where the house is gone and everybody has going their own way, or is it going to be more open-ended where the viewers might think there could be a movie?
It’s not an end, people have lives that will go on.
Julian is so clever in his writing that all these people have got another life so it’s not as if they just finish when the series finishes. You hear about their plans for the future.
Are you hoping for a movie?
I think movies are funny things because they cost so much money, but if it happens it would be lovely.
Is everyone happy with the way it ends?
I think so, when you’re writing for 18 leading characters it’s a hard thing to do and Julian seems to find time for them all.
I think that part of the success of the show is that nobody is dwelt on for very long, because everyone has their favorite character.
This is the first time you’ve come to the States with the cast, are you surprised by how successful the series has become here?
I’ve been told by the girls (Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Joanne Froggatt). I would have come more often, but if I’m working I can’t manage the jet lag. They sleep anywhere, I can’t, I’m driving the airplane I’m so worried about it all.
So I’m sitting bolt upright until we get home or coming so if I’m every asked to take over, I’ll be ready!