Encore: Downton Abbey’s Allen Leech

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Allen Leech plays Tom Branson, the handsome Irish revolutionary turned estate manager. But behind the scenes, Leech was a notorious prankster. In this episode, Leech reflects on Tom Branson’s epic journey, and reveals some of his favorite off-screen moments.

 

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.

Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through April 2, 2018.

The exhibition is presented by Viking, the leader in river and small ship ocean cruising, also known for its national corporate sponsorship of MASTERPIECE on PBS.

CLIP
Tom: I can stay as long as you want me.
Edith: I don’t understand. What are you saying?
Tom: Just this. That I’ve come back and I’d like to stay for good.

Jace: I’m Jace Lacob, and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

This week, I sit down with Allen Leech, who plays the dashing chauffeur turned estate agent Tom Branson, to talk about his character’s unexpected return to Downton:

CLIP:
Allen Leech: Jim was the first person when we read it at the read throughs he said, “Typical of Leech coming in and spoiling my moment.”

Jace: I’ll also speak with Downton Abbey historian Alastair Bruce about the long-awaited wedding of Mrs. Hughes and Mr. Carson.

CLIP:
Carson: I’m happy and tickled and bursting with pride that she would agree to be my wife.

Jace: But first, we’ll check in with our Talking Downton roundtable.

This week we left the blackmail and kidnapping behind.

Edith fired her insufferable editor — and went on a first date; Mrs. Hughes and Carson tied the knot; and Tom Branson and Sybbie returned from America.

We’re joined by two of our Talking Downton commentators:

Kate Hess, an actress and writer known for her funny MASTERPIECE parody “Murder Abbey,” and Christina Dowling, a writer and unabashed Anglophile who’s reported for E! Online.

Jace: Initial thoughts?

Christina Dowling (Christina): Praise Julian Fellowes, he brought Tom back. Thank God.

Kate Hess (Kate): Yes.

Jace: Did you think maybe he wasn’t coming back?

Christina: No, I was kind of– I knew he was going to come back, but you can’t send that many sad letters and not come back.

CLIP:
Mary: I dreamt last night I was in the park at Downton walking with Sybbie under the great trees listening to the pigeons cooing in their branches. And when I woke, my eyes were filled with tears.

Jace: It was a very sad, but beautiful letter. He’s like a…

Kate and Christina: Yeah!

Jace: …soul of a poet.

Kate: That’s like a poet.

Jace: Yes. Tom Branson.

Kate: Exactly. I was like where– When did he learn to write like that?

Christina: But remember he was a writer.

Jace: He was.

Kate: Oh, that’s right!

Jace: He was a writer.

Christina: Now we know what Sybil saw in him.

Kate: I did feel like he was stealing Mr. and Mrs. Carson’s thunder a little bit just popping in at the end of the wedding ceremony, like “I’m back!”

Jace: I’m very happy that Mrs. Hughes and Carson actually did tie the knot

Kate: I thought the morning coat from Cora, considering her apology, could’ve been… could’ve been a little nicer.

Jace: So you wanted a nicer coat?

Kate: I want– You know, I mean Cora really was out of line in a way, so…

Jace: Though to be fair, to play devil’s advocate here for a second, and for Cora, I mean if you came home and discovered your servants rifling through your belongings, you know, in 1925 you probably would fire them all, and she didn’t.

Kate: Yes.

Jace: She didn’t, and she did very graciously apologize, and then give her a coat that she will never use ever again.

Jace: Can we talk about Bertie Pelham?

Kate: Oh, he’s so cute.

Jace: I love Bertie. It’s nice to see Edith meet a good guy for a change. He seems like a very decent chap.

Christina: Yeah. He’s not 100 years old.

Jace: Yes.

Christina: He’s not married.

Jace: Yes.

Christina: He’s not wrapped in bandages.

Jace: He doesn’t have a crazy woman in the attic…

Christina: Yeah, he’s great.

Jace: I love that they go for a drink at Rules, which was established in 1798, which makes it the oldest restaurant in London.

Kate: And it’s still there.

Jace: It’s still there…

Kate: I went there when I was there, it was great.

Jace: …You can still go to Rules.

Jace: But I love their rapport in this episode and the fact that he does sort of lend a hand with the chaos that’s going on, and jumps in, and doesn’t seem to mind.

CLIP:
Bertie: Alright I’ll come with you.
Edith: Come with me where?
Bertie: Back to the office. I can make coffee. I can fetch sandwiches. I can carry bits of paper around.

Kate: Yeah, he’s being such a forward-thinking man by being there by her side, and getting her coffee, and…

Jace: But it’s the getting her coffee part that I love…

Kate: …It’s very cute.

Jace: That it’s not like he’s like– roll up his sleeves…

Christina: “I can fetch sandwiches.”

Jace: …and he’s, like, “I’m going to do it,” and he’s like, “No, I’ll make coffee, I’ll get sandwiches.” And he was like Her Girl Friday, and it was… I liked that. That was nice.

Christina: He’s very sweet, and it’s nice to see a nice guy go after Edith in that way.

Jace: MVP for this week? Bertie Pelham?

Christina: Absolutely.

Jace: I’d say Edith, too– The new Edith. New Edith is sort of firing her editor, and she’s getting things done, and this is, I think, the year of Edith, maybe, finally.

Christina: Yeah. Finally.

Kate: Yeah, I was so glad when she finally fired that guy and just took it all over.

Jace: Predictions for next week. What do we think is going to happen?

Kate: Tom and Mary get together.

Christina: Well, Tom now needs a job again.

Jace: Yeah, what is going to happen there?

Christina: Well, Mary’s quite capable as an agent, so…

Kate: Yeah, I don’t know what– What’s his job going to be?

Christina: Do they fire the chauffeur?

Kate: Yeah.

Christina: He can always go back to that.

Jace: And I just– I think, while it was only sort of the last 30 seconds of the episode, I do think my favorite thing was Tom showing up. Yes, he does steal their thunder a little bit, as we said, but I do think it was great to finally have Tom back. And it almost feels as though things are… things are complete. The Crawleys are complete now with Tom, and that I think was something missing from these first few episodes.

Kate: Yeah, it’s nice to have that energy back.

CLIP:
Tom: I’ve told myself and told myself you’re too far above me. But things are changing. When the war is over, the world won’t be the same place it was when it started. And I’ll make something of myself, I promise.
Sybil: I know you will.
Tom: Then bet on me.

Allen Leech–who plays Tom Branson–is a television veteran who, prior to Downton, was best known for his role in HBO’s RomeDownton Abbey reunited Leech with Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville, with whom he appeared in From Time to Time, a 2009 film written by Downton creator Julian Fellowes.

Jace: We are talking to Allen Leech this week.

Allen: Thanks very much for having me.

Jace: This week, Tom Branson came back to Downton rather unexpectedly. Did you know in advance how and when Tom would be returning to Downton?

Allen: I didn’t know if I was coming back to be honest, genuinely. You know, although contractually you’re signed up but they have the choice of whether to bring you back or not. And I remember sitting with Gareth Neame saying “I am coming back, aren’t I?” and Gareth going “Well, you know, you might, you might.” And I was like, “No seriously, I am coming back aren’t I.” And it was like– And I knew that he was playful enough to know that I partly was coming back, but I didn’t know exactly when.

And I was really warmed by the reaction of the fans when they thought that Tom Branson was gone and it’s been really heartwarming to see the reaction now that he is back in the show.

Jace: How has Tom’s American adventure changed him?

Allen: I think the attitude that Tom arrived at the house with in Season 1 drastically changed through what happened with the death of his wife and the fact that this family took him in. And I think moving to America has opened his eyes once again. Genuinely, he looks at the world in a way that says, “You know what? A man can make it all the way to the top in one lifetime. It doesn’t have to take generations and generations.”

Jace: Now he returns during Mr. Carson and Mr. Hughes’ wedding party, which unites the upstairs and downstairs and the Crawleys are obviously there. Tom was often caught between those two domestic spheres– and what did you make of that choice as being the specific moment for Tom’s big return?

Allen: Well actually Jim was the first person when we read it at the read-throughs he said, “Typical of Leech coming in and spoiling my moment,” so…And Phyllis as well going “You know, can’t Carson and Mrs. Hughes just have one time that is actually about them?”

But as you it is say a time when both upstairs and downstairs are united. And Tom has always been the man who can jump between both because he has long standing relationships with those downstairs, the servants, and the family. And Julian has always used Tom Branson as a tour guide and he says himself he says, “Tom can take you anywhere and he can be the tour guide for the audience, he can be the eyes of the audience in the house,” because he himself is seeing this fresh every time for the first time.

Jace: Let’s take a look back at the series as a whole and let’s talk about the evolution of Tom Branson. Out of all of the characters he seems to be the one who undergoes the most change. What do you make of his transformation of chauffeur and Irish revolutionary to well-dressed member of the Crawley family?

Allen: I think…Tom’s journey has been so complex because when he first arrived he saw this house and this way of life as a symbol of oppression that he suffered himself back in Ireland. And he came in trying to change that as much as he could and he rallied against it.

CLIP:
Tom: That’s very kind ladies. But you see I don’t approve of these costumes. I see them as the uniform of oppression and I should be uncomfortable wearing them.
Violet: Are you quite finished?

He then fell in love with one of the daughters and again his attitude had to change. He had to see these…this way of life, and the status and the symbol of oppression that was Downton and the British aristocracy, as his own family.

But he’s never lost a sense of who he was I think the one thing about Tom is he is always the center of reason as much as there is any reason upstairs especially when Violet’s around.

Jace: One of the most unforgettable and emotionally wrenching moments in the history of Downton has to be the very unexpected death of Sybil Crawley. What did you make of the death scene when you read the script?

Allen: I remember being quite emotional reading it for the first time. And then we sat in and we read it in the read through and I remember for everyone in that room it was emotional. And it wasn’t just the writing it was also the sense that by that point we had already become a very close family of actors and it was the first time we were saying goodbye to one of them.

And the dialogue that is in it with relation to Tom, I felt– Everyone was very, very composed and even within the scene — again it’s quite structured in how people stand — and I didn’t want Tom to be part of that. And I remember saying to Julian, I went, “I don’t think he would be. I think he’d be much more erratic. I don’t think he would be very stoic or ready to brace himself. This is the woman he’s given up everything for. This is the woman he would…he would die for himself who has just given birth. This is one of the happiest moments of his life turned into absolute tragedy and the most horrendous set of circumstances.”

So all of that stuff of pleading and saying, “Please love. Please, please come on,” and shaking her and holding her, that was just me on the day that I said, “I’m just going to try something.” And they ended up keeping it.

CLIP:
Tom: Please wake up. Please don’t leave me. Don’t leave me. Please wake up, love. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me, love. (Cries) Please, love.

Allen: Julian always said that– he said, “I don’t like it when people paraphrase what I do.” But he said, “I loved that you did that because again it showed Tom as not being– It showed his isolation within this world. Again.”

Jace: I mean you mention the fact that he is very different from the rest and amidst their repression he does have this sort of raw, intense emotion in that scene that is really harrowing to watch. How do you get yourself in the mindset for shooting that scene?

Allen: It’s quite a sad story actually. It comes back to something that I witnessed of a family member shaking another family member as they passed away basically pleading them not to go and I think that’s what’s most harrowing is…it’s almost a childlike state of– You know you turn into an infant again. It’s in that helplessness that I think people find distressing but also can relate to so much.

Jace: Even though she died in the third season why do you think Sybil’s death still continues to resonate so sharply?

Allen: I think because Tom and Sybil were star crossed lovers and everyone loves that story of love conquering all, breaking down all barriers. And I think it is that sense of it was just the two of them against everything. And when that then tragedy struck, I think people felt, you know, part of that hope within Tom and within the show as well had died when Sybil died. And I think that’s why people hold on to it as well.

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Jace: There’s the Tom and Sybil “fetch me the matches” moment, Tom attempting to pour some revolting concoction on a General, battling the Downton fire, and even getting roofied 1920’s style by Larry Grey– What are…What would your favorite Branson moment be?

Allen: I love the scene when he drops Sybil off at the nurse’s college. That’s the first time that he expresses how he really feels. And for me it’s a moment that sums up what Branson is; he was prepared to take a shot and he was prepared to take a shot for the right reasons because he truly loved this woman. And it’s still one of my favorite lines that Branson says which is he says “then bet on me.”

Jace: My favorite, I would say…

Allen: Go on.

Jace: …is actually when he stands up to Robert when Robert tries to bribe him into leaving Sybil:

CLIP:
Tom: You know you’re trouble, m’lord, like all of your kind. You think you have the monopoly of honor. Doesn’t it occur to you that I might believe the best guarantee of Sybil’s happiness lies with me?

Do you think Tom has become in some ways the conscience of Downton?

Allen: Yes I think it’s very true that Tom is the conscience of Downton and he is that for the audience member as well. And I think– I mentioned earlier that Julian himself says, “Tom Branson is your tour guide. He is also your conscience. He’s kind of your Jiminy Cricket within Downton, you know?” (Laughs) I should never have said that, that’s gonna stick.

He is though. He kinda is the conscience and the moral compass within the show.

Jace: I’ve heard you often read your Downton scripts aloud in the voice of Julian Fellowes, is that true?

Allen: I do but I tend to do that around the cast such as Hugh or Rob. It’s more as a joke. But you do get a sense of– He’s got a very specific way of writing — I can’t believe I’m telling you this — And if you read it as Julian, “Scene 1,” you do tend to find the rhythm quite quickly.

Jace: I’ve heard you pulled off some pranks on set.

Allen: Yeah.

Jace: What was the most memorable prank you pulled off?

Allen: Thomas Howes, who played William…He very tragically died. He was Daisy’s husband for about four and a half minutes. We sewed his pants legs together one night, and we completely forgot, and went…we went to our hotels and came back the next day. And he tried for about ten and a half minutes to get into his trousers. He was almost talking to the trousers going “Well, that shouldn’t be right. That doesn’t make any sense. Mm, don’t know why it ain’t working.” And it just went on and on until the point that we had to open his door and help him. Obviously we talked him off. But that was probably one of the best ones.

Hugh is also a big prankster but Hugh does something in scenes that absolutely throws you where he’ll walk up to you and say, “Of course in Downton,” and then he’ll say this word means something else. And he came up to me in one scene and he said, “Of course in Downton, politics means nipples,” and he walked away. And I was like, “What? I don’t– what?” And then we said, “And action.” And he walks up to me and he goes, “Branson, Sybil tells me your politics are hardening.”

So that was the end of that day of filming for me. So Downtonisms has become a great a game, at the dinner table especially.

Jace: Speaking of mischief: True or false, did you once drunkenly break into Highclere Castle after a night out with Rob James Collier?

Allen: There’s a couple of disclaimers here. I may have got very drunk on a cider called Old Rosy, which is 7%. And as myself and Rob say, “Old Rosie’s a cruel mistress.”

I left Rob’s hotel and got in a car to go back to mine but it was a terrible foggy night. The taxi dropped me off at my hotel which was all closed up because I had forgotten to check in. So in my wonderfully inebriated wisdom, I thought I would walk back to Highclere and sleep in my trailer. It was a 2 and a half hour walk in the fog. I had to climb the gates and I turned into MacGyver; I used my bag anyway as some kind of footrest, got over…I did. So I technically broke into the grounds, I did not break into the house, and I slept in one of the trailers. It was– By the time I got there I think it was about 5 AM and we were on set at 7:30. So I didn’t look my best that day. I gave hair and makeup a bit of a challenge. And Rob James Collier, it’s his fault because he refused to wake up, he didn’t answer his phone and if he had I could have gone back to his hotel and had a good night’s sleep. So, yeah, it’s actually all Rob’s fault.

Jace: It usually is Thomas’ fault.

Allen: It is! It is! Yeah. Rob is very, very mischievous.

Jace: Tom has worn many hats on Downton. He’s been a chauffeur…

Allen: Do you mean actual hats?

Jace: He’s worn many different hats! He’s been a haberdasher…

Jace: What was the final day of shooting like for you?

Allen: The way it fell, myself, Michelle and Hugh all finished on the same day. And I remember doing my last scene and being very aware that this was the last time that I was going to say any words as Tom Branson. And I remember– Suddenly you’re very aware that all the crew members are around. And then they said, “Okay cut.” And there’s an eerie silence and suddenly you hear, “That’s a wrap on Allen Leech.” And it was very, very emotional.

There’s a great sense of people saying– You know sadness, but again happiness you’re saying goodbye to these people you’ve worked with and been so close with for all these years. And there was a series of those events that went on and it kind of…until it came to the very last scene and it was shot on location. It was a big scene involving a lot of people, and it was in Central London and all of the crew got dressed up and were the background artists for that day. All the costume, all the hair, all the makeup, they were all there. Then we had a great sense of, “That’s it. It’s all over.” We finished 6 AM, it was a night shoot, and we…everyone just kind of looked at each other and was just absolutely…very tired, you know it’s a long filming schedule especially for the crew, but then we all got home, got a couple hours of rest and then we had the wrap party.

All in all it was an absolutely amazing night, and Maggie was there as well and it was just so lovely to have her there. And John Lunn, who does the music, he sat down at the piano and started playing, and it was just a very special night.

CLIP:
Carson: With this ring, I do thee wed. With my body, I thee worship. And with all my worldly goods, I thee endow.

Jace: Alastair Bruce is Downton’s historical advisor and an expert on etiquette and royal ceremony–including weddings. He joins us from London.

Jace: How unusual would the marriage between a butler and a head housekeeper have been in the 1920s?

Alastair Bruce (Alastair):  The wedding of a butler and a head housekeeper was a headline event because they’d probably no experience of it ever happening before.

When you entered service you were not expecting ever to marry. In a way you set down that privilege of life because you were expected to deliver the majority of your life and the whole of your loyalty to the family that employed you. Now in return you’d have food and shelter and a structured career. But you were not expected to marry because if you did marry you’d have to resign your job and go away and start a different life somewhere else, probably running a hotel or something.

Now when life was that limited, it did have an impact on people like Carson who had made the decision as a youngish man to leave the entertainment industry and come into service and he’s almost disinclined to believe his affection for Mrs. Hughes can go anywhere but after watching the family upstairs tolerate Mr. and Mrs. Bates getting married I think that Mrs. Hughes and Carson decide to set aside a lifetime’s belief that there could never be the joy of marriage and they embrace it. And once they’ve made the decision– And there’s a lot of hesitation. Hesitations built upon a whole upbringing of expecting it never to be possible.

CLIP:
Mary: If you’d like your reception to be here or we can hold it in the hall or whichever room you choose.
Carson: That’s very kind of you, m’lady.
Mary: Not at all. We’d be delighted, wouldn’t we Papa?

Alastair: And I think that you get a sense that the family’s interference is both a desire to help and a response to their own internal belief that they have a responsibility to make sure everything goes properly because this is all so new. Nobody had seen a butler and a housekeeper get married in this way before and stay. And yet, everything’s changing.

Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey merchandise, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers.

For more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content, check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/Masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

CLIP:
Jace: I sort of picture Dame Maggie being able to drink everybody under the table.
Allen Leech: You know it wouldn’t be her first time at the rodeo. So you know…I’m not going to say exactly how much Maggie Smith can drink, but let’s just say she was well able to keep up with this Irishman.

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open in New York City, now through April 2, 2018. See downtonexhibition.com for tickets and more details.

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