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 September 3, 2018.
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I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio, uncut.
In this episode, we’re featuring our extended conversation with Allen Leech, who plays Tom Branson, the Irish revolutionary turned Downton estate manager.
This conversation was originally recorded in October, 2015.
We’ve featured some of Allen’s interview in a previous episode, but couldn’t get to everything — so we decided to share it with you here, all in one place.
We are talking to Allen Leech this week.
Allen Leech (Allen): Thanks very much for having me.
Jace: Let’s take a look back at the series as a whole, and let’s talk about the evolution of Tom Branson. What do you make of his transformation from 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.
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?
Allen: 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. And 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: 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. 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?” 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: How has Tom’s American adventure changed him?
Allen: I think the attitudes 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: 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 they’re gonna 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: Now he returns during Mr. Carson and Mr. Hughes’ wedding party which unites the upstairs and downstairs and the Crawleys are obviously there. What did you make of that choice as being the specific moment for Tom’s big return?
Allen: I– Well actually Jim was the first person when we read it at the read thrus he said, “Typical of Leech coming in and spoiling my moment,” 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, “Tom can take you anywhere and he can be the tour guide for the audience; he can be the eyes of the audience within the house because he himself is seeing this fresh every time for the first time.”
Jace: He surprisingly has the soul of a poet. He writes Mary a very beautiful letter:
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: Did that surprise you that he would have such a poignant emotional connection to this place?
Allen: Am I surprised by his wonderful literary skills? No, because he’s Irish. But…
Jace: He’s the James Joyce of Downton.
Allen: He is the James Joyce. And funnily enough, my hair during Season 3, that’s what the hair and makeup lady, Maggie, was trying to get she wanted him to look a bit like Yates or Joyce. I digress…
So what was I saying? Was I surprised by his kind of love for Downton? No, because Downton has kept him in such a special way; it’s kept him going, it’s kept his daughter going. It is his daughter’s future and he can never get away from that. And that’s what’s been great to play for Tom because he’s always had these ties that have so grated on his own opinions and his own beliefs. But it’s always been about love in relation to his wife, and then his daughter, and then this family.
And the connection that I really enjoyed playing as well is Mary and Branson as friends. They’ve both lost a partner, they’ve been widowed and left with a child and it is that connection between them that I think– It’s more about the people rather than the estate for Tom.
Jace: You mentioned the fact that Tom and Mary have a lot in common: They both have children, they’ve both lost their spouses. What does Mary’s happiness mean to Branson at this point and why is he so invested in it?
Allen: Tom’s invested in Mary’s happiness because Mary’s happiness is the future of this abbey. He realizes she can’t do this alone. She’s become incredibly isolated, cold, and very hard.
And Tom coming back from America wants to see her happy, you know? He wants to see her have her life and be happy and not constantly be in the shadow of what happened with Matthew because he’s trying to find the same himself, he’s trying to move his life on. So there is a sense in what Julian has written that as Tom tries to sort himself out, he’s trying to sort Mary out as well and trying to bring back a little bit of the warmth that used to be in her because he would have seen it so much with Mary and Matthew.
Tom: Were you caught in the rain?
Mary: Not too badly. We dashed for cover till it slackened off a bit.
Tom: How romantic.
Mary: Why are you playing Cupid?
Tom: He’s nice, he’s mad about you and he loves cars. I rest my case.
Allen: So I suppose he’s trying to bring her along on this journey of rediscovery of who it is to be happy again within this house.
Jace: Given that this is the final season of Downton, is there a sense that the show revisits the romance between Tom and Sybil or that the spirit of Lady Sybil is present somehow?
Allen: I — that’s an interesting question — I think that I’ve always played Tom with a sense that that spirit has never left. There’s a sadness, an innate sadness within Tom ever since his wife’s died and it’s something that I’ve tried to keep on because I thought they really were written as star crossed lovers and you do– I certainly get the sense that that will never leave Tom, especially within these walls. There’s always going to be a sadness and a memory of her and in Series 6 there is definitely that sense that he comes to terms with that but it’s not something that will ever go away.
Jace: 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.
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.
Elizabeth: Oh darling. No.
Tom: 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 in a way. It’s in that helplessness that I think people find distressing but also can relate to so much.
Jace: Now she was the first main cast member to leave the show. What was it like on Jess’s last day, what was it like saying goodbye?
Allen: Jess’s actual last day was the picnic scene where all the family are out looking at another house that they might have to move into.
And we had a couple of paparazzi that were hiding in some bushes and obviously we didn’t want them to capture the fact that it was her last day so we ended up creating a birthday party. So we made it Jess’s birthday.
And she just absolutely broke down because she was so sad that it was over. And I remember Michelle grabbing her and grabbing Laura, and myself, and Hugh, and Elizabeth and we were all in a huddle and Michelle said, “What an amazing adventure.” And it was so true because we were in the middle of that adventure and for Jess it was over. And I just always remember that as being such a lovely sentiment because that’s what this has been; it’s been the most amazing adventure doing this show, playing this character, and seeing how it’s been taken into people’s hearts all around the world.
Jace: Let’s go into a time machine; let’s go back in time. Take us to your initial audition for Tom Branson. What was that like?
Allen: When I first went for Tom Branson he was called John Branson and he was from Yorkshire, he wasn’t Irish at all. I went into the audition and I practiced my Yorkshire accent for weeks and weeks and weeks and I sat down and Julian was there and Liz Trubridge was there, and they said, “Actually, play it Irish.” And I was disgusted and I was really angry and I was like, “No no no. I think I’ll just do my Yorkshire accent,” and they went, “No no no. Play it Irish.” And I did it in the Irish accent. And I remember Julian and Liz looking at each other and going, “Yeah, okay, thanks Allen.” I was like, “Do you want me to do the Yorkshire version as well?” “No, that’s fine.” And I walked out and I was like, “That’s gone, because they’re gonna go Yorkshire and I’m not gonna get the part.”
And then a couple of days later they rang and said, “They want you to do it. They’re going to change the name, gonna make it more Irish, and they’re gonna play it Irish.” And I rang Liz Trubridge and said “Look, I don’t want to do that, I want to play it as a Yorkshireman.” And they said “Trust me on this.”
And I have to say I’m so glad that I did because it has been the most amazing journey. And it’s because that…because he’s Irish actually made him stand out probably much more. And its amazing looking back now and the names that they had attached already it’s like Michelle Dockery, Hugh Bonneville– But it says you know, “This is three episodes and then that will probably be it.”
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Jace: Is it true that you made a bet with Jess that you wouldn’t be back for the second season?
Allen: Not for the second. I was sure after she died. I said, “They’ll get rid of Branson now. He’ll go away. He’ll do something.” And she said, “I don’t think so. I think they’re gonna keep you.” And I said, “I bet you.” And I bet her quite a substantial amount of money…
Jace: I read it was a thousand pounds.
Allen: It was a thousand pounds. And she said, “Done, deal, bet.” And then I got a text when the scripts came out for Season 4 from her saying “I was just round at Michelle’s and I read some of the pages. I believe you owe me some money.” And so I met up with her, and I was all prepared to pay her. Instead I just had to buy the round of drinks for that night.
Jace: That was quite generous.
Allen: It was quite generous. But then, you know, Jess drinks like a fish, so it was probably about a thousand pounds by the time she was finished.
Jace: What do you remember most about your first day of shooting on Downton?
Allen: I had one of the worst days of filming of my life on the first day of Downton. I was so nervous walking onto that set. I can only imagine what it is for a character to come into the show now that it’s established. This was, you know– Downton had never been heard of, it hadn’t even aired yet. And I remember looking at that house and just being absolutely terrified of going into work. I’d never done anything on this scale before.
It was the library scene, when he comes in — Tom comes in — and meets Lord Grantham for the first time and he’s basically being interviewed for the job:
Robert: Branson, isn’t it?
Branson: That’s right, Your Lordship.
Robert: I hope they’ve shown you where everything is and we’ve delivered whatever we promised at the interview.
Branson: Certainly, m’lord.
Robert: Won’t you miss Ireland?
Branson: Ireland, yes, but not the job. The mistress was a nice lady, but she only had one car and she wouldn’t let me drive it over twenty miles an hour, so it was a bit… well, boring, so to speak.
Allen: And I just thought it was awful. I remember walking in, I missed my mark, I was so nervous, and Hugh was so lovely to me as well. It didn’t help that I got onto the make up truck and there’s Maggie Smith sitting there.
And I was just– I have to say you know my nerves got the better of me that day. And I remember walking off set and going back and just being so distraught because I was like, “I’m going to get fired.” I was sure I was going to be fired. But actually in the end looking back– You know it’s so funny. You look back now and you’re like, “It’s actually quite a nice scene.” And maybe that nervousness worked because he would have been terrified coming in and meeting the head of the house.
Jace: I’ve heard that you pulled off some pranks on set.
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 two 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: I’ve also heard that you do an impression of Michelle Dockery in her native accent. Can you demonstrate?
Allen: Well, people are often shocked by the fact that you know, Michelle is an Essex girl. And she comes from a part of the world where they speak very differently from Lady Mary. So you know the voice that everyone’s used to, the very clipped, received pronunciation, that Michelle does in the show is not what I hear when I first get on the makeup trailer when I come in in the morning. Normally what you hear is “Alright Babe? How are you?” So it’s very different from what you’d normally hear as Lady Mary.
Jace: What do you do between takes on the set?
Allen: I suppose after six years, you fall into of rhythm after six years of you know tea breaks. Bananagrams is the big thing that all the cast got into, which is…it’s like Scrabble on acid is probably the best way of describing it. On set we have Maggie Smith, Sam Bond is an absolute fiend, as is Laura Carmichael, and Penelope Wilton. Although Penelope Wilton does tend to cheat; she says she doesn’t actually understand the rules, but you’re like, “We’ve been playing this for four years.”
But Maggie Smith and Laura Carmichael and Sam Bond are the ones you don’t really want to sit down with because they finish the game in record time.
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.
Jace: I sort of picture Dame Maggie being able to drink everybody under the table.
Allen: 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.
Jace: What will you miss most about playing Tom Branson?
Allen: What I do love about Tom is, as you said, his integrity, his honor, and the fact that he has been able to come through such adversity. And that’s what I’ll miss playing. I’ll miss playing someone who had such, such heart because I think that’s what Tom really has.
Jace: Like Jiminy Cricket.
Allen: Like Jiminy Cricket. God have I just played Jiminy Cricket for the last six years?
Jace: Did you take a memento from the set when you left?
Allen: I did. Do you know what I took, I took something really– I didn’t steal a Van Dyke or anything special really. I took– The very last dinner scene we did I took the menu card that we have. And I took some of Branson’s letters, and letters that Sybil had written as well. I took some of those mementos because let’s face it they’ll probably be worth something on eBay eventually. No, I kept them for myself.
And we also were given the most beautiful gift and that was the very first episode of Downton and the very last, bound, and each of the cast members and the key crew were given one of them and for me that’s the most special memento; the beginning and the end, the closing of this chapter of my career and of my life.
Jace: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.
Jace: Your cell phone is on airplane mode?
Allen Leech: My cell phone is on airplane mode. If it goes off I will smash it myself.
Jace: Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open in New York City, now through April 2, 2018. See downtonexhibition.com for tickets and more details.