Downton Abbey star Penelope Wilton, otherwise known as Isobel Crawley spoke to LAURA HEADS about her role in Downton and her love for charity.
World-renowned actress Penelope is no stranger to drama, starring opposite some of the country’s leading actors and actresses, has had a long career on stage, and has even tried her hand at sci-fi.
But the 67-year-old star is currently most widely recognised in her role as Isobel Crawley, an extended member of prestigious Grantham family, in hit ITV show Downton Abbey.
Her character sees her fight for survival in a male-dominated society, where being a widow can have innumerable challenges, including sparring with the Dowager of Grantham, played by Maggie Smith.
“No one expected that it would so very successful, and it is fascinating to think that we are being seen all over the world. Apparently we are very big in China,” she said.
“I decided to take up the role because the scripts were very good, you can do nothing without a good script.
“Isobel Crawley can be very stubborn at times but I don’t find it that hard to be forceful. She is sometimes a lone voice for progress in a time when privilege ruled.
“Maggie is a delight to work with and I think we both enjoy our run ins.”
Penelope’s acting was tested to its limits following the Christmas finale in 2012 and the most recent series of the show, when her only son died following a car crash.
“The scenes depicting Isobel’s distress at the loss of her son were very well written and I felt they were important,” she added.
“So many people lost their sons in the war, and the irony of Mathew dying in a road accident was all the more poignant.”
And she added that although many people were dubious when Downton Abbey was introduced to our screens, the show tries its best to keep as close to the time period as possible.
“The producers of Downton are very keen to keep the world we inhabit as real as possible, and there are always advisors making sure we get the detail right, even down to learning the correct card games, and of course manners and social rules that were followed.”
Penelope’s television career began in 1972 when she played Vive Warren in ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession’ opposite Robert Powell.
She then had several major TV roles, including two BBC Shakespeare productions, Othello and King Lear.
But she did not become a household name until she appeared with Richard Briers in sitcom Ever Decreasing Circles, in 1984.
Her film roles include The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Calendar Girls, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
In 2005 Penelope starred as MP Harriet Jones, for two episodes of Dr Who, a role created especially for her, and she made her final appearance in the role in 2008.
She said: “I have spent most of my life in the theatre, so I suppose that is where I feel most at home, but latterly with Downton and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel I have found new challenges, in concentration, and storytelling.
“There have been too many characters I’ve played to choose a favourite, but writers like Chekhov, Pinter, and of course Shakespeare have played a very important part in my career.”
Penelope is well known for her charity work and last month took part in a special taping of Christmas poems and readings which featured on a CD for Cancer Research.
“I think that very few people have not been touched at some time by cancer, and enormous strides are now being made,” she said.
“We talk about it quite openly now whereas a few years ago there seemed often to be no future for those suffering.
“But there is always another frontier and we must keep looking ahead to a time when we will find a way of dealing with all types of the disease.”
And when asked about her tips for keeping fit and healthy in her older age, modest Penelope said she took regular walks to keep her figure in shape.
“I am not good at giving advice, but I know that gyms and keep fit classes have never been my idea of fun!
“So I walk all the time through the Parks in London and also on holiday. Not only do you feel great but you see so much more.”