Rebecca Front is Lady Arabella Gresham
Q: What was your initial reaction to Doctor Thorne?
“I read a lot of Trollope some years ago. So I love Trollope novels. I love Victorian literature anyway. And it’s Julian Fellowes. So even before I knew what the casting was, I just thought, ‘I really want to be involved in this.”
Q: Is it surprising this story is not better known?
“I don’t think Trollope is terribly well known generally. There was a great TV adapation in 1982 called The Barchester Chronicles, which was terrific. But I don’t think they’re well known books. Even people who read a lot of fiction might not necessarily have read Trollope. He’s a very particular kind of writer but he is very funny, caustic and witty.“
Q: What does Julian Fellowes bring to an adaptation like this?
“Trollope is very good at satire. Julian is a big Trollope fan and he likes that satirical edge that Trollope has. Julian is also very witty, he writes with enormous wit and verve. Also because of the success of Downton Abbey, there is a real confident swagger to the scripts. They feel very confident, well written and funny. So they were an absolute pleasure to act. The scripts were very easy to learn and they tripped off the tongue very comfortably. I don’t know why that is because I have read very good scripts that have been very hard to learn. There’s an adage that it must be a good script if it’s easy to learn. But that isn’t necessarily the case. But in his case it is both. They were very good scripts and they were also very easy to learn. And if the thought processes make perfect sense, you can absolutely see why a character says a certain thing in a certain place. So obviously that helps you learn it. Julian was very involved in the production but I only met him once on set when he was there while we were filming a dinner scene. I’ve also met him once or twice before because I worked with him when he was an actor a long time ago.”
Q: Who is Lady Arabella Gresham?
“Lady Arabella was born into a very wealthy and noble family. She says herself they won their titles on the battlefields of Europe. So you get the impression they have been titled for a long time through their loyalty to the crown. She’s very establishment but has married someone who hasn’t got a title and her husband has frittered away their fortune gambling. They have no money left, the house is in debt and they are facing the probability of losing everything. Their only hope now is for their son to marry money. It would be very easy to judge Arabella for that but these are different times and different situations. You have to fully understand the jeopardy she faces. It’s not just about her not being able to afford nice dresses and a posh carriage. If her son Frank makes a bad marriage they will lose everything. Their servants lose their liveliehoods, their daughters lose respect. Everything will be lost unless he makes a good marriage. That was my approach to it, that Lady Arabella has a point. I’m a modern mum, I’ve got teenage children and I only want my kids to marry for love. That’s all I care about. But she’s not me. She’s in a different time and situation. And I have to look at it from her perspective.”
Q: Despite the serious family dilemma, is this quite a comedic world?
“What’s lovely about the world is that Doctor Thorne himself is part of the still, moral ethical centre. He’s not particularly funny, although he has a sense of humour, so the characters around him can be fairly big and broad and comedic. The audience are seeing the whole situation through his eyes. He’s a man who is trying very hard to do the right thing all the way through the drama. That’s what roots him, that’s what stops it being a cartoon. Society is changing and the working classes are starting to become enfranchised and getting that little bit more power. There’s very little interaction, in fact, between the Arabellas and the working classes. But there is a sense the old order is breaking down. Arabella represents the desire to hold on to the old order. But she recognises new money is better than no money.”
Q: How would you describe Lady Arabella’s relationship with Doctor Thorne?
“I suspect Lady Arabella has always got along quite happily with Doctor Thorne by effortlessly patronising him. She’s accepted the fact he’s her husbands friend. Really, by rights, her husband shouldn’t be making friends with the local doctor, but she’s accepted it through gritted teeth for all of these years and I’ve absolutely no doubt that Doctor Thorne has been aware of that and that he has been patronised. But when we come in to the story, this breaks down catastrophically, when she thinks she can patronise her way out of an awkward situation. She genuinely thinks if she explains it fully to him, that her son Frank (Harry Richardson) must marry money, then Doctor Thorne is going to understand. But he doesn’t understand and is absolutely mortified that he’s having to have this conversation. It was already a tricky relationship but this is the crisis point.”
Q: What was it like working with Tom Hollander?
“Tom has that slightly mischievous way with him, there is a twinkle in his eye. But at the same time he does come across as the good moral ethical nice man. Fundamentally a nice bloke. And he’s perfect at that. He plays it so beautifully. Also very understated, which you need in a drama like this. I always try to root my characters in reality but inevitably you have to heighten it a little bit. Lady Arabella is a heightened character and you have to have somebody rooting the drama in order to have heightened characters around them.”
Q: You have scenes with Phoebe Nicholls, who plays Lady Arabella’s scheming sister‐in‐law the Countess De Courcy?
“I’d never worked with Phoebe before but I’ve liked her ever since I saw her in Brideshead Revisited years ago, so I’ve always wanted to work with her. She was brilliant. She didn’t disappoint at all. Really good fun. She has a fanatastically dry sense of humour and was obviously having a ball playing that fantastic character. One of the highlights was spending a day together being driven around in an open‐topped carriage. It was just glorious.”
Q: Were there any tricky moments during filming? “
The trickiest moment for me was when we were doing a scene with Mabel, the pug, who is adorable and is fundamentally the star. There was one long scene where I had a lot of dialogue and Mabel had to be on my lap for continuity reasons. Mabel on this occasion was getting slightly fractious and bored. The only way we could get her to sit still was for me to have my hands firmly clasped on the back of her neck and for her trainer to give her a reassuring mimed, ‘Hello Mabel’. It was incredibly funny and distracting. I did want to adopt Mabel. We don’t have a dog, which is a long running issue in my family as my kids would absolutely love to have one. But I’ve become very fond of dogs as I’m getting older and Mabel was just so cute. She’s so tiny I could have put her in my big actress’s bag. Nobody would have known.”
Q: You worked with Harry Richardson (Frank) and Stefanie Martini (Mary) who are both at the outset of their acting careers?
“I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing those parts. They were perfectly cast. Harry is so cheeky with this impish look about him, really assured taking on such a massive role. Stefanie is so grounded, smart and funny and a beautiful actress on screen, she has a lovely stillness about her. They’re both going to have a massive future, I’m sure.”
Q: The costumes are very striking. Do they help get into character?
“It really helps. The costume means you have to carry yourself with a certain bearing. And also you occupy a huge amount of space. I’ve worn corsets before but I don’t think I’ve ever worn a crinoline quite that huge before. People have to literally step out of your way to make way for you. They have to ask before they sit down on a sofa next to you because you take up so much space. So all of that gives you a sense of status. Plus the surroundings and the fact you’re constantly having to say to yourself, ‘This is my house. This is where I belong, where I live.’ It really helps to give weight to the character. But as we discovered, getting in and out of cars and our little trailers was almost impossible. We did wonder what the women then talked about, because their outfits are so restrictive. Did they stand around in groups talking about how painful their corsets were? It is uncomfortable. And the fact certain houses would be unsuitable for you in your current dress because it’s so difficult getting in and out of doors. It certainly would have affected the sort of things you did.”
Q: Were you involved in the dancing scenes?
“Unfortunately Richard McCabe, who plays my husband Francis, and I were deeply unprofessional in one of the dance scenes. We had a little bit of dance training, which was fine. We did all right with our waltzing in normal clothes. But it suddenly became a lot more difficult once I had a full length billowing dress and there were about 150 other people dancing. We got very hysterical. The director said it would be fine because it was quite nice to see them happy. But we were actually weeping with laughter. We just kept kicking each other and he was treading on my dress, I was tripping him up. It was ludicrous. It was like two toddlers on set with some very professional people. Us two careering around and bumping into people.”
Q: Why do audiences love period dramas so much?
“Nostalgia accounts for a lot of it. People love to look and imagine what it would have been like to be in that world. And people are drawn to the passive aggressive quality. The fact everything is understated. That you can have all the tension, rage and passion but there’s a lid kept on all of it. That’s quite appealing. I don’t know why. It quite appeals to people when we’re so used to drama now where people say exactly what they’re thinking. I think it’s a bit more challenging when you watch something where you have to interpret what people are thinking through their looks and guarded phrases.”
Q: Snobbery is one of the themes of Doctor Thorne. Have you ever been a victim of that?
“Maybe I have and I’ve just not been terribly aware of it. I’m probably one of those people who tend to do what my father calls talking in tongues. Which in his terms means I fit in pretty well wherever I am. It’s not even that I intend to do that. I just naturally pick up on whatever environment I’m in. So if I’m surrounded by very posh people I tend to just go a bit posh. And if I’m surrounded by not very posh people I tend to go a bit ‘street’. Consequently I don’t think people are terribly aware of what class I am or what my background is. So it’s not really affected me. I think we are still riddled by class in our society. We’re still a bit obsessed with it. And certainly in comedy terms it remains a really reliable thing to make jokes out of. Because it just is funny when you get people from different classes rubbing up against each other and feeling awkward together. It’s ripe for comedy.”