Rob James-Collier on life in Downton Abbey as Thomas Barrow
Lancashire actor Rob James-Collier talks to Roger Borrell about life in Downton Abbey, the must-watch Christmas show
You could say that life has been more Upstairs Downstairs than Downton Abbey for Lancashire actor Rob Collier-James.
The Salford lad who once packed frozen pasties in a food factory now rubs shoulders with the likes of Dame Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville. For the uninitiated, he plays Thomas, the conniving footman in ITV’s smash-hit period drama.
As millions settled down to watch the Downton special on Christmas Day, Rob found the time to talk to Lancashire Life about his early days, his family’s reaction when he told them he wanted to be an actor and Maggie Smith’s ‘death ray’ stare.
Rob was born in 1976 at Hope Hospital in Salford and his mum and dad, Anne and Jim, still live nearby in Swinton. ‘I did a master’s degree in marketing but when I had to go out and get a real job I discovered I hated it,’ says Rob. ‘I sat around a lot listening to Pink Floyd thinking there had to be more to life than this. Then a friend of a friend involved in performing arts in Salford wanted someone for some free filming.
‘They approached me because, as one said, “Rob is always up for a laugh.” I turned up on a rainy Sunday morning and I loved every minute. I’d found my vocation. I felt like I’d come home – I belonged there and thought that if I could just do this and get paid for it, then life would be perfect.’
No one in the family had any theatrical inclinations so when he went home and told his electrician dad that he was going to be a thespian, the response was not wholly enthusiastic. ‘He put on his dad voice and spoke about a proper job,’ adds Rob. ‘But once he realised I was serious, he was very supportive.
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‘My mum was chuffed. She always thought I was born to walk a different path and when Dad saw the sacrifices I was making to learn my trade – I even gave up the five-a-side football team – he backed me. Mind you, the lads on the team never quite forgave me and there was an awful lot of mickey taking. But they are still my mates and they help to keep me sane.’
There was no RADA for Rob. He looked in the Yellow Pages for drama schools and ‘after meeting a few cowboys’ he struck lucky with Manchester acting coach Mark Hudson. During that time, he was having to juggle classes with bricklaying, pasty packing and anything else that paid the bills. His first break came after just four months.‘I was auditioning and got a part in the TV series ‘Down to Earth’ with Ricky Tomlinson and Denise Welch. It gave me six months paid work in Devon.’
Jobbing acting followed until he won a breakthrough part in Coronation Street as clothing factory boss Liam Connor, a role which last two years. However, it’s his role in Downton which has really raised his profile, most recently for his scandalous attempt to steal a kiss from a fellow footman.
‘From the moment I started at Downton I knew there was a real chance of it being big,’ says Rob, who lives near London with his wife and their three-year-old son. ‘With Julian Fellowes writing it and a who’s who of actors including Maggie Smith, it’s hard to see how it could go wrong.
‘I’ve never been in a show where everyone fits into their part so brilliantly. There was also a great publicity campaign and, the fact it was on after X-Factor, attracted an audience that might not normally watch a period drama.’
That’s putting it mildly. Downtown is watched in 100 countries, has peak UK audiences of almost ten million and is considered the most successful period drama since Brideshead Revisited.
‘I was involved in a press tour of South Africa. It has a big international reputation, particularly in younger countries such as the USA where they are fascinated by our heritage and history. Mind you, in some places they think we all live like the people in Downton Abbey.’
One of the great thrills for Rob has been working with Maggie Smith, although he did once manage to step on her toe during a dance scene and got the ‘death ray glare.’ He says: ‘A lot of us were a bit intimated by her.
‘For script run throughs, in the first year I was placed directly opposite her – amazing for a rookie actor like me. And to see an icon in full flow is quite something.
‘Just that fact that someone who is an international film star still turns up for the read through with the rest of us was quite something. At first it felt like every word I said was wooden and it took two years to pluck up the courage to have a proper conversation. Then I found she is incredibly down to earth. No one calls her Dame Maggie.
‘There are great actors in the cast and then there is Maggie. Nobody does it better. She’s the master of the withering put down and she has a death ray stare. I experienced it when I trod on her toe when we had to dance. But she has a wicked sense of humour. I’d love to do another series – I’d be there in a heartbeat. I love playing Thomas. I do prefer being the baddie.
‘People in the street have stopped me and said they feel sorry for Thomas because he’s manipulated by this evil woman, O’Brien.‘The gay scene involving the attempted kiss had quite an impact, too, although I don’t think I’ve become a gay icon! Because the show has been so popular people on the street don’t really care if you are a goodie or a baddy – in fact sometimes they even buy you a latte! Mind you, I did hear one mum in the street pointing me out to her kid and say “There’s that nasty footman!”’
— Cristina Garlington (@CIGarlington) December 21, 2012