Downton Abbey returns to our TV screens this Sunday evening for its much-heralded second series. With it comes more scheming and skullduggery from snake-hipped footman Thomas Barrow.
The first series saw a catalogue of cartoon villainy from the most Machiavellian of Julian Fellowes’ glittering cast, played by unassuming Mancunian Rob James-Collier – previously familiar in far more puppy-dog guise as Liam in Coronation Street – either solo or aided and abetted by the unglamorous O’Brien.
But against the genteel backdrop of Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey has been filmed throughout its run, James-Collier revealed that this autumn’s episodes will reveal some hitherto undiscovered depths to his deliciously slippery character.
We last saw Thomas’s resignation from his post as first footman, and entry into the medical corps, which he thought would be a comfortable way of elevating his social position and getting a bystander’s role in World War One.
The opposite proves to be true and, traumatised by what he witnesses, Thomas ends up shooting himself to escape the trenches, an act which has given James-Collier plenty of thought. “At first I saw it as an act of cowardness. But then I spoke to our historical advisor, a military man,” the actor explains. “He said ‘Well I look at it as an act of bravery, to knowingly do that and get your hand blown off, it takes a lot of courage to do it. It’s like holding your hand to the candle, can you do it?’ So I hadn’t looked at it like that.” It becomes clear we’re going to see a changed Thomas in Series Two, something James-Collier is equally pleased to see: “Usually he’s brilliant to play and when you play a bad guy people will focus on it. It’s all good-natured banter, when you’re walking to the bank and the ladies boo you, it’s all pantomime-esque. The war strips him down, he was scared and vulnerable and it was nice to see.”
Is Thomas growing, dare we say it, a heart?
“He does get a bit of power and he does abuse it. But also we see Thomas let his guard down with a wounded soldier and we see a softer side. But that ends in not very nice circumstances and Thomas is hurt and I think he takes that hurt to mean ‘that’s what happens when you try and engage with another human’, so he thinks, sod it.
“He gets a position of rank within the military and he takes advantage of that, so he does get nasty, yes.”
Phew - James-Collier may appreciate plumbing Thomas’s new depths, but viewers will be relieved that some of the great house’s traditions stay intact.
Downton Abbey starts again Sunday night ITV1 at 9pm. Check out pictures from behind the scenes of Series Two in our Slideshow below: