Interview: Allen Leech on the return of Downton Abbey

ACTOR Allen Leech shares drawing room chat with Lee Randall about working with Shirley MacLaine and Dame Maggie Smith

ACTOR Allen Leech shares drawing room chat with Lee Randall about working with Shirley MacLaine and Dame Maggie Smith

Feeling like Mrs Merton, I point my digital recorder at the twinkling Irishman sitting opposite and ask, “So, Allen Leech, what’s it like going to bed a jobbing actor and waking up in a super successful television programme?”

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That would be Downton Abbey of course, with its legions of fans and a trophy case full of awards dished out on both sides of the Atlantic. Leech plays Tom Branson, the chauffeur turned political activist who crossed class boundaries to sweep Lady Sybil off her feet and up the aisle. The Dublin-born actor grins from ear to ear. He’s a great one for the giggling, and his joie de vivre is so infectious that I’m soon giggling in tandem.

“It’s crazy! I think sometimes it hasn’t sunk in how big it is. Brendan Coyle [who plays valet John Bates] came back from America and said he had people running out of restaurants chasing him down the street. Thankfully he doesn’t have a limp, otherwise they probably would have caught him.”

It’s a long way from his part as the Cowardly Lion in a school play, when he was 11. “I remember when we walked out on stage, feeling that audience reaction, thinking it was incredible. On the last night – we ran for three nights and it was a huge success, we nearly ran for a week – an actor called Peter McDonald came up to me and said, ‘I do this for a living.’ I remember running up to my dad and saying, ‘I want to be an actor when I grow up!’ And him saying, ‘Yeah, well we’ll talk about it.’”

He’s the third of four children, with an older brother and sister, and a younger brother. When we meet in London he’s not long back from a visit home where he spent a lot of time in the pub wetting the baby’s head in honour of his sister’s newborn daughter – his niece is the first grandchild in the family. Has meeting her made him broody? “Oh yeah, I really want one!”

Already a heart throb back home – in 2005 he was voted sexiest Irish male by U Magazine – Leech trod the boards, and appeared in indie films such as Cowboys and Angels and Man About Dog. In 2007 he played Marcus Agrippa in the HBO series Rome, and he had a small role in The Tudors.

Legend has it that Downton auteur Julian Fellowes never conceived of Branson as Irish – until Leech pitched up for his audition. “And he wasn’t supposed to be in more than three episodes, from what I understand,” says Leech. “Then again, I wasn’t even contracted to come back for season two – most of the cast were signed for a three season deal – and then they asked me back. I’d actively sought out other work, which is why I was doing the Mike Leigh play, Ecstasy, at the Hampstead Theatre every night after filming.

“I had a bet with Jess Brown Finlay, who plays Sybil. I said there’s no way I’m coming back – I’ll put a thousand pounds on it that the first episode will open with you and your bags, returning home. And then I got the first script and went, ‘Oh f***!’” Luckily for him, the actress has settled for dinner instead of a cash payout.

I know how closely guarded Downton storylines are, so don’t press him for spoilers – but surely he can tell me what it’s like working with legends such as Shirley MacLaine, and Dame Maggie Smith, who he’s cheekily rechristened Notorious M.A.G, though not to her face. He lights up with evident pleasure recalling the on-set banter during the filming of this third series, and all his anecdotes come complete with vocal impressions.

“Maggie Smith is an amazing woman, and not as serious in real life. What I can say [about series three] is that I’m married into the family, so I’m sitting upstairs a lot more. The first day I felt as though I shouldn’t be in the room. And there was Maggie sitting across from me. She went, ‘Oh, I’m glad you’re back. I thought Julian might have had you shot in Dublin’.

“When Shirley was there, the stories between her and Maggie! Because they knew everyone! There wasn’t a word spoken between any of the other cast while the two of them were talking. Shirley would turn around after a take and say, ‘When I was working with Frank – I was opening his show in New York’, and someone said, ‘Sorry? Frank?’ ‘Sinatra’. And it was just the way she did that. She said, ‘He had a fight with his daughter so he flew to Chicago, and I was so angry because I had to do his whole set. Personally I think it was the best show of the whole run. Now he says he was visiting his daughter. I think he was doing something else.’ And all you’d hear was Maggie from the other end, ‘Oh do stop!’ It was amazing. Those women have lived.”

He won’t be in every episode, he explains (patiently, as if I’m thick), because he and Sybil live in Dublin. Well forgive me for hoping, I retort. After all Matthew Crawley seemed to come back from fighting in the First World War every damn weekend! “Oh yeah,” he jokes, “that amazing direct train from the Somme to Downton Abbey!”

In all seriousness, he says, fame hasn’t been too arduous. “I never get recognised. Only when the show is on do you really get people going, ‘Is that. . . ?’ I’m not being modest. People’s minds are overloaded with information. But when the show is on – I had a great one on the tube one Monday. A guy just went, ‘My god, how are you?’ and I went ‘Yeah, all right.’ And he said, ‘I don’t f****** know you at all, do I? But you were on my telly last night.’ And I went ‘Yup.’ And then he was quite funny. I said, ‘It’s kind of awkward now,’ and he said, ‘Will I get off, or do you want to get off?’”

Those awkward moments are bound to increase, I’d wager. This month, cinema-goers can also see him in The Sweeney, a modern update of the beloved 1970s series. He clearly had a great time during the shoot, despite nearly getting himself arrested.

“It’s a big boy’s adventure film. With guns. I play Simon Ellis, a new guy who’s just joined the Flying Squad, so he’s a bit green. He gets beaten up and shot at a lot, which is fun. They closed off Trafalgar Square on two Sundays for filming, but the only problem is you can’t close off the whole square, because it’s a public space. The guns we were using were silenced, because in these times, well, the last thing you want is people ringing up going, ‘There are armed men...’ But they looked real.

“So the first day the director was there saying, ‘Bang, bang, bang. There are people shooting. Bang, bang’. The real police turned up because there were some Italian tourists who kept standing in shot and videoing us. They walked into two or three shots and I completely forgot I had the gun in my hand and I went,” he points a finger gun at me, “can you and you please move? Please? The cops came up and said that pointing a gun 
at the general public is a criminal offence and I could actually go down for that. I was told: ‘If you point a gun at the public again I’m going to arrest you.’ And I said, ‘You can’t arrest me. I’m the Sweeney’. They didn’t find that funny.”

He’s also been filming a psychological drama called In Fear, directed by Jeremy Lovering and due for release later this year. It’s about a young couple on holiday in Ireland who run into trouble and have to fight to live through the night. “We filmed in Cornwall, a lot of night shoots on dark country roads, and it pissed with rain incessantly, so it basically was Ireland!”

Apart from having a baby, what are his long term goals? “Finding someone to have a baby for me?”

Come on, this cutie pie can’t be short on offers. “I want to make sure it’s the right one. So I’ll just keep trying. But seriously, the one thing that’s pretty much impossible in this profession is to get bored. I’m loving the variety of projects that are coming, and I’m sure there’s an element of the fact that Downton Abbey is so big. I’m about to shoot a film in Barcelona with John Cusak and Elijah Wood.”

Not too shabby, I say.

“You get that phone call and you’re shouting, ‘Brilliant! I wanted it and they wanted me!’ Then you hang up and go, ‘F***, now I have to do it!’ It’s another psychological thriller set in a concert hall. Elijah Wood is a pianist and when he opens the page to do this big concert, it says, ‘If you play one false note, we’re going to shoot you or your wife’. And he’s already high strung.”

So a bit like Speed? Leech pauses for a beat before delivering his better punchline: “It’s a cultural Phone Booth.”

Regular stints in the theatre ground him, he tells me, and playing before an audience helps him reconnect with all the reasons he originally wanted to become an actor. Does he have any burning ambitions vis-à-vis roles he’d like to tackle?

“People always ask that. I find it funny when you read a script and want to play one part but you’re going for a different one. I remember reading the Downton Abbey script and thinking, ‘Oh, Thomas, what a part’.” I heartily despise him, I say, knowing full well that Leech is close friends with actor Rob James-Collier.

“Isn’t that a testament to Julian’s ability to write? I watch it and I know Rob, and at certain points I’m screaming, ‘You f****** asshole!’ The same with Hugh and [Lord Grantham’s dalliance with] the maid. I remember reading that in the script and going, ‘How could he?’ If you say that to Julian, though, he looks at you as if you are bonkers.”

With that he launches into a pitch perfect impression of Fellowes that has me falling off my chair. Let’s hope he keeps Branson safe from harm, and lovely Allen Leech on screen to entertain the us for many series to come.

• Downton Abbey returns to ITV1 tomorrow. The Sweeney is on general release.