'Downton brought it all back to me' Lesley-Anne Down on how playing Lady Georgina in Upstairs Downstairs made her the toast of Hollywood
21:00 GMT, 12 October 2012
Lesley-Anne Down knows all there is to know about period drama.
Long before Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary Crawley, she was the original imperious rose – the captivating beauty Lady Georgina Worsley whose flawless complexion lit up the drawing rooms of Edwardian Britain in the original Upstairs Downstairs, 40 years ago.
The role, she admits, ‘changed my life’, and launched a career that took her from a subsidised flat in west London – where she had to take her turn scrubbing stairs with other tenants – to a luxurious home in Malibu, California, where we meet today.
Lesley-Anne Down knows all there is to know about period drama
Her husband, Don, is pottering around and her younger sister Angela is visiting from the UK.
With a third series of Julian Fellowes’ award-winning Downton Abbey underway, Lesley is comparing its popularity with Upstairs Downstairs. ‘Downton is a big hit in America,’ she says.
‘It’s very nice to look at, and everybody’s doing a fine job with the characters they’re portraying. But the girls in the show all think they’re lovely because they’re doing this,’ she says, turning her head to the side and tilting her face upwards.
Downton’s success inevitably led to unfavourable comparisons with Upstairs Downstairs Mark II – the BBC revival of the original drama that aired on Boxing Day 2010 and was axed earlier this year after just two seasons.
‘I thoroughly enjoyed the new version,’ says Lesley. ‘Perhaps one of the reasons it didn’t do so well was down to bad timing. If they’d got their revival in before Downton, things might have been different.
'As it was, I didn’t feel the new version had the depth of character of the original and it might just be me, but I thought all the women in it, like Lady Agnes and Lady Persie [Keeley Hawes and Claire Foy], looked kind of identical. I kept thinking to myself, “Who am I looking at here” There also just seemed to be the man of the house, Sir Hallam [Ed Stoppard], and no other men. The cast seemed strangely small, which definitely isn’t the case with Downton.’
Downton's success inevitably led to unfavourable comparisons with Upstairs Downstairs Mark II – the BBC revival of the original drama that aired on Boxing Day 2010 and was axed earlier this year after just two seasons
Seeing Matthew and Mary’s wedding brought back memories of Lesley’s own nuptials on the original Upstairs, when her character Georgina’s on-off relationship with Lord Stockbridge (played by Anthony Andrews) provided a climax to the show’s four-year run. ‘It was probably the aristocratic wedding of the year,’ says Lesley.
‘We had real champagne while filming the reception, then Anthony and I rode off in this beautiful vintage Rolls-Royce. It was a very sad episode to film, though, because it was the very last one of the series.’ Though thankfully not as sad as Lady Edith’s jilting a couple of weeks ago.
‘Upstairs Downstairs was just huge [around a billion viewers watched it every week in 70 countries around the world] and the producer asked Anthony and me to come back for a spin-off series. But I didn’t think it would be the same without people like Angela Baddeley [who played the cook, Mrs Bridges, and who died just a couple of months after the run ended].’
With her Downton wedding having been shrouded in secrecy, Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary recently admitted she ‘felt a bit like Kate Middleton with all the security’, even adding, ‘you get those wedding day nerves’.
For Lesley though, there were no such jitters. ‘I’m probably not enough of a method actress to have felt nervous,’ she laughs, ‘although I remember my wedding dress from the show and it was actually a Twenties version of what Kate Middleton wore for her wedding.
'Because they were absolute sticklers for detail, everything on the show was made by hand, so I felt as though I spent my whole life being fitted for clothes.’
‘It’s funny there was so much secrecy surrounding the Downton wedding because there wasn’t any at all surrounding ours – I don’t think anyone even knew we were getting married! If it happened now, the publicity machine would go into overdrive.
'But Upstairs succeeded on its merits – I remember being in New York and hearing that people were rushing home to watch it. And it was a lovely cast too. There were no egos, and we loved going out for a drink afterwards.’ Despite the terrible pay – the 18-year-old Lesley earned 300 an episode compared to the 300,000 she later made for six weeks’ work on Dallas – Upstairs Downstairs gave Lesley a calling card to the States.
She soon found herself starring opposite stars such as Harrison Ford in war drama Hanover Street and Sean Connery in Victorian heist movie The First Great Train Robbery. With her sensual looks – which are still ravishing (‘I had my eyelids done recently. Do they look good’) – she attracted an awful lot of male attention.
She went through a divorce – from William Friedkin, director of The French Connection and The Exorcist – described by her lawyer as ‘the most vicious custody case this town has ever seen’ – and fought off the advances of legendary Tinseltown womanisers including Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty.
‘I was at Jack’s hotel, reading for a part I was utterly unsuitable for, and when I asked him why I was there. He said, “I just wanted to meet you – you’re hot.” We did kiss – he was a lovely kisser – but he wanted to have sex and I said no. He tried everything on the planet but wasn’t ungentlemanly – he ordered champagne and strawberries and got on his knees and I still said no, so he said OK and we just had a nice chat.’
She went through a divorce – from
William Friedkin, director of The French Connection and The Exorcist –
described by her lawyer as ‘the most vicious custody case this town has
Wasn’t Lesley remotely tempted ‘No,’ she says, ‘but Harrison Ford – I was tempted and did. I was in lusty love with him. He was very quiet but divine. It lasted as long as the filming did – about six to eight weeks. It didn’t hurt when it ended… it was just a nice time.’
Lesley’s acting career has spanned over 40 years and included films such as The Pink Panther Strikes Again with Peter Sellers as well as soaps like The Bold And The Beautiful, and US Civil War mini-series North And South.
But after so many professional triumphs, Lesley faced a personal crisis four years ago when she underwent a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with breast cancer. ‘Am I all-clear now I’m still alive, and that’s all you can say. But getting something life-threatening changes you because it makes you realise every day really does count.’
Next for Lesley is a new horror film, Haunted. ‘I play a mother who’s a little crazy, though that’s probably the product of her meeting a really bad man. I know something about that!’ she smiles.
Given her Upstairs Downstairs history and those timeless looks, one might imagine she’d have been offered a role on Downton, but she insists, ‘Oh no – they haven’t asked!’ Well, maybe they should. There’s no question Lesley-Anne Down could give Maggie Smith and Shirley MacLaine a run for their money.
Haunted is released later this year.