‘Downton Abbey’ Actor Role Reversals

The cast of "Downton Abbey" during the Season 6 press tour. (Photo: Stephanie Berger/PBS_
The cast of "Downton Abbey" during the Season 6 press tour. (Photo: Stephanie Berger/PBS)

The final series of Downton Abbey may still be a little bit away, but they already have us thinking about what the end will bring for the Crawleys and all the staff we’ve come to know on the estate.

So while we endure the wait, I started to scout out how often the actors who inhabit these well-known characters have actually reversed roles – you know upstairs people playing servants, downstairs folks playing the privileged. Here’s what I found.

We’ve delighted these past five series in Dame Maggie Smith’s portrayal of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham. A glance at her CV reveals she’s had plenty of titles in front of her characters’ names from Lady and Duchess all the way up to Her Majesty the Queen.

Ms. Smith has also taken on plenty of common roles in her career. She’s been a teacher more than once; in her Oscar winning turn in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and as Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter franchise. Granted in the latter, she was a witch as well.

In the realm of household service, her character Muriel Donnelly from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was a retired housekeeper. However, it was in the 1993 version of The Secret Garden when Maggie really delved into the downstairs world as Mrs. Medlock, the strict head of the Misslethwaite Manor’s domestic staff. 

In Hugh Bonneville’s career, he’s played his fair share of posh blokes. In fact once the Earl of Grantham retires from TV screens next year, Bonneville will be continuing in the same vein when he appears in The Hollow Crown as the Duke of Gloucester and in Viceroy’s House as Lord Louis Mountbatten in 2016.

And while I couldn’t find an example of Bonneville as an actual servant, I did recall a character he played that, at least on the surface, couldn’t be more different from Robert Crawley. I am referring, of course, to the malodorous vagabond known only as Mr. Stink. This family-friendly tale teaches the lesson that people aren’t always what they appear. Mr. Stink does have a dog named Duchess after all.

Lily James has portrayed the rebellious yet optimistic Lady Rose quite convincingly for a few series now.  We will also be seeing her soon as the aristocratic Russian Countess Natasha Rostova in a new BBC mini-series adaptation of War and Peace.

But earlier this year, Lily stepped into Cinderella’s famous glass slippers, placing her quite a few rungs down the social ladder from her breakout role as the daughter of a marquess to be sure. Cinderella worked as hard as anyone below stairs at Downton and, as we all know, emerged a fairy tale princess. 

In that clip you may have recognized Sophie McShera, best known for her character Daisy, Downton’s dutiful kitchen maid. Fans will appreciate the ironic role reversal as this time around Sophie plays Drisella, one of Cinderella’s cruel stepsisters.

Even the most steadfast of domestic servants, Mrs. Hughes’ Phyllis Logan has taken on at least one aristocratic persona in her career. In the mid-80’s crime dramedy Lovejoy, Logan played Lady Jane Felsham, business partner and romantic interest of Ian McShane’s rogue antiques dealer. 

My final example comes from Jim Carter, the actor who breathes life into Downton’s butler extraordinaire, Mr. Carson himself. It’s true a majority of the roles on his CV are average Joes – a lot of police officers, a few executioners and, of course, a stage actor in Shakespeare in Love.

However in the long list of characters under his belt, Carter has risen to the upper echelons of society on a few occasions. For instance, he portrayed the ill-fated Prime Minister Lord Hastings in the 1995 Nazified version of Richard III

And this entry brings us full circle since Maggie Smith also appeared in this version of Richard III as the Duchess of York, the widow of a duke and the mother of two kings of England.

I hope you enjoyed this sampling of the range of characters taken on by some of our favorite Downton Abbey actors.  Share any other examples you come up with in the comments section below. Anything to occupy our minds until the PBS premiere of Season 6 on Sunday, January 3 at 9/8c. Right?