Her passion for acting was sparked growing up in North Yorkshire and now she’s part of one of television’s biggest shows. Downton Abbey’s Joanne Froggatt talks to Phil Penfold.
She’s the lass from Littlebeck, one of those hamlets of North Yorkshire that, if you blink, you’d miss. Very pretty, between Robin Hood’s Bay and Grosmont, on the Way to Whitby. A dot on the map. But Joanne Froggatt has made it famous.
While she’s just celebrated her 34th birthday, she is one of those actresses who has been on our screens for quite some while, consistently turned in memorable performances in dramas as diverse as Coronation Street, Spooks, and Robin Hood. And then, of course, there’s Downton Abbey, which returns for a fifth series later this month – and for which she was Emmy-nominated in 2012 for her portrayal of Anna Bates, Lady Mary’s personal maid, who when we last saw her was the victim of a brutal attack.
You simply couldn’t call Littlebeck a hotbed of dramatic activity. So where on earth did Joanna discover that she wanted to perform? She looks a little puzzled.
“You know, I’ve never really thought about that,” she admits, “it’s just all I ever wanted to do, I knew that I wanted to act before I could even talk properly. It’s true though, mum and dad aren’t at all theatrical, and the part of Yorkshire that I come from is all farming, holiday cottages and smallholdings, but they always said, ‘get out there and follow your dreams, and give it 100 per cent’. Looking back, I don’t think that I was precocious at all – at least, I hope that I wasn’t – but it genuinely never occurred to me that there were any other options.”
After being ferried across the hills to Scarborough to the nearest youth drama group, at the age of only 13 she became a boarder at the prestigious Redroofs Theatre School, near Maidenhead in Berkshire, and her proper professional career began.
Joanna now lives in Buckinghamshire, with her husband, James Cannon (they’ll be celebrating their second wedding anniversary in October) and that is about as much as she is prepared to say about her personal life.
“I don’t really see myself as a celebrity,” she says. “I’m an actress. I’m very careful about what I say to the press. I didn’t invite them to my wedding and I don’t want them in my private life. I’m very happy to talk about my career and my ambitions, but that’s it, I’m afraid.”
Sitting comfortably in a very swanky London hotel, Downton has undoubtedly brought Froggatt fame (and a healthy bank account), but she admits that when she first landed the role of Anna, she never imagined it would run for so long.
“I thought ‘oh, this is rather good, I like this idea, very interesting’. I didn’t for a second think that we’d be here, talking about the fifth series. I thought, ‘Maybe two series, if we’re lucky’. And how wrong I was. It’s opened a lot of doors, that’s for sure.
“I found out that I really love Hollywood – we go out there for the Emmys if the series gets nominated at all. The weather is amazing, and I love the atmosphere and yes, I could definitely move there – but not for 24/7, not forever. It’s a good time for British and Irish actors at the moment, because they seem to be embracing us rather warmly, perhaps more these days than they ever have done before.”
She describes the Downton cast as the television equivalent of a repertory company.
“When one of us gets some sort of recognition, or someone in the production team does, we are all proud. We all get excited for each other – and we spend a lot of time in each other’s company and we share things with each other.”
When Dan Stevens – who played Matthew Crawley in Downton – was written out of the show in 2012, he immediately went into films, and then starred on Broadway in a revival of The Heiress. United in support, the Downton cast went to see him, and were mobbed at the interval by fans. “There wasn’t the slightest chance of getting to the bar,” says Joanne, “movement was impossible – but everyone was very kind and very enthusiastic, bless them.”
While she’s almost grown accustomed to the level of attention she now receives, recognition, she confides, comes in some very odd places.
“I was in a gym changing room not so long ago,” she laughs, “and I found myself alone with a very naked lady, not a stitch on, who was vigorously drying herself, and who wanted to talk about nothing else but Downton. Now that, that was rather unusual. But people, I find, are very generous and very warm and are very favourable – if you ever get spotted, and, to be honest, I try not to be.”
When they have engaged Joanne in conversation in recent months the topic – inevitably – has always been the attack. Anna was raped by Mr Green, the valet to the visiting Lord Gillingham, who was later despatched to eternal rest underneath a train. By Anna’s husband. Anna is – currently – unaware that Mr Bates caused the “accident”.
“She’s terrified,” explains Joanne, “she doesn’t believe that her husband had anything to do with the death, but she has an underlying fear that it may be a possibility. She knows that Bates, as much as he loves her, has a dark side to him, but all she wants now is a quiet life in the estate cottage that they share. But she’s equally aware of the fact that if someone does anything awful to her, his immediate reaction would be to do something dreadful to them – he loves her that much. He has a chequered past and she wonders if he could control himself?”
The storyline did cause some controversy, with some viewers accusing the show of having overstepped the mark. Froggatt insists that hasn’t been the reaction she’s received.
“Every single person who has talked to me about it has been totally behind the story. I haven’t had a single comment about the way that the subject was handled, and no-one has said ‘Downton shouldn’t do that’. Not one. Although it’s a series that families watch together, it is on after nine at night and Downton has never been shy of tackling upsetting subjects before. Obviously it is very sensitive subject matter – a vicious, calculated attack on one of the show’s very nice characters. But I still stand totally behind it because I think that it is important to open up discussions about sensitive subject matters, and if this drama has a place and an opportunity to do that, then that, to me, isn’t a negative thing.
“And, if I’m completely frank with you, it’s the tough scenes that present the biggest challenges and which I enjoy most as an actress. I’ve never done a long-running series before Downton. It’s an odd balance, really – because you get to a point where you are comfortable with your character, and you ‘put her on’ as soon as you put on the costume. So the challenge is, oddly, not to get too comfortable with it – you have to make a very conscious effort to make as much of every scene that you’re given. That’s my challenge.”
While details of series five have been a closely guarded secret, Froggatt reveals that there will be some drama ahead for Lady Mary, the daughter of Downton whom Anna attends.
“She’s struggling to find the right suitor,” she says, “and Anna is very open with what she thinks about Lady Mary’s intentions, and how she should move forward. She wants her to make the right choices, because she genuinely does care for her, and she doesn’t want her to damage her reputation by doing something really silly. She’s very loyal, and she’ll always do what she’s asked – as you’re going to see.”
As for Anna, Froggatt is not letting her guard down about future plot developments. “She’s married to a man she loves, and she wants to enjoy being married until such time as a baby may come along – who knows? She just wants a normal, uneventful life.”
ITV have yet to formally and officially confirm series six of Downton, and will make their decision when they look at the ratings later in the year, so has she got anything lined up?
“There are a few things I’m talking about,” she admits, “but nothing that I’ve got set in concrete. Apart, that is, for a few voice-overs for commercials that I’ve just recorded. You’ll know what they are when you hear them. Mind you, they are for products that I believe in – I’d never loan my voice to an endorsement for something that I didn’t feel ‘right’.”
And she’ll go on pushing the many charities that she’s involved in. Her colleague, the Harrogate-born Jim Carter, who plays Carson, the Downton butler, says later in the afternoon that he is “in awe of Joanne, and her commitment to raising minds and awareness of so many great causes. She’s an example to us all” – and that comes from a man who is just about to do a 50 mile a day charity bike ride around Madagascar.
Traditionally, Downton has always delivered a powerful punch with its Christmas Day storyline. Any information on that? “No way,” says Froggatt firmly. “Not a chance of telling you about that one. But I can tell you what I’ll be doing myself. It’ll be a family get-together, back home, and it’ll be all the old Christmas movies on, like It’s a Wonderful Life, which is a must. Very traditional. And then they all force me to sit down and watch Downton – which is a peculiar sensation, seeing it with your family gathered around you. I can’t get out of that. I’m forced to sit down and see it – whether I like it or not!”
• Downton Abbey returns to ITV on September 21.