As VisionTV continues its back-to-back airings of Downton Abbey’s first three seasons, we’re looking back on the paths that the period drama’s most captivating characters have charted over the years, as well as the recent movements of the actors who bring them to life. Making our way through the Crawley family, we’ve revisited two generations and two departed characters, and this week we’re turning our attention to someone who, like Lady Grantham, has proven a valuable addition to the titular estate despite entering the Downton Abbey fold as a relative outsider. He may not be blood, but Tom Branson has become an important player in the Crawleys’ ongoing efforts to protect their home, and their interests.
Although Branson’s beginnings at Downton were relatively humble, it was clear from the beginning that politically-minded Irishman had far more interest in social change than in his occupation as the family’s chauffeur. Recognizing that Britain’s entrenched classism was on the cusp of a widespread shift, he represented both optimism and progressive values, and it wasn’t long before he found a kindred spirit in the Crawleys’ youngest daughter, Sybil. Unlike the rest of her family, Lady Sybil shared his inclination towards political involvement, and the two of them forged an unlikely friendship based on their shared ideals.
Although his character was only meant to make a brief appearance on the show (three episodes, to be exact), Allen Leech, the actor behind Downton’s most upwardly mobile resident, has become one of the show’s central figures. Branson’s marriage to Lady Sybil following the second season ruffled more than a few feathers, and established him as a long-term addition to the household, and his presence has offered a tangible reminder of the social restructuring taking place in Great Britain immediately before, during and after the First World War. Aside from being one of the series’ most genuine personalities (his interest in politics has never extended to domestic hierarchies or intrigue), he is also representative of a wider movement towards a less stratified England.
Beyond the grounds of Downton Abbey, Leech has quietly been making a mark both in front of and behind the camera. In 2013, he appeared in a pair of thrillers, starting with a turn opposite John Cusack and Elijah Wood in the mysterious Grand Piano. Later in the year, he appeared as one-third of a spare cast in the Irish horror film, In Fear, playing a wounded man discovered on the road by two frightened travelers. His unexpected presence on the young couple’s trip lends both humour and menace to their increasingly disturbing and labyrinthine passage through the Irish countryside, and their growing belief that their inability to find their way is part of a less-than-friendly prank.
Leech has continued to keep busy since In Fear’s release, having just wrapped filming the WWII drama, The Imitation Game. Set for release later in 2014, he’ll appear as John Cairncross, a British civil servant turned wartime spy, along with stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, in the story of an English mathematician enlisted to crack the Enigma code during the war. And, as if that weren’t enough, Leech is also set to make his directorial debut the short film, Quiz Night, starring his Downton Abbeycostar (and onscreen rival) Rob James-Collier.
Last month, the Irish Film and Television Academy hosted an ‘In Conversation’ with Leech, where he discussed both his previous works, his goals for the future and his career trajectory over the past decade. With so many new projects on the go, it’s no wonder that Leech’s public profile, and his stock in the industry, has rapidly increased, and we won’t be surprised to see that trajectory continue its ascent long into the future.