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. Over several weeks, we’ve explored the personal and familial struggles faced by members of the Crawley family, as they’ve worked to keep the estate at the heart of the series safe and profitable. However, it should come as no surprise to anyone that while Downton’s financial fortunes are left solely in the hands of the lords and ladies (and former chauffeurs) living upstairs, the estate’s well-being is also influenced by the many staff who call it home.
Though he may not be the most powerful of the Crawleys’ employees, and certainly isn’t one of the most liked, Thomas Barrow has been a near-ubiquitous figure in and around Downton Abbey since the program’s first season. From his first moments onscreen, the house’s scheming first footman exuded an unsavoury air, an impression only heightened by his troublesome alliance with the equally conniving Miss O’Brien. For every scandal or political move acted out upstairs, it seemed as through Thomas and O’Brien had an equally compelling plot or power play poised to unfold among the servants’ ranks. But despite his mean-spirited remarks and carefully cultivated air of disdain, Thomas became a character that we’ve loved to hate, rather than an outright villain.
From his attempts to blackmail a visiting duke, to his intentional injury to escape the trenches of WWI, Thomas’s portfolio of less-than-honourable actions during his decade working at Downton has grown to be quite a thick document indeed. However, if anything, views towards Thomas’s unabashedly underhanded behaviour softened considerably in season three, when the newly-promoted head valet began to show previously hidden signs of humanity beneath his calculating façade.
Although his sexuality had gone unacknowledged by the house’s staff for years, Thomas was forced to deal with the unforgiving Edwardian attitudes of his co-workers in season three, an ordeal that left many of his detractors empathizing with the estate’s perennial outsider. True to his usual form, however, Thomas was able to land on his feet following the incident, leaving many viewers’ opinions of the estate’s new under-butler suspended somewhere between sympathy and contempt. For our part, we’re looking forward to seeing Rob James-Collier’s nuanced portrayal of Thomas’s ambitious opportunism (and resentful servitude) continue in the seasons to come.
Luckily for fans of Downton’s most notorious servant, James-Collier has no immediate plans to leave the show behind, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t taken on other projects in the meantime. In 2012, he enjoyed the chance to play a very different, and much more likable, character as the lead in the three-part miniseries Love Life. The story followed a young man named Joe, who returns from a year of traveling to find that his erstwhile girlfriend (and love of his life) is expecting a baby with another man. And as if that weren’t enough of a departure from his Downton persona, James-Collier will be working with a costar – and onscreen rival – as the lead in Allan Leech’s directorial debut, the short film, Quiz Night.
Further proving that James-Collier’s similarities to his Downton character are few and far between, he’s currently training to participate in this year’s London Marathon to raise money for the Chilterns MS Centre (although, if you’re looking for information to donate, you’ll have to go to evilbutler.com to find it). On top of that, he joined Jim Carter, the man behind Downton’s not-so-evil butler Carson, and several of his cast mates from the period drama for the One Night Only charity event in December, where the actors brushed up on their real-life serving skills at The Ivy restaurant in London. All good deeds aside, though, we’re most excited to see him back in uniform and roaming the halls of Downton Abbey – hopefully stirring up enough trouble to keep things interesting, both upstairs and down.
– Kate Shepherd