Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes’ latest historic adaptation of Trollope’s classic novel Doctor Thorne is another wonderful costume drama. If you missed it recently on the ABC the DVD has just been released.
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Tell us about the tv series Doctor Thorne
Rebecca Front: It looks absolutely beautiful; it’s a stunning thing to look at. The story is great. It’s got a proper love story in it and also lots of really interesting, funny and exciting characters so I just think it’s one of those things where you can put your feet up with a cup of tea and really indulge yourself watching it.
How was it playing a scary matriarch on the show?
Rebecca Front: She’s feisty and she’s so unlike me. I’m not scary at all; I’m really bad at confrontation, which is why I love characters like her who say what they mean, stick to their guns and are very forceful. It felt very refreshing and cathartic to play her. She’s a really interesting character and a bit dangerous. You don’t quite know what she’s going to do. I’m a bit highly-strung but I think I’m probably quite predictable, affable and non-confrontational.
Did you have to learn any new skills to play her?
Rebecca Front: She does sew and I did a little bit of sewing for the show – which I do a little bit anyway and I enjoyed that. Oh and dog handling. I can put that on my CV now. I’ve worked with both children and animals and I think it’s more fun actually. I really like acting when it’s a bit spontaneous. I like things to be unprepared and to just happen – and when you have animals and kids in a scene that’s exactly what it’s like. I relish that.
As a mother yourself is there anything you’ve drawn on to play her? Or is she completely different to you?
Rebecca Front: She is different but then she’s in a very different world and a very different situation to mine. I can’t imagine in a million years telling my son or my daughter not to marry the person they love because it’s going to bring disgrace to the family. I can’t contemplate how that would happen. If they love somebody I’d want them to be with that person. But that’s not Lady Arabella’s world and she’s clinging on to something that has an impact on not just her but her entire family and her estate and all the future generations and her staff. She’s in a very difficult situation so I tried not to judge her. It would be easy for me to look at her and think ‘That’s a terrible parent’ but she’s not a terrible parent. You have to bit of moral relativism and think ‘She’s a woman trying to do her best in very difficult circumstances’.
What were you most interested to learn about the social etiquette of the time?
Rebecca Front: One of the reasons I like watching costume dramas is seeing that level of etiquette that acts like a kind of barrier between what you want to say and what you actually end up saying. I like that veneer of politeness, which actually we break through a couple of times in this. There are a couple of genuine full-face clashes that me and Tom [Hollander, who plays Doctor Thorne] have. That makes it all the more exciting but I do like the etiquette where things are veiled and couched in a way where everyone knows what you’re saying but you say it in a way that would appear to be more polite.
It’s hard to imagine that, given the age of social media we’re living in now…
Rebecca Front: I know, where everybody says everything, although face-to-face we’re probably all a bit more polite than on social media. Also with reality telly I think we’re so used to people saying everything so specifically. With structured reality TV like (the English show) Made In Chelsea, for instance, everybody confronts everybody else all the time, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything to watch. Every scene someone says ‘Listen, I’ve got to talk to you about this…’ when in real life people don’t say that. They skirt round it. But then it’d actually be very boring if those shows just showed people sitting in a wine bar talking about what wine they’re going to drink or whether they’re hungry or not. Nobody would watch. They have to have that conflict but one of the things that appeals to me about costume drama is that the conflict is there but it’s slightly more subtly approached.
How do you feel the themes of Doctor Thorne will resonate with today’s audience?
Rebecca Front: Love doesn’t change and people’s anxiety about losing everything doesn’t change. I know we’re dealing with aristocrats and they’re talking about losing an estate, which may not seem to be resonant with people in an era of austerity. But the fundamental thing is people are used to a certain way of living and they’re about to lose everything. It’s all a question of degree, of course, but I do think that’s something that resonates with modern audiences – when you see how easily your life can crumble or go wrong and also the degree to which people like my character will cling on to what they’ve got. All of those things are quite current themes.
Has doing this and War And Peace given you a taste for costume drama?
Rebecca Front: I love watching them and I love doing them – and I’ve done a few of them but not loads. Doctor Thorne is different from War And Peace because of the scale of it. It’s slightly smaller, like the houses are still massive but slightly smaller and the story is slightly smaller. Like Jane Austen it’s written on a small canvas and Anthony Trollope works in a similar way. So it’s smaller scale but it’s still got a richness to it and a complexity and it looks really lovely. As for what’s next for me workwise I don’t know yet and I find that exciting.
Have you worked with Julian Fellowes before?
Rebecca Front: Only when he was an actor. We worked together on Kavanagh QC years ago and we just did one episode. I thought he was huge fun and I remember going home full of Julian’s stories. With this his scripts are so good. I thoroughly enjoyed reading them and they were very easy to learn. I have a number of cracking scenes so it was a real treat thinking ‘Wednesday I’ve got this lovely scene’ and ‘Thursday I’ve got that lovely scene’. It was such a nice project to work on.
Have you ever had an on-screen job that you’d quite fancy doing for real?
Rebecca Front: I did quite like the idea of going into politics when I was a sixth-former so when I did The Thick Of It there was a part of me thinking about that. I had a lot of women cabinet ministers come up to me and ask ‘Was it based on me?’ but actually it was based on the sort of cabinet minister I thought I would have been had I gone into politics. I could imagine that’s what I’d have ended up like so [laughs] it shows it’s a good thing I didn’t go down that route. But the joy of this job is that you get to dip into all these different things. You get to be a robot one minute and a Russian princess the next. It’s fantastic. What’s not to love?
What’s the one skill or talent you wish you possessed?
Rebecca Front: I wish I could play the piano. I did have a couple of lessons and realised I was very definitely not a natural, although if I didn’t work for a period of time I’d probably try and teach myself because with enough practice I’m sure I could master it eventually. But obviously I hope I won’t be out of work for a long period of time.
What’s your definition of a great day off?
Rebecca Front: It would be getting up and having breakfast with my husband because the kids are teenagers and usually do their own thing, then it’d be a bit of shopping with my daughter and going out somewhere with my son or with all of us together in the evening. It’s wonderful when we’re all together but because I’m working a lot I also enjoy a bit of one-to-one time with all of them. Often I take my son to screenings and my daughter comes shopping with me. I like that quality time.
When people stop you in the street what role do they most want to chat about?
Rebecca Front: I get quite a lot of people asking about The Thick Of It. Nightly Night comes up a lot oddly, even though it was on years ago and didn’t have a bigger audience – but I think the people who liked it really liked it. I get a lot of people coming up and talking about that, then maybe Lewis as well and more recently it’s War And Peace. I’ve been very lucky because they always say nice things and it’s funny because they always apologise for it. They go ‘I’m sorry but I loved you in so and so’ and it’s so sweet. I think ‘Why would you be sorry?’ But I’ve done it myself.
What are your own personal career highlights?
Rebecca Front: The Thick Of It definitely. I also did the Sondheim musical Company in the West End in 1996, first at the Donmar and then it went into the West End, and I’m very proud of doing that.
And have you had any embarrassing career moments?
Rebecca Front: Not really, no, because I’m very careful about what I choose. OK, so it doesn’t always work out and with some things you do you think ‘It wasn’t quite as good as I thought it would be’ but I’m very choosy about what I take on. So far there’s nothing I’m ashamed of or something where I think ‘I really hope no-one finds a YouTube clip of it’.
About the TV series Doctor Thorne
Tom Hollander, stars as Dr Thomas Thorne, who lives in the village of Greshamsbury in Barsetshire, with his young niece, Mary (Stefanie Martini), a girl blessed with every gift except money.
Mary Thorne has grown up alongside the Gresham family, whose house, Greshamsbury Park, and status dominate the county. However Francis Gresham Senior (Richard McCabe) has frittered away the family fortune and now his wife, Lady Arabella Gresham, played by Rebecca Front, their daughters Augusta (Gwyneth Keyworth) and Beatrice (Nell Barlow), and their handsome brother Frank (Harry Richardson) face losing their home.
When the terrifying Lady Arabella Gresham discovers that her darling son, Frank, has fallen in love with Dr Thorne's penniless niece, she is horrified. Her husband Gresham is only being kept afloat by very favourable loans that Dr Thorne has secured from a railway millionaire, Sir Roger Scatcherd, played by Ian McShane. However, Sir Roger is drinking himself into an early grave and the family's financial future lies with his unreliable son Louis Scatcherd (Edward Franklin).
Lady Arabella believes it is her son's duty to make a rich marriage to save the family estate and launches a campaign to secure her son an heiress for a bride, aided by her scheming sister in law, the very grand Countess De Courcy (Phoebe Nicholls) and her conniving niece Alexandrina De Courcy (Kate O'Flynn). Their target is wealthy American heiress Miss Martha Dunstable (Alison Brie).
Doctor Thorne will be available on DVD from August 11, 2016.
What are your favourite costume dramas? Let us know in the comments section below.