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Posh actors have it easier, says Downton Abbey footman


Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman in the ITV period drama Downton Abbey. Photo: ITV

Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman in the ITV period drama Downton Abbey. Photo: ITV

Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman in the ITV period drama Downton Abbey. Photo: ITV

WORKING class actors are being squeezed out of the profession by "posh" actors who can afford to live without a regular wage, according to one of the stars of Downton Abbey.

Rob James-Collier, who plays Thomas the footman in the ITV period drama, said that those from privileged backgrounds have the "comfort blanket" of family wealth to fund their ambitions.

He likened the early years of an acting career to other professions in which only middle-class offspring can afford to do unpaid internships.

“You have to work for a year with no money. How on earth are you going to finance that?” he asked, adding that he had fought hard to make it as a "working class lad".

His comments coincide with a glut of public school actors appearing on our screens.

Eddie Redmayne (Birdsong), Dominic West (The Wire), Tom Hiddleston (War Horse) and Damien Lewis (Homeland) are all Old Etonians - Redmayne was a contemporary of Prince William, while West attended school with David Cameron.

Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the BBC’s Sherlock, is an Old Harrovian. Henry Cavill, the British actor cast as Hollywood’s latest Superman, went to Stowe, while Freddie Fox, a member of the Fox acting dynasty and star of the BBC’s Edwin Drood adaptation, was educated at Bryanston.

James-Collier, raised in Stockport by working class parents, told Radio Times that the acting profession is weighted in favour of the rich.

But he said that working in manual jobs to fund his acting dream - he was a bricklayer’s labourer and packed frozen pasties in a factory - spurred him on.

“Because you’ve done the horrible jobs it gives you an even grittier determination to succeed,” he said.

“If I had a comfort blanket, I wouldn’t have been as passionate and driven. When you get there, you really do appreciate it because you know where you have been.”

James-Collier’s parents put him and his siblings through university. Recalling his decision to become an actor, he said: “I’m a working class lad. So at 25 and with no-one in our family having any theatrical inclination, when I said, ‘I’m going to scratch all that and become an actor’, I may as well have said I was going to be a Premiership footballer for the chance I’d have.

“But my mum was always supportive as I think she always saw the spark in me. My dad gave me a speech about getting a real job in that ‘deep Dad voice’ but he supported me too and I stayed at their house and tried my luck.”

The actor landed his first job in Down to Earth, the BBC One Sunday night drama, before joining Coronation Street. His role as the Machiavellian footman in Downton Abbey has won him a legion of fans.

His co-stars in the Julian Fellowes drama have a broad mix of backgrounds.

Dan Stevens, who plays Downton heir Matthew Crawley, was educated at Tonbridge School and Cambridge but points out that he was a scholarship boy and not born of privilege.

He told the Telegraph last year: “I came out of the wash, I suppose, appearing to be much more upper class than I really am. But when people accuse me of being really posh, I think, ‘Hang on a minute - no, I’m not!’”

Michelle Dockery speaks in cut-glass tones as Lady Mary, but in real life she is the daughter of a former lorry driver and has said: “Lady Mary would never have talked to me - I’d have been in service.”

Last year, Benedict Cumberbatch said he was typecast on account of his upbringing. “I was brought up in a world of privilege. It can ostracise you from normal codes of conduct in society. Being a posh actor in England, you can’t escape class-typing, from whatever side you look at it,” he said.