The name is Bond...
As the final series of Downton begins to hot up, SAMANTHA BOND who plays the formidable Lady Rosamund - tells Liz Hoggard why she'll miss her ‘close Abbey family’ and how she’ll always be Miss Moneypenny to gentlemen of a certain age.
photographs Charlie Gray
Samantha wears DRESS, LK Bennett. EARRINGS AND BRACELET, Garrard. HANDBAG, Aspinal of London
"Lady Rosamund is a role model for the younger Downton characters: single and independent"
I’ve just witnessed first-hand the devastating effect Samantha Bond has on men - hardly surprising, with her whoosh of red hair, big eyes and those cut-glass vowels.
On stage she has played Juliet and Lady Macbeth. More recently she has made her mark as Lady Rosamund Painswick in Downtown Abbey, and the gloriously selfish Auntie Angela in Outnumbered. But for men of a certain vintage, Samantha, now 53, will always be Miss Moneypenny.
It’s 13 years since she appeared in a Bond film opposite Pierce Brosnan, but as we sit down in the bar of a swish London hotel to talk about the sixth - and final - series of Downton, a middle-aged man clambers through the foliage ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’ he says adoringly. ‘A photo would make my day.’ She smiles weakly (she’s been filming Downton since 6 am) and gamely poses with her admirer.
Samantha adored Pierce, and making the Bond films was a huge adventure, but she admits: ‘I’d never seen a Bond film in a cinema until I was in one.’ Clearly it wasn’t the rite of passage for her that it is for most of us (although these days she gets invited to the red-carpet premieres). And when I mention that the new Bond girl will be 50 - a real feminist coup - with Monica Bellucci cast opposite Daniel Craig in Spectre, it’s the first Sam has heard of it. But 007 fans won’t let her forget the past. ‘They’re always a bit younger than me,’ she adds,‘because they were late teens when I was Moneypenny.’ Fan photo over, Samantha returns to her glass of wine and continues chatting about Lady Rosamund. It’s a plum role and she will be forever grateful to Downton creator Julian Fellowes for writing so many complex roles for older women. Because in Downton, love can flower at any age, from Maggie Smith’s reunion with her Russian prince to Penelope Wilton’s shock marriage proposal. ‘Maggie turned 80 in December, and she’s formidable. With both Mags and Judi [Dench], I think it’s the love of what they do that means they still have the energy to do it.’
In the past Lady Rosamund tended to ‘flit in and out’ of Downton. There was the flirtation with caddish Nigel Havers, and then last season her role grew in stature as she took Lady Edith abroad to ‘improve her French’ (and conceal her pregnancy).
"I'd never seen a Bond Film in a cinema until I was in one"
Eveiy family needs an aunt who you can confide in, I suggest. ‘Yes, mine was a great-aunt, Auntie Jo,’ she says nostalgically. ‘She was wonderful. You could talk about anything to her.’
She sees Lady Rosamund as a role model for the younger Downton characters. ‘She’s an independent, single woman, someone Edith can look up to as an example.’
It helps, of course, that Lady Rosamund is a wealthy widow with a huge house in Belgrave Square. ‘I’ve got one of the grandest stair-cases you’ve ever seen,’ boasts Samantha. In fact the interiors are filmed at West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, a National Trust property with ‘a staggering art collection and grounds of inordinate beauty and follies and a lake. You feel the generations who have lived there.’ But for the final series - which starts in 1925 - she has been mostly filming at Downton (ie, Highclere Castle) itself. ‘It’s been nice to spend more time with the family,’ she says. ‘It’s a close, loving group of people. And not just the cast - most of our crew have been with us for six years. It’s been a special summer.’
As one of the so-called ‘oldies’, Samantha has worked with many of the cast on previous projects.
But she cherishes the precious new links she has made. ‘I am incredibly fond of Michelle [Dockery] and Laura (Carmichael - who play Lady Mary and Lady Edith) and Rob [James-Collier, Thomas the scheming under-butler] and Allen [Leech, widower of Lady Sybil].’
For the first time, she has witnessed the real difference between upstairs and downstairs, because some of the big scenes have been filmed in the servants' hall. ‘They’re much naughtier downstairs. We’re quite well-behaved, but it gets quite riotous down there.
‘Then there are the people that you didn’t get to know - like Rob,’ she says. ‘You watch Downton and think: “Oh, he’s not very nice.” For the first two years I was terrified of him. But in real life he’s adorable and brilliant, and all credit to the performance that one could have been fooled by it.’ At times the dialogue can be hard to master, she admits. It’s delivered at a hell of a lick, and with sentences not always constructed as they would be today. ‘If you mislearn it, it will fall apart, like a wheel falling off a cart, but once you’ve learnt that slightly tricky delivery, it has a wonderful period feel that’s also very, very alive.’ The dinner table etiquette still catches her out, too. ‘The bit that gets me every time is when they’ve cleared your plate away and you’re not allowed to rest your hands on the table. So my hand is always at the stem of my wine glass.’
Days filming were long, but they coped by playing Bananagrams. ‘It’s like instant Scrabble - an entire game will take five minutes, and you only play on your own words, so it’s like creating your own crossword. Elizabeth [McGovern, who plays Lady Cora] reads but when I go into a book, I enter that world and I get very confused if someone says: “Can you come over here and do that?” And I say, “Which world am I in now?”’
Samantha admits that her domestic life has fallen off a cliff since filming Downton, because she’s not the only one in her family in demand. When we meet, her husband, the Olivier-nominated actor Alexander Hanson, 54, and their son Tom, 24, are on stage every' night in the new play The Gathered Leaves, at London’s Park Theatre. ‘It’s beautiful. I can say that now without shaking, because at press night I was so nervous my heart was in my chest’
Photos: Samantha, left, as Miss Moneypenny opposite Pierce Brosnan’s Bond in The World Is Not Enough, 1999, and, below, as Lady Rosamund Painswick in Downton Abbey
Photos: Samantha as fiery Frances Barden in ITV’s Home Fires, above, and with husband Alexander and children Tom and Molly, right
Her daughter Molly, 23, also recently made her West End debut. Did Samantha always know that both her children would go to drama school rather than university? ‘I think they hid it quite well. When they were about 15 I thought one was going to read law and one was going to read politics. And then within three year's, it had all turned around.’ She admits frankly that it’s ‘very frightening for a parent. You want to be able to make them safe, but they’ve entered an industry where there’s no such thing as safety.’ With her children still living at home, she says, ‘no house is big enough for four adults, but we’re doing all right, we muddle along’. Later she dryly adds, ‘It sometimes strikes me I’m the only person in the house who knows how to use a washing machine It’s extraordinary - I can disappear to Downton Abbey for three nights, and nothing’s changed.’
She and Alexander have been married for 26 years. He is her greatest supporter and harshest critic.
Because everyone is working, the highlight of the week is Sunday lunch at their Richmond home. ‘I’m not a great cook but I love to feed people. Quite often there will be ten of us around the table.’ There are shades here of her own childhood, when the family lived in a mansion flat near Hammersmith Bridge, and actors would drop in recounting funny anecdotes. Her father, Philip, was a regular in TV classics, including The Avengers and The Onedin Line, and her mother, Pat Sandys, was also an actress, before becoming a TV producer. Her brother is a film critic; her sister an actress.
Samantha went to ballet classes as a child, then the acting bug struck, but her parents made her sit A-levels and do shorthand before she went to Bristol Old Vic theatre school.
In her 20s she was cast as Maria Bertram in a BBC adaptation of Mansfield Park and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. She met Alexander when she was appearing on stage in Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He has recalled how ‘her phone was ringing the whole time; people wanting her talent. It was quite a lesson living with the missus to start with. It was all about her. But I fancied her rotten and I loved her.’
Samantha’s breakthrough role was opposite Kenneth Branagh, in a double bill of Romeo and Juliet and Much Ado About Nothing at the Lyric Theatre in 1988. ‘I adore Ken. When we did Romeo and Juliet we were in our 20s, and he put all the money up himself; we all got paid £100 a week and it happened from his flat in Camberwell - it was amazing.’
Later she played Judi Dench’s daughter in Amy’s View in London’s West End and on Broadway; and the young Maggie Smith in Three Tall Women. ‘Being on stage with those phenomenal actresses is an extraordinary learning curve. You are on your toes the entire time but in the most thrilling way.’ Both women have become true friends. When Samantha’s mother was diagnosed with cancer (she died 15 years ago), Maggie was a huge support. ‘She was loving and kind. I’d never been in that situation before, and she was guiding me through.’
Her next project is shooting a second series of ITV’s wartime drama Home Fires, which is centred on a rural branch of the Women’s Institute. She is very proud that there are nine lead roles for women over 40 - including herself, Francesca Annis and Claire Rushbrook.
The paucity of storylines for women exasperates her. ‘What I can’t get over is that as a woman of middle age you are dealing with such huge issues. I’ve got friends with children who have had drug problems; suffered parental bereavement, Alzheimer’s... and we deal with that. Not to mention divorce, the loss of contemporaries who leave you too young. And internet dating when you’re 50. You want to say: “Are you really telling me that policemen are more interesting?” Because there’s still so much male-dominated police drama on TV - always a poor dead blonde. I just don’t understand it.’
Samantha strikes you as a woman’s woman. Funny, real, warm. There’s also an element of tomboy. Fashion bores her - and anyway, as an actress she’s always wearing someone else’s clothes. She recalls visiting the theatrical costumier Cosprop ‘as a baby actress’ when she was filming Tielawny of the Wells in 1985 for the BBC. ‘I put on the dress that Meryl Streep wore at the end of the pier in 'The French Lieutenant’s Woman. And I said to John, the wonderful man who runs Cosprop: “I can’t believe I can get into Meryl Streep’s dress!” And John said: “Oh, she’d just had a baby, she was a bit plumper than usual...’”
The car is waiting to take Samantha back to the Holiday Inn where she stays during filming of Downton. ‘The glamour,’ she sighs. ‘I’m really good at taking a book to the bar, having a meal. But it’s one of those hotels where you really don’t want to be a woman on your own.’ Because of your middle-aged fan club, I tease? ‘Yes, there’s always a man who suddenly says: “I know who you are.’” She’s a lovely woman,
Samantha Bond. I just hope the gentlemen of the Holiday Inn let her eat her supper in peace.
The final series of Downton Abbey is on ITV, Sundays at 9pm. It will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on 16 November by Univeisal Pictures (UK)
SWITCHED ON FOR SAMANTHA
TV: The US series Transparent. It’s about a crossdressing man who at the age of 70 decides he wants to come out. It’s funny, raunchy, brilliantly written and will move you to tears.
RADIO: Always Radio 4: Woman’s Hour and PM are my favourites.
BOOKS: I had the privilege of being on the Costa Book Awards final panel. I adored Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald.
GUILTY PLEASURE: I’m not very good at girlie fashion but I’m a terrible handbag queen.
SURPRISINGLY GOOD AT: Maths - I have an A-level in it. When I was a neurotic teenager, I used to do quadratic equations to calm down.
[Source: Sunday September 27, 2015 Edition of The Mail on Sunday, YOU Magazine, P50-55. Copyright © 2015 Associated Newspapers Ltd]