Downton Abbey’s Penny Downie goes from screen prostitute to aristocracy

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Penny Downie (second from left) joins the party at Downton Abbey. Photo: Channel Seven
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Brisbane-born Penny Downie has gone from playing a violent prostitute named Kerry Vincent in 12 episodes of Prisoner, back in 1980, to playing a gracious aristocrat named Lady Sinderby in five episodes of Downton Abbey, starting this week. They might seem like very different roles, but as she reflects on her career, she sees a common theme.

“From what I can remember about Prisoner, I was some kind of prostitute who did something terrible to a pimp because he did something terrible to me. But then I got rehabilitated by being inside and being given art therapy; then I got paroled because I was really quite a nice person, except that Kerry had issues, as they say.

“When I think about the work I’ve done in Britain and the work I’d done in Australia, quite often there’s a sense of being an outsider, which I’ve always really rather enjoyed. The first telly that I did in the UK was an episode of Minder in 1984, and I was playing an Australian con-woman in England.

“There is something slightly ‘other’, even about the Sinderbys. They’re very, very moneyed English people who have a title. We are invited to Downton but it is not necessarily plain sailing. My son Atticus is a friend of Lady Rose and the family are invited to Downton by Lady Rose. There is that thread of something else. They are Jewish and even though they’re incredibly wealthy, it’s from a different place within the society at the time.”

Downie found being an outsider useful when she started to do Shakespeare on stage in London and Stratford. “I’ve done quite a bit of Shakespeare, and I was sort of liberated when I stopped thinking about it as a very English thing, because he wrote such muscular women,” she says.

“I loved doing that because it was the sense of always being a bit outside. I didn’t need to ‘fit in’. Being an Australian living in the UK for all these years, the longer you’re here, the more English you sound, the more displaced sometimes you feel. But it lets you look and listen in a slightly different way, and I’ve enjoyed that.”

Downie has done Poirot, Silent Witness, Father Brown, Silk, Waking the Dead, New Tricks, and Inspector Morse, but Downton Abbey is the biggest budget series she’s worked on in British television: “It’s this huge juggernaut. It’s an institution. The attention to detail is extraordinary.”

She says the scripts are so meticulously constructed she was able to understand her character very quickly: “She’s astute. She’s witty. She’s a warm person. She loves her son very, very much. And she’s nobody’s fool.

“I was so excited when they sent me the script because it was really clever writing. I remember really responding to the clarity of the ideas. The thing about Downton is Julian Fellowes is holding so many storylines, so with the minimum of words you have to get the maximum of meaning.

“There’s so much subtext going around and it’s there on the page if you pick it up. With Lady Sinderby, I went ‘Oh, yes please, I get this, it’s nailed because of how he said it on the page.’ And your imagination takes over and you tease it out. That’s what we’re paid for. “

Downton Abbeyairs on Seven on Thursday night at 9.

Parkinson plays favourites

In 1979, when Michael Parkinson first visited Australia to make a TV show, a journalist at the airport asked him if he was here because he couldn’t get work in Britain.

“What sort of a bloody question is that, for Christ’s sake?” Parkinson says. “One radio announcer called me a ratbag, another called me a carpetbagger. But the nice thing which overruled all that was the rest of Australia saying, ‘Give the Pom a fair go’.”

He realised the aggression he encountered was a symptom of the cultural cringe, our feeling at the time that nothing about Australia could possibly be of interest to someone from a grown-up country like Britain. As he reflects on how the place he calls his second home has changed in 36 years, Parkinson particularly appreciates the disappearance of the cringe.

“I think Australians have become altogether more self-confident in presenting a face to the world,” he says. “Australia doesn’t have to prove anything to anybody.”

Parkinson, 80, registered another transformation as he prepared Parky’s Favourite Australians, a two-part series based on 35 years of interviews, which Channel Ten launches on Thursday.

“I’m reminded of the Ian Thorpe interview last year, where he said for the first time that he was gay. I did reflect that we had reached a moment in time when nobody was the least bit surprised, but we were delighted that he’d finally come clean so that he could present himself as he was, rather than living a lie.

“I remembered an interview with Robert Helpmann  [actor and dancer] all those years ago in which I asked him what it was like being gay in Sydney in the ’20s and ’30s, and he told this story that because of the way he was dressed, he was thrown into the sea at Bondi. I thought: that’s where Australia’s gone, from that to a point where Ian Thorpe makes a confession and everybody says ‘what were you frightened of? It doesn’t matter any more’. So really I was charting the way that a nation has changed for the better, in many many ways. It’s very satisfying to me to recapture that in the interviews that I did.”

Parkinson finds Australians easy to interview. “What attracted me was the openness of the society and the friendliness of people. It reminded me of where I grew up in the north country of England. People said good day to you, they wanted to know your business, they were warm, they didn’t walk past you in the street without acknowledging you. I found it very easy to settle in there.

“All that stuff came together in the interviews. They were not pompous, generally speaking, they were not stuffy, not bound by convention and centuries of good taste, that didn’t bother them any more. This was a different tribe of people, and that made my job so much easier.”

Parkinson has been knighted by the Queen, but he was puzzled when Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced the awarding of an Australian knighthood to the Duke of Edinburgh. “Of all the people to give a knighthood to! The Duke of Edinburgh needs another knighthood like I need another person to interview. Just when Australia was in political turmoil, it was ill judged. But in the end it doesn’t matter. There are more important things to be addressed in Australia and in our country too.”

Parkinson lists three interviews he particularly enjoyed: 

Kerry Packer: “Packer was in his prime, a great bull of a man, a man who had divided opinion about him. I interviewed him on the pretext of talking about World Series Cricket. He knew I had written some pieces about him which were not supportive, shall we say, and so we went on and we had a scrap. I admired him greatly. Our interview was combative, so it’s a good interview, a proper interview.”

Cliff Young: “He’s the potato farmer who won the walking race between Sydney and Melbourne and came in 45 minutes ahead of the field wearing gumboots and overalls. Only in Australia. A true hillbilly, a wonderful character and I did a hilarious interview with him.”

Rodney Ansell: “He was a kid from the outback, a bullcatcher from the Northern Territory, a TV natural, talked about how you catch 2000-pound bulls and all that. Paul Hogan was watching this show and thought. ‘Christ, that’s a wonderful character, so he created Crocodile Dundee.’ From which came the movie and a realisation about Australia in the rest of the world. Rodney’s got his place in history because of that.”

Parkinson intends to keep visiting Australia every summer. “I’m still hoping that I’ll be in Australia when I see England regain the Ashes. I hope I don’t disappear before that happens. That would bother me slightly.”

Parky’s Favourite Australians starts on Ten on Wednesday at 7.30pm. 

Vote for The Bogies

Today we publish the voting form for The Bogie Awards, this column’s annual (since 2007) opportunity to vent your rage, contempt and sardonic humour on those who have annoyed, embarrassed and insulted you over the past 12 months of televisual entertainment in Australia.

The Bogies run parallel with a similarly named honours system that will be announced in a shimmering ceremony at a casino on the evening of May 3. The results of your voting will be announced in this column the same day. These are the nominations on which we’d like you to pass judgement …

Least real “Reality” show: My Kitchen Rules (Seven); The Block (Nine); Beauty and the Geek (Seven); The Real Housewives of Melbourne (Arena); The Bachelor Australia (Ten).

Smuggest talent quest judge: Shaynna Blaze (The Block); George Calombaris (MasterChef); Pete Evans (My Kitchen Rules); Alex Perry (Australia’s Next Top Model); Matt Preston (MasterChef); Neale Whitaker (The Block).

Network most contemptuous of viewers: ABC; Foxtel; Nine; SBS; Seven; Ten.

Most incomprehensible plotting: The Code; State of Affairs; Fortitude; How To Get Away With Murder; Witnesses.

Least deserving of renewal: Big Brother, Wonderland; Resurrection; Hiding; The Chaser’s Media Circus; I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

Most annoying streaming “service”: Presto, Netflix, Quickflix, Stan, Ezyflix, Foxtel Play.

Most insidious use of breasts to exploit viewers’ base instincts: The Bachelor Australia; Girls; Game of Thrones; Sunrise; I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here; Criminal Minds; Vikings; Stalker.

Most over-exposed: Anzac events; Poh; Manu Feildel; Shaun Micallef; Julia Morris; Stephen Fry; Annabel Crabb; Tony Jones; Grant Denyer.

Worst catch-up service: ABC, Nine, Seven, SBS, Ten.

Most embarrassing program (The Naomi Robson Cup): Big Brother; Gogglebox; Today Tonight; A Current Affair; The Real Housewives of Melbourne; The Biggest Loser Australia; The Bolt Report; I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.

Furthest past use-by date (The Bert Newton Trophy): The Simpsons (Eleven, Fox8); Downton Abbey (Seven); Midsomer Murders (ABC); QI (ABC); Border Security (Seven); Grey’s Anatomy (Seven); CSI (Nine); Dancing with the Stars (Seven); Scott Cam; Sonia Kruger.

The Black Bogie (The Sandilands Chalice): Matt Preston; Andrew O’Keefe; Richard Wilkins; Karl Stefanovic; Eddie McGuire; David Koch; Andrew Bolt.

How to vote: Make your selection from the lists above and send your decision to [email protected]苏州美甲美睫培训学校. Or go to smh苏州美甲美睫培训学校419论坛/entertainment/blog/the-tribal-mind. Feel free to add comments and extra nominations.

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