A changing character
“She’s evolved over time,” Dame Penelope says of the character she’s been playing since Downton Abbey, the television series, began in 2012. “Having been an outsider at the beginning, she’s slowly been accepted and, more importantly, she’s accepted them. She’s always been her own woman. She is middle class, certainly not an aristocrat, so she’s had to fight her corner.” Over the years, that fighting has involved Lady Violet, the Dowager Countess, played with acid-tongued excellence by Dame Maggie Smith.
But while the relationship between the two characters has transformed from “very hostile” to “a great friendship”, Dame Penelope admits to missing their more combative exchanges. “Sparring is always more fun than anything else,” she laughs. “Especially when you’re doing it with Maggie Smith because she’s extremely good at it. It was like playing tennis with someone who’s just slightly better than you, so you have to return the serve, and she often gives you a backhand that you’ve got to hit over the net.”