Doctor Thorne star Rebecca Front reveals an ill wind blows in 1856’s Barchester as Lady Arabella Gresham schemes to get her darling son, Frank, to marry rich American heiress Martha Dunstable and save their deeply-in-debt family from ruin…
Is it fair to call Lady Arabella Gresham a schemer?
"She is, but only for survival’s sake. The Greshams are in a perilous predicament and Lady Arabella feels like she’s the only one who’s fully got to grips with it. Her husband Frank Gresham Sr, as much as she adores him, has never really been able to sort out their debts and so it’s up to her. She’s a pragmatist more than a schemer!"
This week Louis Scatcherd is hell-bent on destroying the Greshams by calling in their debts! How does she react?
"There’s real risk attached. They’re going to lose their home, so with that huge amount at stake Lady Arabella is trying to avert disaster. Arabella’s not a vapid aristocrat, she’s bright and quite tough."
A bit like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey, you have the lion’s share of one-liners in this. Have you any favourites?
"There are some lovely waspish lines. My favourites are those in arguments, especially with Richard McCabe who plays Arabella’s husband. The others I also really enjoyed are ones I could really sit back on and have fun with. They’re not big laughs but they speak volumes about Arabella’s character. I love that sort of detail."
It’s easy for a modern audience to criticise Lady Arabella’s mothering skills, but what kind of mother do you think she makes?
"It would be easy to judge her on the central tenet. Her journey in this three-part drama sees her quite willing and indeed actively trying to marry off her son to someone he doesn’t love. And also to stop him marrying someone he does love! If you saw that in a contemporary drama you’d be appalled. So the challenge for me was thinking about the reasons why Lady Arabella’s behaving like this. It’s not because she hates her children, she clearly doesn’t, it’s that this genuinely mattered and those were the mores of the day for that strata of society."
Can you ever imagine interfering in your children’s lives like this?
"For me, my children’s happiness is so far above anything else. If my kids wanted to marry someone they loved that would be brilliant. I can’t imagine thinking someone was socially unacceptable! But I don’t think Lady Arabella is a terrible person or a dreadful mother. She’s a woman in a situation I’ll never face – thank goodness!"
So, in her defence, she wants the best for her children?
"She genuinely loves her children and wants the best for them. She’s slightly frosty with all of them and not particularly indulgent with any of them, but then again, they wouldn’t have been in those times!"
How would you describe her relationship with Doctor Thorne?
"She genuinely thinks he’s a good and decent man. It fascinates me that she thinks it’s all going to be a breeze [when Arabella tells Doctor Thorne to keep his niece Mary away from Frank]. She thinks, I’ll have a word and it’ll be straightforward. It gets interesting when it becomes apparent it’s not going to be plain sailing at all and they end up at loggerheads! She thinks she’s being completely reasonable but really she’s being totally outrageous!"
How familiar are you with Anthony Trollope’s stories?
"I’ve read quite lot of Trollope because I like a Victorian novel. I went through a phase about ten years ago where I took a lot of the Barchester novels on holiday. I think I must have read Doctor Thorne, though I don’t really remember much about it. I don’t really remember much about any of the books I read because I tend to focus on the scripts I have in my head at any one time. It’s not unusual for me to read a book and then instantly forget about it!
"I really love Trollope and don’t know why he’s not more widely read. He’s got a lot of the charm of Dickens but in a slightly more reserved, contained way. It’s slightly more satirical. Julian Fellowes is an ideal person to adapt Trollope because he understands that axis between expression and repression."
Had you worked with Julian Fellowes before?
"I was really thrilled when I was asked to do Doctor Thorne because I’d actually worked with Julian as an actor years ago on Kavanagh QC. I was very intrigued to get to work with him as a writer. I didn’t get much time to spend with him on the set of Doctor Thorne but what I remember about him from Kavanagh was how funny he was; he was full of great stories and he still is!"
ITV’s Doctor Thorne continues on Sunday (13 March) at 9pm.
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