The Silent Cinephile: A Chat with Downton Abbey’s Mr. Molesley

@moviemolesley: “Downton Abbey: A New Era, five stars for the luminous Miss Baxter…”
@moviemolesley: “Downton Abbey: A New Era, five stars for the luminous Miss Baxter…”

Kevin Doyle on making Downton Abbey’s resident cinephile Mr. Molesley last the distance, his character’s four Letterboxd favorites, the joys of Laurel and Hardy, and earning the moment.

This story contains mild plot spoilers for Downton Abbey: A New Era, delivered in the spirit of Miya’s review: “What this movie understands is that my idea of a good time is absolutely zero dramatic tension. I don’t want to be worried about anyone for more than 45 seconds.”

Downton Abbey is an acquired taste: an upstairs-downstairs romp heavy on pomp and light on politics, where the beautiful rich fret about saying the wrong thing, while the beleaguered poor cling to scraps of happiness in early twentieth-century England. Or, as Hill puts it, “Euphoria for old people.” The ITV series and its spin-off feature films have created stars of some (Dan Stevens, killed off early in order to make weirder, more interesting fare), and elevated the already iconic status of others (Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham; Paddington’s foster-father Hugh Bonneville as her son, the Earl of Grantham).

Violet and Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) get the best zingers, everyone knows that. But our data reveals that much of the Letterboxd Downton love is expressly reserved for two particular below-stairs characters who have had a rough time of it over the years: queer butler Thomas “deserves the world” Barrow, and Joseph “the star!” Molesley, a footman-turned-schoolteacher with a yearning crush on Countess Crawley’s maid, Miss Baxter. We’re happy to report, then, that Downton Abbey: A New Era is a perfectly brewed pot of tea for Barrow and Molesley fans.

Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) share a moment on the landing.
Guy Dexter (Dominic West) and Thomas Barrow (Robert James-Collier) share a moment on the landing.

While half of the Crawley clan pops off to the south of France to investigate the Dowager Countess’s pre-marital love life, everyone else stays behind to accommodate a production crew that has rented the titular house as a filming location. For Mr. Barrow (Robert James-Collier), this sees the arrival of Dominic West as the film-within-a-film’s leading man, Guy Dexter—resulting in, as Joe writes, “some of the thickest chemistry I’ve seen on screen”.

Clocking in at just over two hours, Downton Abbey: A New Era nevertheless feels fast, Joe adds, “because they have to fit in forty different characters who each need their individual moment and at least a half-dozen minor romances and plot lines that need to be tidied up.” He’s right: the Barrow and Guy scenes are slim, but meaningful, with the promise of some sort of happy ending. (Creator Julian Fellowes might like to pick up on the fact that every third Letterboxd review feels like a variation on Lemmy’s sentiment: “Waiting for the spin-off where Barrow and Dominic West scheme and bang their way through 1930s Hollywood”.)

Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy, front left) directs the film-within-a-film while Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle, middle rear) keeps an eye on the script.
Jack Barber (Hugh Dancy, front left) directs the film-within-a-film while Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle, middle rear) keeps an eye on the script.

Mr. Molesley, too, has romantic interests at the big house (Sarah writes: “The only heterosexual activity I can excuse is the way Miss Baxter and Mr. Molesley keep looking at each other”), but in A New Era he also falls in love with something else: the magic of movie-making. It turns out Mr. Molesley is something of an early cinephile, stalking the local picture-houses at the exact moment in movie history when silent films are giving way to talkies, which becomes central to the plot—and to Molesley’s fate.

Once a cringe-making clod ripe for demotion, Joseph Molesley has lasted the distance thanks very much to actor Kevin Doyle’s remarkable balance of pathos and comedy. Doyle is a long-time fixture on British crime series such as Happy Valley, Silent Witness, and this year’s Sherwood, mixing diffidence and desperation in a range of characters both good and didn’t-mean-to-be-bad. In Molesley, he gets to exercise the bumbling humor that often simmers below the surface of these other roles, stealing scenes right from under even Lady Mary’s elegant nose.

Naturally, in light of reviews such as “a scene with some of the best acting I’ve seen this year, by Kevin Doyle who plays Molesley, totally unexpectedly, totally took my breath away” (Yiman), and the Dowager Countess’s own declaration of Molesley as a “great favorite”, we had to seek out Doyle for a chat about A New Era’s encouraging turn of events for his character.

We needed to talk to you, Kevin, for obvious reasons. The movie-within-a-movie in A New Era is a lively storyline for our dear Mr. Molesley and a happy plot for cinephiles everywhere. Talk us through this extraordinary opportunity for Joseph to potentially step into a new life.
Kevin Doyle: I discovered, reading the script for the first time, that he has an unbounded enthusiasm for movies and movie-making, and so when he finds out that a film crew are coming to Downton Abbey to make a movie, he’s absolutely thrilled at the idea of being able to be a spectator. And then life takes a couple of strange turns and he becomes more involved in the project than was originally intended. I think that’s probably where I should stop.

Yes, that’s probably a non-spoilery way to put it. Needless to say, it is interesting that Mr. Molesley finds a way back into the house.
I feel sorry for the children that he’s meant to be teaching, because they are sorely neglected! He’s probably just left them with lots of homework and he just said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Write an essay about this. I’m going to be at the Abbey watching a movie being made.”

Downton’s best sparring partners, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) and the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith).
Downton’s best sparring partners, Isobel Merton (Penelope Wilton) and the Dowager Countess (Dame Maggie Smith).

I want to read you a couple of reviews to give you a sense of where Mr. Molesley sits in the hearts of Downton fans on Letterboxd. Liv, who gives the new film five stars, writes, “Me to Molesley: how does it feel to be living my dream???” And Linduz writes, “This is Mr. Molesley’s world and we’re just living in it.” It’s Barrow and Molesley that people most connect with and identify with. What do you make of this?
Oh, that’s interesting. I try not to get involved in social media. I’m unaware of that fondness that people have for him. But I mean, it’s lovely, it’s very gratifying, because I think originally people viewed him with a certain level of suspicion, and I think Julian tweaked the writing in the character after the first couple of seasons. Some of Molesley’s decision-making was questionable early on, making in-roads on Anna while Mr. Bates was away, and trying to get out of going to the war.

I think things like that had made audiences view him with a certain amount of suspicion, so I was glad that I was able to win them around and I think partly that’s to do with not making him more vulnerable, but letting his heart be seen, I suppose. Letting people understand why he is, and that’s partly to do with thwarted ambition. I think he’s clearly quite a bright man but he had a very predetermined life set out for him. He was going to be a servant for the rest of his life, and I guess he could cope with that, but he didn’t really want to because he had higher ambitions than that. 

But that was the case for a lot of the characters downstairs. Certainly, as you said, for Mr. Barrow, for Daisy, but also for some of the characters upstairs as well. And so you can extrapolate that and imagine: there were clearly hundreds and hundreds of thousands of very talented, bright, gifted people, but who were unable to let that come out because they had predetermined lives. “No, you can’t rise above that station.” And I think, especially after the First World War, you could see that people were fighting back against that. They didn’t want to just have predetermined lives. They wanted to explore broader horizons.

Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) in the early stages of their slow-burning love on the Downton Abbey television series. 
Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle) and Phyllis Baxter (Raquel Cassidy) in the early stages of their slow-burning love on the Downton Abbey television series. 

I agree, Molesley did transform and obviously some of that was in the writing, but also some of that was in your performance. As the reviews suggest, “Mr. Molesley gets one of the biggest laughs”, and also—mild spoilers—one of the biggest romantic moments in this film, between Molesley and Baxter. 
I was aware, whenever I dipped my toes into social media, that there was a yearning for a coming together between those two characters. Raquel [Cassidy] and I were both aware of it. But what I loved about that storyline was the fact that it was so slow, it was two very careful characters very slowly, tentatively coming together—and you can understand it. I think it’s explained in this movie, certainly from his point of view, why it was so slow. It’s because he had to achieve something before he could offer her anything. And I think it was a really beautiful thing, actually. I found it really moving—we both did actually when we were shooting those scenes. I found it very moving to do because it was so earned. They earned that moment.

This makes me want to ask you if you have a favorite romantic film of all time? The best love story in a film, whether a slow burn or a fast-crashing romance?
Probably no, probably not a romantic film. I mean, my favorite films are things like, When Harry Met Sally…, the couple that you never thought were going to get together. It’s that kind of thing, I suppose, against all the odds they managed to do it. I’m not sort of a big fan of romance movies, really. Well, having said that, anything with Tom Hanks or Meryl Streep, I’m there.

Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Kevin’s favorite film, Where Eagles Dare (1968). 
Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Kevin’s favorite film, Where Eagles Dare (1968). 

What do you like?
The film that I’ve seen more than any other film—I can probably say the lines along with the actors, I’ve seen it that many times—is a film called, Where Eagles Dare. Have you ever heard of it?

No, never!
Never heard of it, okay. With Richard Burton and a very young Clint Eastwood. It’s a wartime film, it’s an action film. I remember seeing it when I was nine years old and it was probably the first time I’d been to the cinema properly, and I just thought, ‘Oh, wow.’ I immediately went out and bought the book. It’s a brilliant film. There’s no reason why you should like it, other than it’s probably a lot of people’s favorite—sort of on the quiet—movie. You have to watch it, it’s humbling.

It’s going straight to my watchlist. Irene writes: “Mr. Molesley would’ve loved Letterboxd” and Shawn agrees: “Molesley would have a fire Letterboxd”. So if he had had a Letterboxd profile in the 1920s, what would Mr. Molesley’s four favorite films have been?
Favorite films? Well, he’d probably have loved all those films with the great romantic leads, like Valentino. I can imagine him practicing at home, doing all the dashing stuff, the sword play, The Mark of Zorro and things like that. I think he would love to get wrapped up in those big romantic silent movies, but enjoy also the slap-dash of Buster Keaton. I can imagine him absolutely grinning from ear to ear watching Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin, but also pretending to be Zorro.

Okay, relevant to Molesley: who would be your favorite lovable loser in cinema?
Stan Laurel.

Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte in The Mark of Zorro (1920). 
Douglas Fairbanks and Marguerite De La Motte in The Mark of Zorro (1920). 

Final question: which silent films or talkies from around the 1920s did you watch in preparation for A New Era?
I watched some of the Valentino films because they would’ve been the films that he would’ve been watching. And Ronald Coleman. And as I said, The Mark of Zorro, and lots of early Chaplin. I just tried to imagine where he would go to on a Friday night if he had the evening off, maybe take Ms. Baxter with a box of popcorn.

Thank you so much from Molesley fans everywhere. It’s been an absolute delight to chat to you.
My pleasure.


Downton Abbey: A New Era’ is in cinemas now. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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