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In season three of Downton Abbey, lady’s maid Anna Bates shares her philosophy on good men: “They are not like buses. There won’t be another one around in ten minutes’ time.” The same could be said of great TV series, and thus viewers everywhere mourned the end of one of the most-beloved, most-watched (by about 10 million people per season) British aristo-dramas since Upstairs, Downstairs and Brideshead Revisited.
But what of the Downton cast? Signing on to a juggernaut show, wittingly or otherwise, can mean a long-awaited breakout and ever-widening career paths. Or, it can be the albatross necklace that forever cements your “type” in the eyes of casting directors, leaving you with few opportunities to change their impression by hogtying your schedule for years—or at least as long as ratings remain high.
Joanne Froggatt, who spent six seasons playing one of the noble household’s best-loved non-nobles, is glad she took the ride; it resulted in her being “discovered,” albeit for the fourth or fifth time in her career, as she’s been known to joke. Downton executive producer Gareth Neame has said that as Anna Bates, Froggatt became the beating heart of the show. “She is the character I would most like to have as a friend out of all of the characters in the show, I think.” So many people agreed that when her character was brutally raped in season four, many viewers protested to UK communications regulator Ofcom and ITV. On social media, fans likened it to “the rape of a Teletubby.” Still others wrote directly to Froggatt—they were the rape survivors to whom Froggatt paid tribute in her 2014 Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress, the ones who were perhaps most moved by her portrayal.
Her vulnerable but forthright take on Anna Bates may account for how popular her character became. We see few such purely good people on screen these days, but we want to believe they exist. No doubt they do, somewhere; but the majority of us are the more complex, ambiguous humans Froggatt has played with great subtly, and to great acclaim. She got her start on notorious Brit-actor launch pad Coronation Street playing a teenage mother, and has not shied away from taking controversial roles since. Her portrayal of an Iraq war vet suffering from PTSD in In Our Name earned her a British Independent Film Award, and critical praise for the subtlety and intelligence of her acting. In the contentious TV film Danielle Cable: Eyewitness, her stunning performance as a teenage girl who witnesses the murder of her boyfriend garnered a Best Actress nod from the Royal Television Society. If you want more proof that her range extends beyond a starched apron and a stiff upper lip, watch her 2013 film Still Life.
If most of her pre-Downton work is like the proverbial tree falling in a forest for Stateside viewers, so be it—Froggatt is doing what she always wanted to do, a seemingly unlikely dream for a young girl raised on a sheep farm on the remote Yorkshire Moors by parents who initially hoped her acting ambitions would fizzle. Froggatt left home at 13 to attend theater school, fighting for tuition grants the whole way. Now, she’s once again leaving home, abandoning the manor and the UK for Los Angeles “to see what happens.” Her parting gift (for now) to British TV is Dark Angel, an ITV drama in which she plays real-life serial killer Mary Ann Cotton. How very un-genteel. We can’t wait.