Tom Hollander talks about playing the lead character on period drama series Doctor Thorne. The series can be seen on Sunday evenings at 9pm on ITV from March 6th.
Why did you want to play Doctor Thorne?
I was very excited to be offered a part like this. It was interesting for me to play a straight lead. The context of a costume drama with ladies in bonnets talking about weddings was very familiar to me, and to everyone. But the casting of me as Doctor Thorne was a challenge and so I wanted to do it.
Who is Doctor Thorne?
Doctor Thorne is a village doctor. A modest man and a bachelor who lives with his niece Mary (Stefanie Martini), the only blood relayion he has. He spends the story trying to protect her from the legacy of her origins, which are not good. The daughter of a village girl born out of wedlock after a seduction. Doctor Thorne is the moral centre of the piece. He is well liked in the village and even though he is only the doctor, all the rich people ask him for advice and guidance. They trust him and he is heavily involved and in charge of the finances of the Gresham household. The railway baron Sir Roger Scatcherd (Ian McShane ) has lent the Greshams lots of money and they are heavily in debt to him. So Doctor Thorne acts as the go between to keep them from falling out. He is selfless and constantly puts himself in a disadvantaged position if it means his niece will be okay. He’s always repressing his own selfish feelings in favour of doing the right thing for someone else, so in that sense he’s a very impressive person. He is a very low‐key hero but he stands up when needed and when he has to push back on people he does. He also has a temper. So he’s a Victorian virtuous hero but with a bit of a grump about him. That was very interesting to play.
Were you a Trollope fan?
I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Trollope so this was interesting. I looked at the book a bit, having accepted the part, to see what the character was like in the book. But mostly I worked from the scripts.
I’ve heard people say Trollope is more nuanced. Dickens is more exaggerated and much more clear and the characters are very broad and very dramatic and there are lots of incidents. In something like Doctor Thorne it’s really about stopping incidents from happening. Most of the drama has happened in the past and it’s all about dealing with the consequences of the past. It’s ordinary life.
Had you worked with Julian Fellowes before?
I worked with Julian Fellowes on Gosford Park a long time ago. It was lovely to be reunited with him after all that Eme. On my first day filming we were in Wrotham Park in Herefordshire where we had also filmed Gosford Park in 2001. Fourteen years later there we are, Julian is Lord Fellowes, I’ve got grey in my hair and we were doing his latest. So that was fun.
How would you describe Julian’s adaptation of Doctor Thorne?
It’s a fairy tale, it looks so beautIful. In one sense it’s like a rom‐com. You see a couple at the beginning ‐ Mary (Stefanie Martini) and Frank (Harry Richardson) - and you hope they will eventually get together. But there are lots of obstacles put in their way that they have to overcome before they get there. It’s escapism and lovely to watch, very well cast with some great actors. Harry and Stefanie are new and in one of their first jobs, so that was very exciting for them, full of the joys of spring, bouncing around, they couldn’t believe how lovely everything was. It was very healthy for us older jaundiced actors to be reminded how much fun it is. Costume dramas are really about escaping from anything that is too familiar. It’s a world of glistening sunshine and dew-decked meadows. It’s not contemporary social realism with a political punch. It’s something to calm you down before you go to sleep, before the stresses of work the next day. But there is also the eternal stuff. Notions of true love, moral rigour, courage in the face of adversity, and doing the right thing. It was genuinely a very happy job for everyone involved.
Doctor Thorne is set in a very different time to today?
The Greshams are very vulnerable. There is no middle class in the sense we understand it. They will lose the house that has been in the family for hundreds of years if their son doesn’t marry someone with money. You had to be sensible at that time about stabilising your future. It’s an atitude to marriage which seems shocking to us with our modern romantic notions. When we’re watching it, we think, ‘You must marry for love. You must be modern like us.’ But what the family is trying to do is to come up with something much more akin to an arranged marriage with an heiress to save themselves and their home.
What was it like working with Rebecca Front, who plays Frank’s mother Lady Arabella Gresham?
I don’t think we’ve worked together before, but I’ve known her forever. Rebecca was wonderful as Lady Arabella because she played what could have just been a nasty, snobbish character as a nuanced mother with legitimate worries. And she’s very funny.
What was it like working with Ian McShane, as Sir Roger Scatcherd?
That was fun. Ian McShane was brilliant. I’d met him about 25 years before and hadn’t seen him since. He’s got incredible energy and in the show he’s wonderful as Scatcherd. Perfect casting. It was very lovely that he did it.
Snobbery is one of the themes of Doctor Thorne. Have you experienced it yourself?
I’ve certainly been around people who are snobbish. But who hasn’t? Social class snobbery of the sort that’s in Doctor Thorne seems particularly ridiculous because it’s so Victorian. But it’s no different to any other means of division that human beings come up with to divide themselves from each other. Like people who support different football teams. That’s a form of snobbery. It’s tribal behaviour . It’s groups trying to keep themselves as groups. Too frightened to go out outside their own group, wanting to huddle together. Inverted snobbery is quite as common as top down snobbery. People have all sorts of ways of keeping themselves in gangs.
Lack of money is another theme. Have you ever been down to your last few pence?
I’ve never been truly poor. I’ve been student poor in the ‘80s. But when I was a student the state paid you to go to university. So I’ve never been down to my last fiver.
You filmed at many historic houses and estates. Does that help get into character?
Yes, it does half the job. Along with the costume and the hair. So much of it is done for you. It’s about the transmitting of emotion for the actors. That’s what they’ve got to do. They’ve got to focus on trying to be authentic emotionally in whatever fictional situation they find themselves in. And then the cameras are all making them look beautiful in an amazing context when sometimes you’re not even quite aware of what the shot is doing. It was a very lovely autumnal tour in an Indian Summer around some of the most beautiful houses in the country. That was a very special thing.
Does Doctor Thorne feature in the dancing scenes?
He does. In the first one he is just standing at the edge, concerned with why his niece isn’t dancing with anyone, worried for her. And in the final dancing scene he dances with Miss Dunstable, played by Alison Brie. On that day of filming we joined the waltz and promptly fell down because Miss Dunstable’s dress was too big and she stepped up it. We fell over each other and took a tumble. We shot that quite a few times and were by far the worse dancers.