By: Simon Gage
Published: Sun, October 19, 2014
It’s a long way from Romford Market to Downton Abbey, but actress Michelle Dockery has made the journey in style and at speed, sometimes in hoop earrings (“my little bit of Essex bling”). Not bad for the daughter of a van driver.
“Lady Mary would never have spoken to me,” she says of her character. “I would definitely have been below stairs.” She’s not wrong. Look a little further back and her family were East End horse traders and fruit sellers, and she recently found that her great-grandmother worked in service in the early 1900s.
Michelle, however, was determined to break the mould. “I think my parents knew before I did that I was going to be an actress,” she says.
“I was doing impressions of Margaret Thatcher at the age of four.” And although her hard-working family had no showbiz connections whatsoever, her parents knew their daughter well enough to send her to acting classes at the church hall down the road and then for a stint at the National Youth Theatre. “I walked in there and it was like winning the lottery,” is how she describes that experience. “I knew this was what I wanted to do.”
But Michelle didn’t have it all her own way. In time-honoured, struggling- actress tradition, she found herself collecting glasses in pubs and working in a pie-and-mash shop to make ends meet as she began her climb to the top. “It’s mad to think it now, but I could barely pay my rent,” she chuckles.
Then came Sir Peter Hall’s highly praised 2008 production of Pygmalion. Thanks to playing Eliza Doolittle, the working-class girl groomed to pass herself off as a lady – something she’s been doing to great acclaim ever since – Michelle was discovered by the producers of Downton.
Amateur Professor Higginses have said you can still detect a bit of the Essex girl when she speaks, but Michelle reckons that drama school does a very good job of “poshing you up quick”.
“I had a very strong Essex accent when I was younger,” says the girl they called Docker at school, “and I don’t think I would have got the role of Lady Mary if I’d walked into the audition going, ‘Allo, nice ter meet ya!’”
The posture, especially that high chin, might be from another time and another class, but Michelle is very much the 21st-century woman, with her Mad Men obsession, her love of sushi and social media, and her choice of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart as preferred shower singing.
There may be a touch of irony about the latter, but music is very important to Michelle: she’s been doing backing vocals for Sadie and the Hotheads – the band led by Elizabeth McGovern, who plays her mother in Downton – and has even been known to take the stage at Soho jazz joint Ronnie Scott’s, where her vocals are said to exude a smoky, Peggy Lee quality.
And apart from traces of a marcel wave that she can’t get out of her hair now Downton has hit the Roaring Twenties, she looks fresh, modern and fashionable – as you’ll know if you’ve seen pictures of her striding through customs on the way to another awards ceremony (she had three Emmy nominations in a row for Lady Mary) in spray-on jeans and outsize superstar shades.
That particular get-up might be part of her “Britney from Beverly Hills” look, Britney being the character she sometimes assumes to avoid being recognised. She can even do the voice, a grating Valley-girl thing: “The waiter came overrrrrr,” she’ll go. “And he totally thought I was Lady Mary. Oh. My. Gahd!”
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