A Downton Abbey love story

10 October 2011

Not many people know that Downton Abbey star Jim Carter and Oscar-nominated Imelda Staunton are married in real life. Alan Jackson meets Britain's leading theatrical couple.

It’s a glorious morning and the shimmering pitches of Hampstead Cricket Club in north London are full of exuberant youngsters in pristine whites. It seems wonderfully apt to watch Jim Carter and Imelda Staunton stroll into this quintessentially English scene, accompanied by their little dog Molly. It’s a rare few hours off from a busy work schedule for these highly bankable actors, who are celebrating their 28th wedding anniversary this autumn, and they’re visibly happy to spend it in each other’s company in their adopted ‘back garden’. Carter is the club chairman, and regards it as a second home.

As one of our best-known and most successful thespian marriages, do they ever think of themselves as a ‘golden couple’ I wonder? Carter’s impressive eyebrows beetle up in surprise. ‘We don’t think of ourselves in those terms, do we? We recognise that we’re lucky, ’he says, turning to his wife. She nods in agreement. ‘I know it sounds banal, but we’ve both got a job, we’ve got a lovely garden, we’ve got a wonderful daughter, doggy... They don’t seem extraordinary things to me. Maybe if we had three yachts and eight homes and blah, blah, blah, but this is quite ordinary, and I think it is extraordinary because of that.’

Downton Abbey

Carter is of course stern-but- fair Mr Carson the butler in the wildly popular ITV series Downton Abbey. Carter’s theory for its success is that ‘unlike Jane Austen, it’s recognisable history. My mum was born when series two is taking place; cars and phones are coming in; it’s not a land of remote manners.’

Staunton, with her starring role in an earlier popular period saga, Cranford (which also featured Carter, alongside the couple’s daughter Bessie as a maid), is no stranger to quality costume drama either. Now, though, she’s in the musical Sweeney Todd with Michael Ball at Chichester Festival Theatre. But she’s not relishing the sense of expectation that comes with it.

‘I’d always want to come in under the wire, as we did with Vera Drake (for which she was Oscar- nominated and won Best Actress awards at the BAFTAs and Venice). I’d rather sneak up and surprise people.’ Although she recently finished an acclaimed run in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance at London’s Almeida Theatre, her attention has latterly been focused away from the stage, her first professional love: ‘In the past 10 years I’ve really enjoyed filming and become more confident with it, which is easier on my life.’ ‘Life’ is a word that crops up frequently in the conversation of this refreshingly unstarry couple. ‘What’s important is your life, isn’t it?’ says Carter. ‘When you take off the motley and get home, that’s who you really are and that’s the person you’ve got to get right.’

Read more about Jim Carter here 

Making each other laugh 

What do they think is the secret to this long and happy union between the five-feet nothing London-born daughter of Irish immigrants and the six-feet-two- inch Yorkshire-born former law student? Staunton embarks on a detailed response that ranges over balance, contentment and the appreciation of one’s blessings. Carter listens carefully: ‘That’s Imelda’s answer. My answer is we make each other laugh.’ Staunton looks at him and her face crumples with pleasure. ‘We do.’

It’s a sight to cherish, quickly revisited when each is asked to pick three adjectives to describe the other. Carter follows Staunton’s ‘honourable, tenacious and hilarious’ with ‘funny, wise and honest’. His pause is precision- timed. ‘So we know nothing about each other.’ The laughter rings out around the cricket club.

But it would be hard to run a marriage alongside careers as wide-ranging and enduring as these (Carter’s long list of past successes includes The Singing Detective, Brassed Off and the Red Riding trilogy; Staunton starred in Peter’s Friends and as the loathsome Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series) without making some vital decisions at the outset. Carter talks about the importance of juggling their work: ‘We made a commitment not to be separated by this business’. When Bessie, now 17 and an aspiring actress herself, was younger, filming commitments for one of them would be translated into a family holiday for all three. The longest they’ve ever spent apart was the seven weeks Staunton worked on the Ang Lee film Taking Woodstock (2009). ‘You’re working with Ang Lee in Massachusetts in the fall. It doesn’t get better than that. Well, I hated being away for that long,’ she says with feeling.

An acting couple 

The key, reveals Carter, is to know when to turn work down. ‘We’re lucky enough that we can say with a bit of confidence another job will come rolling down the line. To be honest, between the cricket club and the garden there’s not much time to fit all this bloody work in.’ It helps too, the pair agree, that they’ve had a similar share of success. ‘We’ve worked pretty equally and that helps. Men aren’t very good at coping if the woman’s off and working,’ says Carter. ‘We know other people where there is an inequality and it puts an enormous strain on the relationship.’

And what effect does it have on an acting couple’s relationship when an unexpected Oscar nomination crops up, as it did for Staunton with her gripping portrayal of the homely Fifties abortionist in Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake (2004). Surely there was a secret part of Carter lamenting, ‘It should have been me!’? ‘Not in the slightest,’ he says. ‘I am utterly devoid of ambition. I’m so proud of Imelda and it was so deserved.’

The awards season 

In their usual understated style, the pair turned the hullabaloo of that awards season – overshadowed by the death of Staunton’s mother Bridie – to their advantage. Staunton won Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival where they enjoyed a family holiday. ‘I remember walking on the beach where they had done Death in Venice and thinking “This is the best it will be,” and it was,’ says Staunton simply. And then they had another family jaunt to California for the Oscars themselves. ‘When you stop enjoying these things it’s time to pack up,’ says Carter.

They met during Richard Eyre’s celebrated 1982 National Theatre production of Guys and Dolls. What were their first impressions of each other? ‘I remember you were sitting in the row behind me at the read-through,’ says Staunton, starting to laugh. ‘I thought, “Who’s that old bloke?”’ Carter chuckles in reply: ‘I thought she was there on work experience.’

They have been together – and working – ever since. Do they ever take their work home with them? ‘I don’t think my work gets over the front doorstep, does it, love?’ says Carter, glancing at his wife, who laughs loudly. ‘I put it on with the costume, that’s my approach. Imelda doesn’t come home in character either,’ adding that during the filming of Vera Drake ‘she left it all behind her and cycled home’.

Cycling is a cause dear to them both. Before reconvening for Downton Abbey’s Christmas special, Carter is off to Ghana for the latest in a long line of charity bike rides. ‘Anyone with a keen eye could have seen Carson cycling to Ealing Studios in his Lycra,’ says Staunton of her husband’s training programme. A vivid mental image of the butler’s Lycra-clad bottom stays with me as they saunter off arm-in-arm, laughing.

Find out more Jim Carter on his Wikipedia

This article first appeared in the October 2011 issue of Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition for this and more great articles delivered direct to you every month 

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