Geraldine James - the Maidenhead born actor on starring in Downton Abbey
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 July 2020
When Geraldine James told her family she wanted to become an actress, it was not exactly greeted with delight. But her career has taken her on a fantastic journey from Berkshire to becoming Queen of England – well, at least in Downton Abbey!
“It’s true, my parents were rather horrified when I said I wanted to be an actress,” Geraldine explained. “I suppose it came as a bit of a shock because it was a well-known fact that most actors and actresses spend much of their time out of work. Also, my father was a heart surgeon, which meant a good and regular income, so my ambition was quite alien to them. My mother was a nurse so she was also always sure of work.
“Words were said and my father basically threw me out, but in fairness, many years later, when I won a BAFTA, my father wrote to me and he very warmly spoke about how he had been wrong and how I had made a success of it. It was a letter I have always cherished. He even sent me £100 to buy a new frock.
“My parents separated when I was 14 so my growing up time was not without its problems. But that is not a reflection on Maidenhead, which was a great town for someone like me – and still is. Working as an actress tends to make you something of a wanderer and you often have to base yourself in places where being available and getting to wherever you are working is more convenient. I never fell out of love with Berkshire though.”
Starting life in Maidenhead may have helped Geraldine to take those first steps on the road to her chosen career.
“I went to a boarding school – Downe House in Newbury –because it was meant to be good for my education,” she said. “I was the middle child at home so I didn’t get much attention. Everyone seemed so much more talented than me at school – they could play musical instruments, were good at school work or sport. To compensate, I became the school clown and used to get up to all sorts of stupid things, which made people laugh. Looking back, it was probably good training.
“I did get a decent education but I knew what I wanted to do, my ambition never changed, so I didn’t think along the usual lines of being a secretary, going into banking or becoming some high-flying business person. I got involved in drama at school but it was just a stepping stone to get into it seriously. I think that going to Downe House was probably good for me – certainly being in Berkshire was good because it was always a county where you could breathe and also there were a lot of people living there who were involved in the film industry, television and, of course, theatre. It felt like a good place to be.”
Geraldine went to the Drama Centre in London and graduated before going into rep.
“Rep is one of the greatest forms of education any actor can have,” she said. “You are performing one play, rehearsing the next one and reading the one after that and they can all be totally different – thriller, crime, romance.”
It certainly worked well for Geraldine, whose career has been an enviable one.
“I don’t think I got into my stride until I was 30, but I have been busy ever since. You get times when you haven’t got work to follow what you are doing but then something comes up and off you go again. I have been fortunate to have never been out of work for very long and to have been accepted for some of the most fascinating productions, like Jewel In The Crown.
“People associate you with whatever you were in most recently. I am not a star, I am an actress, so they say things like: ‘You are the one who was in that thing on the telly the other day.’
I am always half expecting them so say: ‘Didn’t you used to work in the butchers?’”
As a fan of Downton Abbey, Geraldine was thrilled to be invited to play Queen Mary in the big screen version of the success story. The real Royal Family are not strangers to Berkshire and Geraldine playing the Queen added another dimension.
“At least I was born in the royal county of Berkshire,” she said. “You cannot be born here and not think of the royal heritage surrounding Windsor and other parts of the county.
“I don’t think I could ever be described as regal but it was so lovely to be a part of Downton and playing Queen Mary was fantastic. I just hope I did her justice.
“Being on the sets and meeting up with the Downton regulars, many of whom I have known for years, made it all a great experience. It was probably a one-off but you never know. I could get used to people bowing!”
Whether or not she admits it, Geraldine James is indeed one of our greatest actresses and certainly a star – a star who rose in Maidenhead and has shone ever since.
The unexpected OBE
For her services to drama, Geraldine was awarded an OBE in 2003, an honour that still baffles her.
“It was the Queen’s Birthday Honours List and I thought there must have been some mistake when I heard about it,” she said. “They told me that there had been no mistake so I went along and received it from Her Majesty in person. I was a bit nervous; it was a totally new experience. I always have a bit of first-night nerves, well, probably every night, but this was something different.
“It all happened quite quickly and I must say that Her Majesty was marvellous, she is so good at putting people at ease but keeping the occasion a memorable and dignified one. I have been lucky enough to get a few awards but the OBE was very special.”