Alex Kingston reprises her role as River Song in Saturday’s Doctor Who and travels back in time for the new season of Upstairs Downstairs. Jace Lacob talks to the former ER star about River, Downton Abbey, historical lesbians, and more.
Upstairs Downstairs isn’t typically known for its salaciousness.
The costume drama’s legendary original run—between 1971 and 1975 on ITV—kept the characters’ sexuality more or less off-screen, but the recent BBC revival series, which returns to PBS’ Masterpiece on Oct. 7, has taken a more overt approach to human sexuality than its predecessor, with one character—Claire Foy’s Lady Persephone—painted as a notorious Nazi sympathizer and professional party girl who hops into bed with just about anyone.
Season 2 of Upstairs Downstairs introduces a lesbian to the staid 165 Eaton Place of 1936 in the form of Alex Kingston’s Dr. Blanche Mottershead, an archaeologist and resolutely modern woman whose romantic past is tinged with bittersweet loss. When her former lover, Lady Portia Alresford (Emilia Fox), now married with children, writes a steamy roman a clef about their time together, Kingston’s Blanche is exposed and 165 Eaton Place is once again plunged into scandal.
“She will shake up the equilibrium in the house a little bit,” Kingston told The Daily Beast. “And by the end of the series, she has done just that.”
For Kingston—who starred on medical drama ER for seven years and who reprises her recurring role on Doctor Who this Saturday—it was Blanche’s sexuality that lured her to the project.
“That more than anything hooked me because I thought it would be quite interesting to play,” said Kingston, 49. “In a curious way, it was almost easier for women to be physical with other women then, because men and society didn’t take it seriously ... It was thought of as a little dalliance that didn’t mean anything. It wasn’t exactly a threat to the patriarchy and to the world that men had created ... or as much as a societal threat that it became later, actually.”
The series doesn’t shy away from depicting the romance between the two women, showing them embracing and in bed together, as well as in several sexually charged scenes. (It led the Daily Mail to write, as a headline, “Pass the smelling salts, Hudson! The lesbian bedroom scenes that would NEVER have appeared in the original Upstairs Downstairs.”) Kingston’s Blanche is positioned as a whiskey-drinking free thinker whose career choice—looking at the relics of the past—is juxtaposed with her view toward the future. It’s no accident that she appears in the series just as the world teeters on the brink of World War II.
“The Second World War radically changed how society live, what family meant, and what women’s roles were,” Kingston said. “Blanche is right on the cusp of all of that. She had created a career for herself, as an archaeologist sought out by the British Museum for her expertise ... in comparison to Lady Agnes [Keeley Hawes], who really didn’t know who she was or what her function was, other than looking rather beautiful in the house and producing babies for her husband. Blanche is not prepared to be that woman.”
Unfortunately, viewers won’t be able to see just how World War II affects Eaton Place. After sagging ratings for the second season (it lost 2.5 million viewers during Season 2, finishing with 5.22 million viewers), the BBC opted earlier this year not to commission a third season of Upstairs Downstairs.
“I was really hoping that at least there would be one more series, because I thought it would be interesting to see how the women grow and develop,” said Kingston. “But, hey ho, that’s the way of the world.” Kingston, meanwhile, put at least some of the blame on Downton Abbey.
“It made me so cross and a little weary because there was this constant media attention on the fact that at the BBC we were doing Upstairs Downstairs and that we were directly competing with Downton Abbey,” she said. “The show is set in a different time and it’s a completely different world. Downton Abbey is a great big stately home out in the countryside, whereas in Upstairs Downstairs, [Ed Stoppard’s] Hallam is ultimately a civil servant. They are living in a London house. Admittedly, a lovely, smart London house, but Hallam has to work. He cannot just live off his inheritance.”
Regardless of any narrative differences, the two shows were often thought of in the same breath, sealing Upstairs Downstairs’s fate. “It was really unfair that we were constantly scrutinized and compared,” Kingston continued. “That was the undoing of our show, because I think even the BBC threw up their hands and said, ‘We cannot compete with Downton Abbey right now.’ But we should never have had to.”
In the meantime, Kingston has had her hands full, with recent turns in Like Crazy, Doctor Who, Private Practice, and British supernatural drama Marchlands. Kingston, who lives in Los Angeles with her daughter, Salome (from her second marriage to German writer Florian Haertel, from whom Kingston is separated), travels back and forth between L.A. and the United Kingdom for work.
“My daughter was born here,” she said. “She goes to school here and absolutely does not want to move to England, and I understand that. I have an agent here, a manager, and I’m looking for work here, but I keep being offered work back in England. I have to pay the bills, so I go back to England. It’s a very long commute.”
It’s a stark change to her role on NBC’s ER, where she played surgeon Dr. Elizabeth Corday for more than six seasons. It allowed Kingston to stay put, but also came with concern that she would forever be associated with Corday, a worry that Kingston has obliterated with her diverse body of work.
“When I was offered ER, I remember being really concerned with signing up for something that I would be involved with potentially for many years,” she said, “and that I would be boxed in and typecast.”
“While on ER, I was able to live more like a regular person,” Kingston continued. “I’m frightened of not having that security anymore, because I had gotten used to it, and yet ironically that was the very thing that I was nervous of taking on originally. Actors ultimately, we’re gypsies and it can be very tiring.”
Kingston’s acting career began as a teenager, with her first role as an extra in 1980’s The Wildcats of St. Trinian’s, a film series about raucous boarding-school girls that Kingston was “obsessed” with as a child. “I was barely 15 and I remember feeling very nervous and very out of my depth ... because I was surrounded by these girls who were Page Three pin-ups,” said Kingston of the experience; she soon landed a three-episode arc on the long-running children’s soap Grange Hill. “I knew then that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Roles in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, Covington Cross, and The Fortunes and Misfortunes of Moll Flanders followed before Kingston signed on as a series regular in Season 4 of ER, on which she appeared in 160 episodes. Kingston later auditioned for the role of Lynette Scavo on ABC’s Desperate Housewives, but lost out to Felicity Huffman. In 2006, Kingston told the London Evening Standard that she was passed over because she was physically “way too big,” a comment she now downplays.
“I’m sure I didn’t get this role not because I was too curvy,” Kingston told The Daily Beast. “I’m sure I didn’t get the role because Felicity Huffman was the right choice and she was great in it ... When I look at the grouping they chose, it was the right grouping. I would not have fit in, because I am a completely different body shape and those women, they are all one type ... I watched it for a few seasons and then I didn’t anymore. But I thought it was a fun show. I really did.”
These days, Kingston is most recognizable for her role as fan favorite Professor River Song on Doctor Who. Originally slated to appear in just two episodes of the immensely popular science fiction series in 2008, the character proved to be so popular after her death that River’s creator, current Who head writer Steven Moffat, brought her back, enmeshing River and the Doctor (Matt Smith) in an ongoing storyline reminiscent of The Time Traveler’s Wife. As the two cross paths at different points in time, each is never sure what shared events have occurred yet or which way the other is traveling.
The character’s immense popularity has taken Kingston by surprise.
“I was not expecting that,” she said. “When I agreed to take on the role, I thought it was just a two-episode story arc. She had known the Doctor in the past and he didn’t know how she knew him. The tragedy was that she died and he never would really know.”
Since then the two have been adversaries, partners in crime, and spouses. Kingston reprises her River role in Saturday’s Doctor Who episode “The Angels Take Manhattan,” in which she’ll share the screen with Karen Gillan’s Amy and Arthur Darvill’s Rory, who play her much younger parents (don’t ask: it involves some timey-wimey paradoxes, the stock in trade of Who). The two are departing the series this week, under circumstances that are being kept firmly under wraps.
“River is basically seeing her parents die, seeing them go,” said Kingston. “God, Steven could have written a whole episode just about that, about the complexities and psychology of that, but he didn’t. It is about Amy saying goodbye to the Doctor… and [River] stays much more in the background. But, oh my gosh, I found it hard. I didn’t think I would, just observing them. It was quite emotional.”
But this likely isn’t the last time we’ll see River Song, according to Kingston.
“Spoilers!” said Kingston. “Whether River’s journey will come full-circle, I don’t know. How many more episodes or seasons River has, I don’t know that either, but the way that Steven writes, he lays out threads that can be picked up way down the line. For her just to not reappear would be a little strange.”
What has been the most meaningful for Kingston, however, has been how the younger viewers of Doctor Who have embraced River Song.
“They don’t look at me or at the character or River Song and say, ‘Well, she shouldn’t be on this show because this show is about young people,’” she said. “That’s fabulous and I wish there would be more writers daring to write roles that are in a sense ageless.”
After all, the Doctor is himself over 900 years old.
“He is,” said Kingston. “I need to find out who his dermatologist is.”