From Dr. Elizabeth Corday in ER to the no-nonsense spy Fiona Banks in FlashForward to the gun-toting intergalactically gallivanting adventurer-assassin-scientist River Song in Doctor Who, Alex Kingston’s characters aren’t exactly pushovers.
So it came as a surprise to learn that Kingston, who has even assayed the role of first-century A.D. British warrior-queen Boudica (in 2003’s Warrior Queen), agreed to star in the new iteration of the British soap Upstairs Downstairs (9 p.m. Sundays on PBS’ Masterpiece), which hasn’t been known for featuring many women warriors.
Well, now it has one. Kingston stars as Dr. Blanche Mottershead, a fiercely independent lesbian archaeologist in the second season, which premiered Sunday.
“When the character of Blanche was described to me and it was revealed that … along with being an eccentric and a mysterious woman, she actually is a lesbian, it became quite enticing,” Kingston, 49, said in a phone interview.
The new version of Upstairs Downstairs picked up in its first season six years after the original series concluded. It’s the late 1930s; Hitler is on the rise, and the new occupant of the house, Sir Hallam Holland (Ed Stoppard), is a foreign affairs adviser who needs to get Britain ready for another long war.
Kingston’s character is Hallam’s aunt, and she’s introduced in this, the second season. She’s newly back from north Africa to attend to matters after the death of her older half-sister, Maud, Lady Holland (Eileen Atkins). Blanche ends up replacing Maud in Sir Hallam’s house, which he shares with wife Lady Agnes Holland (Keeley Hawes) and his sister-in-law, Lady Persephone Towyn (Claire Foye).
Blanche is as willful as Maud and anything but a traditional British woman. She may even be the series’ first flesh-and-blood feminist. Kingston said she and the show’s writers worked hard to fashion Blanche’s role as an iconoclast.
“We figured that Blanche always was independent,” Kingston said. “She went to Cambridge and studied archaeology and had wanted to make it in the truly male-dominated world of the explorer and archaeologists who strike out into other cultures and lands.”
Blanche’s ambitions demanded she mold herself in the image of her male counterparts in academia, Kingston said. “No corsets for her! … In a weird way that allowed her to be herself and so she was able to go tramping through the hot sands of Egypt and sitting with the men and sharing goodness knows what, a hookah, or drinking whiskey.”
The irony, Kingston said, is that Blanche felt nowhere more out of place than in 1930s England and at Eaton Place, where she would be required to play the aristocratic lady. “But she was able to hold her own. And find a way not to be restricted.”
Blanche finds her vocation by helping run a foundation that sponsors Jewish children fleeing Nazi Germany.
But not all is sweetness and light for Blanche at Eaton Place: She discovers early in the season that her former lover, Lady Portia Alresford (Emilia Fox), also is back in England. Portia, who is married to a prominent public figure, sets tongues wagging when she publishes a thinly disguised roman a clef about her love affair with Blanche.
The London tabloids have had a feast discussing Kingston’s sex scenes with Fox. Kingston laughs at the prurient public interest.
“One is so engrossed and involved in the character one is playing at the time, it was no more different than having to do a love scene with a guy,” she said. “I’m playing the same feelings — love, passion, lust.”
Kingston, who has resumed her role in the new season of Doctor Who, says she was disappointed that Upstairs Downstairs will not return for a third season. BBC said in April there were no plans for the show’s return.
“There was so much more to explore with Blanche, so many possibilities,” Kingston said. “She’s such an amusing character.”