Downton actress Cara Theobold on becoming a ghost hunter

Cara Theobold as Sarah Grey in Harry Price: Ghost Hunter.
Cara Theobold as Sarah Grey in Harry Price: Ghost Hunter.
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Cara Theobold got her first break in Downton Abbey and hasn’t looked back since. The Wakefield actress talks to Phil Penfold.

She’s being a bit shy about admitting it, but Cara Theobold’s holiday to California wasn’t just for some rest and recreation. Far from it. The 25-year-old actress has been seeing her American manager in Los Angeles, talking with producers and having a few auditions. She won’t say for what, but does admit: “I think they went pretty well. You can never really tell, can you? But I think that I came out feeling pretty positive. Yes, that’s the word. Positive. LA, that’s where everything happens.”

Wakefield-born Cara hoped to be back home in Yorkshire for Christmas, but with producers beating a path to her door, nothing is certain any more.

Her first foray into sitcom, Together, has just finished its run on BBC 3 and looks very much as if it will be recommissioned. She was one of the leading characters in the Kay Mellor drama The Syndicate and has made guest appearances in Call the Midwife and Last Tango in Halifax and made her television debut in Downton Abbey, playing the below-stairs kitchen maid Ivy.

“I didn’t realise for some time how lucky I was. I was in my final year at drama school when I got the part. How great was that? So many other actors have to wait for ages before even getting a sniff at a role with a few lines, and I’m a member of the cast of one of television’s top shows and I hadn’t even technically finished the full training.

“But of course being in Downton was training in itself. I watched everyone, I really did. You’re seeing the cream of the profession doing what they do best. I remember how encouraging Jim Carter and Lesley Nichol, and Phyllis Logan were to me. So kind and really helpful. And Joanne Froggatt too – but then, she’s a fellow Yorkshire girl.”

Cara picked up the Screen Actors Guild Award for an Ensemble in a Drama Series, which may well be the longest title in any of the categories in any of the gong hand-outs.

“The great thing for me is that it wasn’t singling out any one particular individual, but recognising the efforts of us all. Downton, you know, isn’t just about a particular person, it was the story of a whole group, and we all had to pull together, harmoniously. I loved it, I really did.”

She thinks that her love of acting started pretty early on, benefitting from a thriving drama department at Outwood Grange Academy and, after joining the City Varieties Drama Group in Leeds, she was cast as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the age of nine.

“At school they were really great in encouraging everyone to develop whatever talents and skills that they had. I had a very good time there. Any performance-related stuff, and I was well up for it!.”

All those early productions stood her in good stead, not just for drama school, but also the audition process both here and in America.

It wasn’t Cara’s first time in California (and, by all accounts, it won’t be her last) but it was her first time in San Francisco. When we speak she’s been enjoying a road trip down California’s famous coast and after our chat, she’s going to hire a bike and plans to cycle across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is (for once) not shrouded in mist.

“You know playing Ellen in Together was a bit like what happened to me in real life. She was a Yorkshire girl, an artist, who moved down to London and away from her roots, but she fell on her feet, and lived in a lovely apartment that was owned by her flatmate’s father. In fact, I found London a great place to be and to enjoy – but you had to watch your pennies. Students don’t have a lot of spare cash. I’d been down for visits and for school trips, that sort of thing, but living there, well, that was a massive culture shock. It’s a BIG place.”

We’ll all be able to see Cara tomorrow night in a one-off film for ITV, Harry Price. Rafe Spall plays the eponymous main lead, who was a real-life character. Set just after the end of the First World War, it looks at the shady world of the paranormal, and the people who preyed on the vulnerabilities of the many thousands of bereaved people who thought that the people they had lost in action throughout the conflict could be contacted in the afterlife.

“I play Sarah Grey, who is a fictional person, so unlike Rafe, I didn’t have someone concrete to explore. But I did do an awful lot of research about the period, and what Sarah was experiencing. Price is a fascinating man – he was acclaimed as a ghost hunter and he realised that so many people were being conned by fake spiritualists and mediums, and even tried it for himself before deciding to expose them for what they were. What they were offering – often for exorbitant fees – was hope. I can understand how painful it must have been. There were lots of people whose sons, sweethearts, husbands, fathers had been killed, and many of them vanished without trace. Pulverised into nothingness. People wanted to find out if they were at rest, in peace. They needed to say ‘goodbye’, and they wanted, in those words we all use today, ‘a closure’. And these mediums, or whatever you want to call them, offered it.

“Don’t think that it was a lot of silly and gullible women. A lot of highly intelligent people got involved as well. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was one of them. He lost a son in the Great War, and was absolutely convinced that he could get in touch with him. It’s very, very sad. How could anyone exploit raw grief like that? But the charlatans did.”

During the war, Sarah, a working-class girl, served as an ambulance driver, and saw the suffering and the slaughter for herself. Her own father was killed, and her mother, Grace, wants to find out how, and why.

“After the war she’s had to return home, to go into service, which, for an independent woman with an enquiring mind, must have been a bit of a come-down after her war work, when so few young women had driving skills. She’s had to return to a more traditional, more conventional role. Then she gets the opportunity to do a bit of chauffeuring for the Goodwin family, her employers, and she loves it. I actually got to drive a wonderful 1916 La France, which was big, and heavy, but a gorgeous machine. What a thrill! Sarah is ambitious, smart and forward-thinking, and she’s not the sort of lass who will let society hold her back. As soon as I was offered the script, I thought ‘this is marvellous stuff, I have to do this one’.”

During her research for the part one key area she looked at was the incredible influence that the Suffragette movement of the time had, and how they were pushing for more and more women’s rights.

“I don’t believe in the supernatural herself,” she says. “But I do remain open-minded, and the research has been more than interesting. I do think there is a lot of scope for more 
stories about Harry and Sarah, and their mission. And the door has been left wide open for more if everyone likes the first film. I’d love to explore more with her. And yes, I just love doing period drama, I really do. It teaches you so much about the history of the time you are re-enacting. My favourite period? 
One I haven’t done yet, the Fifties. Because the outfits look simply terrific.”

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