DOWNTON Abbey star Lily James returns to costume drama on the big screen this week in The Guernsey Literary And Potato Peel Pie Society.
Filmed predominantly in North Devon, the film is based on the posthumous novel of the same name by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, whose wartime experiences during the Nazi occupation of Guernsey form the basis of the plot.
“Growing up, I always loved the romance of period dramas and the scale of those stories and the escapism of being in a different time,” Lily says. “I think that the storytelling is so rich and I used to love Kate Winslet and Titanic and all those type of films.
“I had always wanted to do this, so it’s been really amazing for me to get the opportunity to work in so many period dramas – and I’m very much looking forward to not now as well!”
That wish will soon be granted, when she appears in Mamma Mia 2 as the younger version of Meryl Streep’s character Donna, and in Little Woods, opposite Tessa Thompson.
She reflects: “It was a great year. Starting out with shooting this film, which was honestly one of the most wonderful experiences, and then finishing the year with Mamma Mia was great.”
First comes the lengthily-named Guernsey, an adaptation of the beloved best-selling book, about young author Juliet Ashton, played by Lily, who is living in post-war London when she receives an unexpected letter from a farmer on the island.
She eventually travels there, hoping to write about the unusual book club he has told her about, which was formed by his neighbours during the Nazi occupation in the Second World War.
“These characters get under your skin,” she enthuses. “They are so unique and brilliant, and then when I read the book I challenge anyone not to fall in love with the people and the setting and the whole world that is created, I just couldn’t stop thinking about the different people on this island.”
The film also provided an unexpected history lesson for Lily, 29, who learned for the first time about the occupation of the Channel Islands and how people were locked on them for years.
“I had no idea they were occupied, I mean it’s insane,” she says. “The Germans were locked there too along with all these people. There was no contact, they were completely stuck, having to live together, with your enemy.
“All of what my character Juliet discovers being there and going through all the old newspapers and the library and finding out all the stories, I found it very illuminating.”
But unfortunately for Lily, the film did not provide an opportunity to travel to Guernsey, because of the difficulties of making the very modern island look period, and because of the challenges of transporting filming equipment to the location by either boat or plane.
“We didn’t end up shooting there,” she says. “I think the producers all really tried when they were making the film, along with everyone on Guernsey. They were really keen to make it work but in the end because it has to be period, it has to be set at a certain time, it didn’t work out logistically so we went to Devon – to this beautiful place parts of which were chosen to reflect and look like Guernsey, but it was very sad not be to be there to shoot it.”
Some parts of the film were made on the island, she adds: “They did shoot the big exteriors and the look out towers, which the Germans built, though. That was all Guernsey.”
However, the film did allow the opportunity for an unexpected reunion of Downton Abbey cast members.
Joining Lily in the cast is Jessica Brown Findlay (who played Lady Sybil) and Penelope Wilton (who played Isobel Crawley).
For Jessica, who plays founding member of the literary society Elizabeth McKenna – who is mysteriously missing by the time Juliet arrives on the island – it was all a delightful surprise.
“Obviously I never got to work with Lily because Lady Sybil had passed before she came to visit Downton, but that was really wonderful because we knew each other and it was very exciting.”
She was particularly pleased to reunite with Penelope, who she had already shared scenes with in the ITV costume drama.
Like Lily, Jessica, 28, is also no stranger to the costume drama after her stint with the Crawley family in Downton, but she says the part of Elizabeth was too good to turn down.
“There is always an element of you don’t want to repeat yourself or tell the same story. A story like this really resonates.”