Olivia Williams and Jamie Blackley star in the TV series The Halcyon.
Olivia Williams and Jamie Blackley star in the TV series The Halcyon. Des Willie

Check into the ABC's new saga straight from the UK

THE Halcyon, the latest lavish British drama to hit our screens on the ABC, has been tipped as the next Downton Abbey.

The period piece follows the story of a bustling and glamorous five-star hotel at the centre of London society in the 1940s, portraying life through the prism of the Second World War and the impact it has on families, politics, relationships and work across every social strata.

While Downton-like success is yet to be determined, critics have already declared the hotel drama as 'worth checking into'.

Perhaps it's unsurprising then that award-winning actress Olivia Williams, like so many thespians who have established themselves primarily as movie actors, has been lured in by the ongoing golden age of television drama.

Olivia Williams in a scene from the TV series The Halcyon.
Olivia Williams in a scene from the TV series The Halcyon. Des Willie

"Long-form television... this astounding thing where they give roles to 48-year-old women that would make a teenager beg," she says. "That did not happen when I was young. Women weren't protagonists, they weren't doctors and lawyers, and they are now. I got the last of the rich seam in movies and the first of the rich seam in television. I'm so very lucky and I don't underestimate that."

Williams playis Lady Priscilla Hamilton, the long-suffering wife of the owner of a grand London hotel during the Blitz. Her husband, played by Alex Jennings, is a serial philanderer, while the well-heeled guests mainly despise Winston Churchill. This is the Downton Abbey upper-class compromised by appeasement - a spot more Kazuo Ishiguro than Julian Fellowes - and as such, perhaps not as wholesome as ITV's world-beating ratings juggernaut.

"That's what I liked about the show", says Williams. "It wasn't just trying to play the Dunkirk spirit, there are also Mosleyites and Love in a Cold Climate (the 1949 Nancy Mitford novel about an eccentric upper-class family), and there also the people who weren't doing good works during the war but dancing their way out of misery.

"According to my 101-year-old step-grandmother-in-law, you kept dancing. She would come down to the Hammersmith Palais to dance with black Canadians until her feet bled, and when bombs fell some people would shout 'take cover' and crawl under the tables while others kept dancing."

A scene from the TV series The Halcyon.
A scene from the TV series The Halcyon. Des Willie

Williams herself has never seen a single episode of Downton's Crawley family saga.

"I simply read a script that seemed very dynamic, it was talking about swooping into a room with great music playing, through lots of bodies dancing. From what I understand about Downton, that's not how many episodes of its began."

But like Downton Abbey - and indeed ITV's recent Victoria - the cast of characters include both upstairs and downstairs - the bellboys and doormen. Somewhere in the middle is a general manager played, with his usual sly demeanour, by the great Steven Mackintosh.

"People left the country because there weren't enough people to staff the houses and moved into hotels in London", says Williams. "Lady Priscilla's not very likeable, which I like about her. 'The customer is always right' is not a phrase that would come easily to her lips."

The Halcyon airs Saturdays at 8.15pm on ABC1.

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