Penelope Wilton interview: ‘Downton’ actress on her new Agatha Christie mystery

Downton Abbey star Penelope Wilton is back on our televisions this Christmas!

Best known as Isobel Crawley in ITV’s hit period drama, the English actress will be appearing in Murder is Easy.

The new two-part murder-mystery drama is based on the 1939 novel of the same name by Agatha Christie.

“On a train to London, Fitzwilliam (David Jonsson) meets Miss Pinkerton (Penelope Wilton), who tells him that a killer is on the loose in the sleepy English village of Wychwood under Ashe,” the official synopsis reveals.

“The villagers believe the deaths are mere accidents, but Miss Pinkerton knows otherwise – and when she’s later found dead on her way to Scotland Yard, Fitzwilliam feels he must find the killer before they can strike again.

“Because for a certain kind of person, murder is easy…”

Wilton is joined in the cast by David Jonsson (Rye Lane), Douglas Henshall (Shetland), Mathew Baynton (Ghosts), Mark Bonnar (Guilt), Morfydd Clark (Lord of the Rings), Sinead Matthews (The Crown), Tom Riley (The Nevers), Nimra Bucha (Polite Society), Tamzin Outhwaite (Ridley Road), and Jon Pointing (Plebs), alongside newcomer Phoebe Licorish.

Murder is Easy premieres in the UK at 9pm on Wednesday 27 December on BBC One, and streaming on BBC iPlayer, with the second episode airing on Thursday 28 December.

Over in the US, Canada and South Africa, it’ll debut on BritBox in 2024.

Here, Penelope Wilton discusses her character in Murder is Easy, revisiting 1950s fashion, and the secret behind Agatha Christie’s popularity:


Who do you play in Murder is Easy?

“I play Miss Pinkerton – she lives in the village and is the one who actually suspects that there is a mass murderer on the loose, and that the recent deaths have not been unfortunate accidents.

“We find her getting a train to London to go to Scotland Yard because she doesn’t think that the local policeman would believe that an elderly spinster lady would know about mass murder, and would probably be making it up.

“But she’s a very sharp character and she thinks the best thing to do is to go to Scotland Yard and tell them what’s going on. She meets along the way a young man called Fitzwilliam who has just come over from Nigeria to work at Whitehall.

“They become very friendly with one another on the train and she tells him about her suspicions because actually there isn’t a lot of time.

“This killer is going to kill again. Miss Pinkerton lays out the entire plot of the story and from then on it’s for Fitzwilliam to unravel.”


What did you think when you first read the script?

“I thought it was a very good script. They brought it up to date, not in period, but in attitude. And it’s got all the things that Agatha Christie is well known for.

“It happens in a small place outside London, a small sleepy village, where enormous emotions are going on. And they really are enormous – of love, of envy, of all sorts of things.

“And she taps into that world of people in a very English way, keeping all these emotions to themselves, until it sort of bursts forth in this rather, I’m afraid to say, rather aggressive way.

“I think audiences will find it engaging. Agatha Christie has a very good record because she tells a very good story. It’s a page-turner. Her great thing was plot and character.

“Her characters were often similar, but the plots were always very different. And I think this is an extremely well-told story and extremely well-told in this series.”


You’ve done quite a lot of period dramas. How has it been inhabiting the world of the 1950s?

“I haven’t actually inhabited the world of the 1950s before. I’ve inhabited much earlier: the 16th, 17th, 18th century, but very little of the 19th or 20th century.

“So it’s been fun because when I was a child, which was in the late 50s, I remember quite a lot of the fashions.

“Older people, people that are my age now, used to wear the sort of clothes that I’m wearing as Miss Pinkerton in the series.

“The costumes are wonderful and also the thing about the costumes is that a lot of these dresses, in fact, the dress you can see me wearing on the train as Miss Pinkerton was an original dress from that period. And they’re beautifully made so they stood the test of time.”


How would you describe Murder is Easy to somebody who isn’t familiar with the book?

“It’s a wonderful page turner and a whodunnit.

“And it has a lot of humour in it, but a great deal of menace as well. So it covers a number of different types of genres of film.”


Social class is heavily present in the drama. Where do you think Miss Pinkerton fits into that?

“She’s definitely middle class. She would be the class of vicars and school teachers and she might well have been a teacher in her time.

“She’s not upper class. She’s what we call in those days ‘strongly middle class’. She would have had parents who worked. Her father might well have been a solicitor or a lawyer and she has never married, probably.

“She was probably, given the age she was, engaged to a young man who died in the First World War. Because whole villages were lost, all the men in their villages in the First World War.

“And that’s why there were a lot of spinsters at this time because they were either going to get married or weren’t of an age where they would have got married and there was no one to marry.”


Agatha Christie’s novel Murder is Easy is available on Amazon.