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Joanne Froggatt Departs from 'Downton' Saint to 'Dark Angel'
May 21, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Joanne Froggatt wanted a different kind of role after playing the saintly Anna Bates on Downton Abbey. With Dark Angel, she found it.

Dark Angel, a two-part British drama that begins Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on PBS, has Froggatt playing Mary Ann Cotton, a 19th century serial killer.

Mary Ann apparently killed three husbands for the insurance money. And possibly a couple of her kids, who all seemed to die young. Of course, a lot of kids then died young, being that life in Victorian England was often cheap.

“I was looking for something different from the last role I’d done,” says Froggatt, who filmed Dark Angel around the time the last season of Downton aired. “Playing a murderer seemed to qualify.”

She adds, however, that the murders were not the part of Mary Ann’s story got her attention.

“If the story were just about the murders, it wouldn’t be so interesting,” says Froggatt. What she likes more is that it reflects the terrible dilemma of many young poor people in an era when those people were entirely on their own. No social safety nets here.

“She’s a working-class girl,” Froggatt notes. “She’s desperate She doesn’t want to live in poverty.”

That doesn’t mean she finds the right solution by marrying a couple of blokes and feeding them arsenic.

“We know how it ends,” Froggatt says. “She goes too far and takes the wrong path. She’s mentally ill.”

Still, her plight was hardly uncommon, and it’s safe to assume she wasn’t the only Victorian woman, or man, who took what seemed like the only opportunity that seemed to be available. 

“It’s a way out of her situation back then,” says Froggatt. “If she were alive today, I don’t know that she’d feel she had to do the same things.

“It’s a fascinating story and she’s a fascinating character. You want to know why a seemingly regular girl would do these things.”

Unlike the classic play Arsenic and Old Lace, which features extensive comedic elements, Dark Angel stays mostly grim. The ITV production aired in Britain last fall and some viewers said they found it too intense.

Froggatt says it’s just a good story, albeit a somber one.

“To me, it’s a page-turner,” she says. “We find out about her life history, her faith in God. We tried to leave her where she was, in her time, viewing her whole experience.”

In a mild irony, Anna Bates was accused in Downton Abbey of bumping one Mr. Green to his death in front of an oncoming vehicle.

Since he had brutally raped her, we didn’t feel a lot of sympathy for Mr. Green. But while Anna was eventually cleared, it was never 100% certain that she couldn’t have been somehow involved.

Asked if Dark Angel might make the police think about reopening the Mr. Green investigation now that they know Froggatt’s other side, she nods.

“Very true,” she says.

Her next film role will be a little less intense. She plays Mary Jane Clairmont in Mary Shelley, a romantic biopic on the woman who wrote Frankenstein.

 “I love big stories,” she says. “But it’s important to tell these smaller stories, too.”

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