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Downton Abbey Christmas special: Poppy Drayton talks life on set playing new girl Madeleine Allsop

The rising star played guest character Madeline in Christmas Day's two-hour episode

Viewers who tuned into the Downton Abbey special on Christmas Day were greeted by a new face, that of English rose Poppy Drayton.

The festive episode of the oh-so-British show was her first major UK breakthrough on-screen, playing new character Madeleine, daughter of James Fox's Lord Aysgarth.

In the special, Madeleine is encouraged by her father - who dreams of wealth but has little money to his name - to spend time with Lady Cora's rich playboy brother, Harold Levinson.

Thus, Drayton spends most of her scenes at a society picnic being wooed by fellow new Downton arrival Paul Giamatti, cast as Harold. Unlike her, Oscar-nominated Giamatti, 46, is already solidly-established in the industry, with titles such as Sideways and Saving Mr Banks to his name.

“Cheesy as it sounds, everyone was so warm and welcoming, but I bonded with Paul the most. I can’t find enough good things to say about him,“ Drayton says of the Cinderella Man actor. ”He seems interested in you and finds you as funny as you find him - he's really cool.”

As an actress just starting out from London’s prestigious Arts Educational School, Drayton is acutely aware of the experience Downton has offered her.

“Working alongside such pillars of the acting industry was insane. Shirley MacLaine has popped in for a few episodes, playing Harold and Cora’s mother, Martha Levinson, and then there’s Maggie Smith of course.”

Poppy Drayton shares most scenes with Paul Giamatti in this year's Downton Abbey Christmas special

Ah yes, the 78-year-old Dowager Countess. Since the first episode of Downton Abbey aired on 26 September 2010, Smith’s character has been among the show's most popular, with her dry one-liners and unique, wry sense of humour.

Better still, Drayton reveals, she’s just the same in real life. “Oh, Maggie is an extremely witty woman,” she says with fondness. “I’d definitely say she’s the matriarch of the Downton family. She has this mischievous twinkle in her eye the whole time.”

One character who has remained stern-faced throughout the last series of Downton following the death of her beloved husband Matthew, is Lady Mary. “Michelle (Dockery) seems really severe and austere, but she’s such a down-to-earth person,” Drayton says assuredly, defending her against any doubts viewers may have that her co-star could ever crack a joke on set, let alone a smile..

“Interestingly, her natural accent is completely different too - she actually speaks in a London accent,” she adds.

Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley in Downton Abbey

But no prior judgements of her co-stars had been formed by Drayton, as the 22-year-old  confesses not to have been a “Downton addict” before joining the set.

“I’d seen episodes sort of here and there, but then obviously once I’d landed the job, I watched all of them in one go,” she says. “I had a Downton marathon before starting because I was terrified I’d meet people and wouldn’t know who they were and which character they played.”

It is a period drama known for its gentle depiction of the aristocratic Crawley family’s post-Edwardian life, but the fourth season of Downton Abbey has proved unexpectedly controversial - there was plenty for Drayton to catch up on.

When Joanne Froggatt’s character housemaid Anna Bates was brutally attacked in a rape scene in October, more than 90 complaints were made to Ofcom. But, for Drayton, a drama is not a drama without, well, drama.

“It’s so hard for Downton because they never seem to be able to win,” she says. “They can please some people by keeping things calm and lovely but then others will call the show boring and say it’s lost all its drama. If they do something too shocking they get slated for it as well, so it’s a fine line to tread.

A “gritty element” is important for keeping the audience gripped, Drayton insists - audiences enjoy the feeling of riding on a rollercoaster while watching a story unfold. “Life isn’t always lovely and life at the time certainly wasn’t always lovely too,” she says.

One element of Downton that is, however, involves the costumes. "Some of the pieces are original vintage items and others are handmade dresses - draped, sequinned, beaded," Drayton explains. "They were stunning. I felt like a china doll walking around the whole time, but I didn’t get to keep any unfortunately.”

Poppy Drayton on her Downton costumes: 'I felt like a china doll walking around the whole time'

So will she be appearing more regularly in Julian Fellowes’ next series of Downton? “I’d love to be in more shows but I’m not sure what’s going to happen yet,” she says, trying her hardest to remain tight-lipped. “This is one of the first times in this past year that I don’t have something to move onto straight away.”

Being jobless for this young actress, however, means preparing for a trip to Los Angeles for the US pilot season in February. “It all sounds very glamorous but it’s not nearly as glamourous as it sounds,” she insists.

That jobs will soon be rolling in for the English beauty seems in little doubt, as many US fans will recognise her face from successful TV movie When Calls The Heart - in which she plays young teacher Elizabeth Thatcher - by the time Downton Abbey airs across the Atlantic.

Perhaps, like former Downton star Dan Stevens, Drayton can see herself heading for Hollywood in the future. “I suppose the ideal for any actor is to have a balance of all three mediums: film, television and theatre, but I’d just love anything that comes along,” she says.

The Downton Abbey Christmas Special aired tonight. Catch-up on BBC iPlayer.