16/03/2013 20:55 | By Sophie Herdman, special to MSN TV

Downton Abbey's Siobhan Finneran on life after O'Brien

Actress Siobhan Finneran discusses her new drama The Syndicate and reflects on leaving Downton Abbey.

Siobhan Finneran (© Actress Siobhan Finneran. Image. BBC)

Siobhan Finneran is best known for playing two very different types. On the one hand there's Downton Abbey's Miss O'Brien, the prickly, manipulative and, in Finneran's own words, "thoroughly despicable" lady's maid.

On the other, there's Benidorm's Janice, a modern working-class woman who's a regular at the Spanish holiday resort of Solana along with her husband Mick, two kids, grandkid Coolio and batty, chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother Madge.

Downton's Miss O'Brien is in fact no more, as Siobhan Finneran has left the hugely successful show to pursue other openings. "They've started filming, but I'm not doing that any more," she says simply.

One new character she's chosen to play is nurse Mandy, who stars in the second series of writer Kay Mellor's bittersweet lottery drama, The Syndicate.

The show gained a loyal following during its first series and even caught the eye of Steven Spielberg who is, it's believed, making an American version.

While the first series told the story of a collection of supermarket employees who together win the lottery, the second focuses on a group of hospital workers who find themselves in the same situation.

It's a Kay Mellor classic, showing the pros and cons of winning a vast amount of money, and there are as many laugh-out-loud scenes as shocking and tear-jerking moments.

Siobhan Finneran's Mandy is a dedicated nurse, mother and grandmother who's stuck in an abusive marriage. She's a strong woman who relies on slipping sleeping pills into her husband's beer for matrimonial peace.

"She's coping with her circumstances and actually doing a really good job. To everybody else - her family and friends at work - there's no problem," says Siobhan.

"In fact if you were to ask her when you first meet her if she was a victim of domestic abuse she would deny it."

Mandy distracts herself by focusing on her job and looking after her daughter, who lives at home with her own young child.

"All of those things keep her going every day. I don't think she'd get out of bed if she had nothing apart from him to deal with."

Winning the lottery is a turning point for Mandy, perhaps more so than she realises. When asked on live TV what she'll do with the money, she says that she'll buy herself a house.

"It's a shock for her being on TV, but that just pops into her head, it's involuntary."

It's a move that angers her husband Steve (played by Steve Waddington, who in real life the actress is great friends with).

Moving on to The Syndicate

"She could have been saying it completely innocently, but because of what's happening at home that one sentence becomes very powerful, especially in Steve's head," says Siobhan. "He's angry, but it's just fear."

Mandy is a typical Kay Mellor character - an ordinary woman with extraordinary strength. But Mandy's marriage isn't the only difficult relationship in her life.

Helen is a close friend and colleague of Mandy who paid into the syndicate for many years, dropping out just six months before the win.

The group tell her that she isn't entitled to any of the winnings. As her closest friend in the group, Mandy feels awkward about this decision and their friendship crumbles.

Siobhan Finneran says that if she found herself in a similar situation, she would have to give the money to her friend. "I wouldn't be able to sleep at night if I didn't."

Despite becoming a millionaire overnight, Mandy continues working, something the actress doesn't think she'd do.

"I think I would give up my job. I can understand people saying that they wouldn't and I love my job of course. Maybe I'd just stop for a bit and hope that I could come back."

For now, though, Siobhan is keeping her nose to the ground. Downton might be over for her, but she's off to Spain for three months to film the next series of Benidorm, a job she adores, not just because of the warmer climes.

"I have a lot of fun with Steve [Pemberton, her on-screen Benidorm husband]. At the moment we're sending weekly texts saying, 'I can't wait to be in the sun laughing my head off'."

As the show's fan base continues to grow, they're finding it increasingly hard to film without being spotted.

Siobhan says: "It doesn't help that a lot of the time I'm dressed up like something from My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding just to walk across the road at six o'clock in the morning, but I suppose in Benidorm that's not unseen."

She flies home for the weekends when she's filming in Spain - "if I can be bothered to get myself off the beach". It's a tough job, but someone's got to do it.

The Syndicate begins on BBC1 from Tuesday 19 March at 9pm

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