Cook's Corner: Interview with Downton Abbey's Lesley Nicol

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Carnival Films

Actress Lesley Nicol as Downton Abbey's Mrs. Patmore

From her three-year stint on stage in London’s West End as Rosie in Mamma Mia and Kath Casey in Our House to guest spots in a number of popular British TV series including Blackadder, Miss Marple, Heartbeat and Holby City, actress Lesley Nicol has had the opportunity to entertain countless audiences playing a diverse range of characters. Currently, the congenial Lancashire-born Nicol can be seen in what is, to date, her most recognized role around the globe, that of Mrs. Patmore in the small screen phenomenon Downton Abbey. Booking the part came about in a bit of an unusual way for the actress.

“I was walking my dog in the park next to where I live and I met a friend of mine, Liz Trubridge, who told me she had just gotten the lovely job of series producer on a new Julian Fellowes [Downton Abbey creator/writer/executive producer] project,” recalls Nicol. “I was so happy for Liz. She had actually worked with Julian before and produced a film of his the prior year, which is where I come in. I had become known to Julian that same year because Liz had suggested me for the film. It was to play a housekeeper with Maggie Smith [The Dowager Countess of Grantham in Downton Abbey]. However, at the time, Julian said he wanted someone a little older, so they hired Pauline Collins, who’s a good friend of mine.

“So Liz and I talked about her new job and how exciting it was for her. At the end of our conversation, she said to me, ‘You know, I think there’s a part in it you might be right for.’ Now, when you’re an actor, that can happen quite a bit, and people mean it at the time, but sometimes it just doesn’t come to anything because certain things can come into play. So I accepted that Liz genuinely meant it, but you never know.

“This was October, and she said, ‘I’ll call you in January.’ Liz did call in January, and I found out later that they’d had a big cast meeting and already hired Hugh Bonneville [The Earl of Grantham] and Maggie Smith, which in a way is like ticking boxes. They had cast actors who are more well-known internationally, so there was a little more freedom to perhaps cast some different types of actors as well. Julian and Liz said to the studio, ‘We have someone in mind to play the cook, Mrs. Patmore.’ So I came in, recorded some audition scenes on tape, and I was hired. They never saw anyone else for the part, which is really unusual for a project like this, so I was very fortunate.”

While some people have never watched an episode of Downton Abbey, most are at least aware of the show’s existence. As for the loyal fans, they have spent the past three years becoming intimately familiar with the comings and goings as well as dramatic twists and turns at the fictional Yorkshire country estate of Downton Abbey and the lives of the aristocratic Crawley family and their loyal, hardworking servants.

Nicol’s character of Mrs. Beryl Patmore is in charge of Downton’s kitchen and responsible for satisfying the appetites of the household’s residents as well as guests. She takes her job very seriously and, at times, can be a bit brusque. However, the actress and the show’s writers have tempered any occasional gruffness with vulnerability, compassion and kindness, making for a very likeable as well as believable character.

“When I initially read the first few scenes that Mrs. Patmore had to do, it seemed as if she was cross, shouted a great deal and was a bit of a bully,” notes Nicol. “At least that’s what it looked like on paper. The job of an actress is to then figure out, okay, why is she doing that, because none of us are just one thing, are we? We’re lots of things and there are reasons that people behave like they do.

“We have an historical advisor who works on the show, Alastair Bruce, who is extremely helpful and always there on set. He quickly made sense of it for me. He said, ‘Look, the stakes are very, very high. Your character cannot afford to make mistakes. When people come to dinner here, it has to be the best “show” in town. You can’t have people leaving and saying that dinner wasn’t very good. It’s got to be the best because it’s Downton Abbey. It’s a big house with important people coming to dine.’

“So that gave me the reasoning of why Mrs. Patmore has to be so tough in the kitchen and that the younger staff have to be properly trained, because if they do well, they’ve got great prospects. When it came to the working class of that time, these were the types of jobs that people envied. They were good jobs. That’s another thing Alastair told me. He said, ‘Don’t pity these people. They’re lucky. They’re very good at what they do and they’re to be respected.’ So the initial challenge for me was to find out why my character was behaving like this, and it became very clear why.

“Then, of course, because Julian Fellowes is such a terrific writer, he has explored different sides of every character. With Mrs. Patmore, you get to see her vulnerabilities later on as well as sense of humor and various other aspects of who she is. That’s great fun to play. The wonderful thing is that none of our characters are one-dimensional. They each have a journey and that journey continues to develop naturally as the series goes on. I suppose, too, that when Julian sees things onscreen, it gives him an idea of how to take a character's story forward.”

Although she interacts with almost everyone below stairs, Mrs. Patmore does so the most with her kitchen maid (and later assistant cook), Daisy Mason. Because they work so closely together, Daisy is often the recipient of Mrs. Patmore’s criticism when it comes to how she does her job. Again, though, it is meant to be helpful and not hurtful. Behind the camera, Nicol and fellow castmate Sophie McShera, who plays Daisy, get on famously.

“Sophie and I love working together and we have a great time,” says Nicol. “I respect her hugely. Sophie is a very, very clever young actress and she never does anything that doesn’t look completely real to me. As far as the relationship between our two characters, Julian has developed that quite nicely and that carries on in [the current] season three as well.

“With Mrs. Patmore and Daisy, it’s almost like a mother and daughter. I mean, by season three, it’s like my character has a bit of a difficult teenager on her hands,” jokes the actress. “It becomes clear quite quickly that Mrs. Patmore is very fond of Daisy and would not let anyone or anything hurt her. Having said that, she probably takes liberties with Daisy and tries to influence her in ways that she maybe shouldn’t, but, again, I think it goes back to that mother/daughter relationship and trying to influence your children in the way that you want.

“Of course, as Daisy gets older she’s going to change within the limits of her restricted lifestyle and develop her own opinions. That’s being reflected in how the character is written and we see how that affects her relationship with Mrs. Patmore. The core of that relationship is still the same, though, and I feel that they would defend each other to the death, if necessary.”

Looking back at Downton Abbey’s first two seasons, Nicol has a particular fondness for the first (2011) Christmas special. “It was a real treat going to Highclere Castle [which plays onscreen as Downton Abbey] and filming my scenes there,” she says. “That is one heck of a house, Highclere Castle, it truly is. It takes your breath away, and it’s built to have a Christmas tree in it with its open reception area. They brought in this huge tree for the episode, and when it was all decorated and lit up, it was just absolutely breathtaking.

“It’s always fun to be in scenes where everyone is there. Some of the servants obviously go up and down and do a lot more with the upstairs family than Mrs. Patmore does, so I really enjoy it when we’re all together as a cast. In this Christmas special there was the servant’s ball, so my character got to dance with Matthew Crawley [Dan Stevens], which was hilarious and good fun. I also got to wear a dress, take my [cook’s] hat off and put on a pair of shoes instead of boots. When I’m playing Mrs. Patmore, I normally wear flat farmers-like boots, and as you know, the servants don’t get dressed up. I didn’t think I cared about that, really, but once I had a proper hairstyle and a dress, it was rather exciting.”

In early 2012, the Downton Abbey cast and crew returned to work to film the show’s third season, which recently finished its run in Britain and has just premiered on this side of the pond. For Nicol, it is like being reunited with an old friend when reprising her role of Mrs. Patmore.

“It feels like I’m putting on a second skin, because I really enjoy playing this particular character,” enthuses the actress. “It’s funny, I was given a very good piece of advice by Anne Reid, an amazing and very clever, older British actress who knows what she’s talking about. Early on, she said to me, ‘Don’t try to complicate it. You’re really right for this role. You know who this woman is; don’t try to be clever and fancy. Just keep it as simple as you can and in a way that’s as close to yourself as you can.’ That was a brilliant piece of advice. So the challenge is to do the scene as best as you can and so on, but when you’re given such fantastic writing and surrounded by amazing actors, it makes the job much easier.

“Working on season three was wonderful because it felt a bit like going home. We’ve all been together now for so long, and that includes the crew, so it’s a real gift to know the people who you’re working with every day. When you’re a guest-star on a show, it’s quite difficult to walk in and do a few days or a few weeks when everybody else knows each other very well. It doesn’t feel as easy. With something like Downton Abbey, it gives you a chance to learn more about what you’re doing as well as talk to people. I’ve actually learnt a huge amount on this job just because I can, for example, ask the DOP [director of photography] what he’s doing. So it was terrific to get back to work on Downton Abbey.”

An experienced stage, TV and feature film actress, Nicol spent three years studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but it was long before that that she became enamored of acting. “From fairly early on I was absolutely fixated on this type of work, and the reason, quite honestly, was because I was exceedingly shy,” she admits. “I struggled a great deal with it, and the only time that wasn’t the case was when I was performing.

“I remember my first time onstage, I did a comedic poem, and it was the most fantastic feeling I’d ever had. The audience’s laughter was like a drug, and that, I’m afraid, hooked me for life because, first off, it was much easier pretending to be someone else — that gave me massive confidence that I didn’t have in real life — and, secondly, making people laugh is a fantastic thing.

“My Mum did a little bit on television when I was a child, so that might have influenced me as well. Basically, though, this [acting] was like a new lease on life, where I could walk onstage or in front of a camera with confidence and pretend to be someone else. Since starting out, I’ve gained my own confidence as a human being, but I still love my job. I always have and always will. People talk about retirement, but I have no interest in retiring at all. As long as I can keep the brain cells going, that’s all you need, really.”

The actress chuckles when asked about her first substantial role on TV. “It was six episodes of a Granada Television series called The Practice,” says Nicol. “It was a medical drama and I played a patient who was having an affair with a lorry driver and got pregnant, so there was a lot of weeping going on. That was quite daunting because I had scenes with a very well-established film actor named John Fraser. He was a sweetheart, but I was in my very early 20s and working with a proper professional actor. When you’re in a studio with so many people and they all know what they’re doing, it can be rather scary. I wasn’t really trained in television at Guildhall because in those days they didn’t focus much on that medium. You had to more or less learn on the job and just hope that it was alright.”

Prior to season three of Downton Abbey finishing its run in the UK, it was announced that the series was renewed for a fourth year. Nicol and her fellow castmates had no idea that the show would be so well-received by fans around the world, and could not be happier about the chance to continue telling their characters’ story.

“Sometimes it’s hard to quite comprehend what’s happened,” says the actress. “A few months ago, one of our producers came back from a trip to China and said, ‘We’ve sold the show to China,’ and you think, ‘Goodness, that’s billions of people who are going to see it.’ Again, it’s difficult to really understand what that means.

“We had an international press day a while back in the UK where film crews from all over the world came full of enthusiasm and excitement. When you get a personal account of how the show is received in peoples’ countries then it means more somehow than facts and figures. I did an interview with a lady from Israel and she said, ‘We love Downton Abbey there, and we don’t have a class system.’ It’s nothing to do with that; it just seems to reach out to all these people in different ways. Maybe it’s because there are so many characters, and everyone has their favorites for whatever reason. The response, though, has been global and has more to do with the fact that this is just good storytelling that seems to work.”

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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