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Going Downstairs in Downton Abbey With

Lesley Nicol

by Jay S. Jacobs


Copyright ©2014 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: January 3, 2014.

When it was created in 2010, no one imagined that Downton Abbey – a period drama about the lives and loves of the rich owners of a British castle and their massive service staff – would become a cultural phenomenon. 

Not even the cast and crew, according to Lesley Nicol, who has played Mrs. Patmore, the head of the kitchen staff, since the very beginning.  Yes, it did have an amazing cast.  And yes, it was created by Julian Fellowes, the celebrated screenwriter behind Vanity Fair, The Tourist, The Young Victoria and the similarly-themed Gosford Park.  

However, beyond making a splash in its native England, Downton Abbey has become appointment television all over the world.  In fact, as of the last series, Downton Abbey was the most-watched TV show in the world.  It has also won multiple Emmys (being nominated recently an astonishing 27 times!) and Golden Globe awards, including Best Miniseries or Television Film.

Nicol has had a long-running career in her native land, but even though she has been involved in several beloved projects, is still shocked by the acclaim.  She has been a veteran of the stage – much of the time in musicals – appearing in the original London cast of Jesus Christ Superstar and more recently spending two years in the stage cast of Mamma Mia.  She has also appeared on such classic British TV series as Blackadder, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, Heartbeat and Extremely Dangerous.  Nicol recently made her US TV debut on Once Upon a Time.  She's even known in England for a series of commercials with Kim Cattrall of Sex and the City as Aunt Tea for Tetley Tea.

Nicol recently spent some time across the pond in the States in the lead-up to the fourth season US premiere, and we were able to chat with her about her show and her career.

Your mother worked in television.  In what capacity did she work and did that connection influence your interest in working in the medium?

Yes.  I think it did, yes.  She didn't have a huge career, I think, but she was mostly involved in the very beginning of television.  Late fifties and early sixties.  I was very young at the time.  I would see my mum go off on a Sunday morning to do a live TV show as a presenter.  It was bewildering to see mum walk out the door and then wind up in the little box in the corner, you know?  She always looked very glamorous.  I always thought she looked amazingly glamorous.  It was a mixture of that and directly, I think the link is that I was very, very, very shy.  It was the thing I was able to do at school best.  It's why I went that way, it was the one thing that I'd brought up, so I just desperately wanted to be an actress, that was it.  

Your bio also says that you were not really looking to become an actress in school in Manchester.  What did you think you would do with your life and how you realize that acting could be a career?

I kind of did outside things, because I thought I might be a nurse or a flight attendant.  But those days, a flight attendant, you had to be about 5'8" and I'm 5'1 1/2".  When I think back, what I really wanted was the costume.  (laughs)  I just wanted to dress up.  As a nurse I would have been useless.  I would have liked to dress up in the uniform of an air hostess.  But the fact is, what I really wanted was to dress up and go to work in a play.  What really, really pushed me in the direction was I discovered a little professional theater company in Manchester when I was studying.  So I didn't do any work when I went to college at all.  I spent all my time there [at the theater company] and I absolutely fell in love with them all and the whole world.  That was me gone.  I couldn't do anything else.

As a young girl, who were some of the actors who inspired you to take it up?

I don't think anybody in particular inspired me.  I just loved doing it.  I think because I was so shy in real life, getting on a stage was something that made you feel in control.  Making people laugh is very addictive.  Quite apart from that, which is a nice little story, a person I was in love with on the TV was Richard Chamberlain.  I got to meet him when I was here last year, which was divine.  (laughs)  It was lovely. 

You first really became known as a stage actress.  You were in the first London company of Jesus Christ Superstar and you starred in Mamma Mia later.  What was it like being a young girl on stage?  How is it different and similar to television?

Well, it's just a different technique, I suppose.  The joy of doing something onstage – particularly Mamma Mia, where there is comedy involved – that's a big adrenaline rush.  To play around and try and find the funniest, best way to do a comedy role.  I was in that for two years.  I had thought I'd never manage one year, but actually I was surrounded by really good working actors and we kept it fresh.  But, yeah, it has it's own challenge, doing the same thing eight times a week.  On TV you get through stuff quickly and then it is done.  That's it.  Finished.  It's just very different, but they I love them both equally.  I love my job, that's the thing.  I will carry on until I drop.

One of the great things about your character of Mrs. Patmore in Downton Abbey is that she is one of the funniest on the show.  Do you enjoy being able to mix in comedy with the drama?

Yes.  I do.  I do.  We were doing a press thing last week in New York and Julian was there – the writer Julian Fellowes.  He said as the characters developed form the very beginning, probably Mrs. Patmore wasn't that funny in the beginning.  When he realized that was something I quite enjoyed, he started feeding in nice stuff for me.  It's kind of worked out.   I get a good proportion of the good lines downstairs, and of course Maggie Smith gets the ones upstairs.  That's not a bad shadow.  (laughs)

You've been acting for quite a few years.  When you received the first script of Downton Abbey, did you realize that there was something special about the show?

Oh, yes.  I did realize it was beautifully written.  I noticed every actor who read it went, "Ooh, wow, that's a good script."  Then as word filtered through that there was already Maggie Smith attached to it and Hugh Bonneville and a bunch of really well-respected British actors, it was like: God, if I can be a part of that, why wouldn't you?  But nobody actually knew that this would be as huge a global phenomenon as it has become.  Nobody could have known that.  In fact, Julian said last week if he knew why [it became so successful] he'd do it again and write a series of mega-hits.  (laughs)

Why do you think that people are so fascinated by the relationships between the rich and their servants? Even though the shows are very different, Upstairs Downstairs years ago explored a similar structure.

I don't know, but what I do like is that Julian has got away from any clichés that have been done in the past.  He's made them an equally interesting world.  They are not downtrodden, poor, sad people who need to be pitied.  That's not how it is.  He's written them with their own hierarchy and their own snobbishness or lack of.  It's about people.  That's what I like about this show.  Of course it's about the rich and the less fortunate, but as he said, people have just been dealt a different hand of cards.  That's all.  They still have their frailties and their strengths and their pride and their weaknesses.  They are the same, just in a different situation, that's all.

Downton Abbey is such a specifically British show, were you surprised that it caught on internationally the way it has?

Oh, my goodness yes.  That still knocks me sideways.  I was in China earlier this year and I talked to a bunch of university students who were giddy with joy talking about it.  They loved it so much.  But how can that be?  Even we're hoping to help with the Philippines disaster.  Can I mention this?  Is this something you want to hear?


There is an amazing lady called Linda Cruse.  She's an aid worker.  She goes out into these big, awful disaster areas.  She was at the tsunami and she goes and she tries to rebuild [the area] when a lot of the initial help is gone.  To help people rebuild their lives.  She calls it a "Hand Up not a Handout."  There is a thing called Omaze, this is a website (http://www.omaze.com/experiences/downtonabbey/).  If people go on that, they can donate ten bucks.  That's it.  It's not for rich people.  It's for people who want to give a help.  Then they go into a raffle and the person who wins it will be brought to London to the set – either our set or the one in the big house.  [They will] spend some time with us.  Have lunch and look at the set, meet the actors.  That's something we're able to do because Downton actually is known and loved by Filipinos.  I mean, how mad is that?  At least it means that we've got a way of giving something back.

Well, along those lines, I was also reading that you are very involved in Medical dog and animal charities.  How did you get involved with that?

Yes, in all, I support four charities.  Two of them, they include dogs as you like, one is more of a people charity.  There is a little rescue in Wales called Jemima's Place (http://www.jemimas-place.com/).  They will literally rescue any animal in distress, be it a ferret or a horse or a dog, a chicken or anything that has been hurt or abandoned.  They [get them new] homes.  They don't turn anything away.  They just need support.  Very small.  They have no funding.  But what they give is 24 hours.  (chuckles)  They never stop.  I really think they need as much help as possible, because they are the real heroes.  They don't have a vacation.  They don't live a fancy life. 

The other one is I'm an ambassador for something called Medical Detection Dogs (http://www.medicaldetectiondogs.org.uk/).  Simply, they do two different things.  One is they teach dogs, they train them to detect any signs of cancer.  So much of this stuff is going on very well.  For instance, they can have a carousel of viewing samples.  Something like bladder cancer, a tiny, tiny amount, it's hardly anything, and the dog will sniff around and if he detects it, it will start an alert.  It's like there's an odor comes off it that they are trained to find.  They can do stuff early on the machines can't do.  Later on, if the cancer develops, the machine will come up about it.  But the whole point of this is to try to stop it from getting to a state where it's desperate.  So it's very important work.  That's a relatively new charge.  I'm pretty sure you have stuff like that here. 

The other thing they do is they train dogs one-on-one with people who have life threatening diseases.  Like for instance, type-one diabetes, so that they will take actually breath samples from the diabetic, who maybe their disease is at a stage where they don't get symptoms anymore when they are about to fall over and faint or have a heart attack.  The dog is trained to smell, again, the change in the aroma.  They can smell it from the person they are living with.  They can go and take their kit to the person and basically they are saying "Take precautions now, because you are about to get into this situation."  That means that these people who before this were falling over and going into comas or hurting their heads, because they bash their head on the floor, or have to go to ambulance.  They can practically stop all of that.  It gives them their confidence back.  It keeps them well.  It's a very important and amazing thing.  But they need money to do that.

In what ways is Mrs. Patmore similar to you and how is she different?

Well, I think we share that humor.  I'm not overly sarcastic, but I can be.  If I think it's funny.  I don't do it to be mean, but if I think it's funny, I can't resist saying something.  A good one-liner.  (laughs)  I am quite like her, but quite different, too.  I'm not that tough.  I'm rather proud of my work.  Yes, I do care about my work.  I do care about the people around me.  So in that sense, we're not that dissimilar.   

Mrs. Patmore obviously cares about the girls who work under her, but occasionally can be a little tough on Daisy.  Do you think she is just looking out for her?

Yes, I do, completely.  I think the way [Fellowes] has developed our relationship and we've developed it, is of all of them, she's been with Daisy the longest.  She's been up from being quite a young girl and developed into a young woman.  She's very invested in her.  In the beginning it was about getting her up to speed, because she was a bit slow.  Now she's dealing with the fruits of her labor, really, because Daisy has become much more confident.  She's developed immensely in the kitchen.  And that's exactly what she hates about them.  She's been promoted.  She has a chance of having a decent way in life, you know?  So it was partly about that.  But if anybody does anything wrong to Daisy, then look out, Mrs. Patmore is on the way.  She supports her and takes action against anybody, so that's for sure. 

That arc where Mrs. Patmore thought she was losing her eyesight was very touching.  Was that difficult to play?

No, it was really interesting.  When she goes to London and she gets lost in the hospital on her own, it's a little scene, but it's a great scene to play.  It's the first time he let us see Mrs. Patmore absolutely terrified.  Out of her normal, secure life.  Miles away from anything she knew about.  Really lonely.  Really scared.   

Do you have a fantasy storyline for Mrs. Patmore that you would love to see the writers do?

(laughs)  No, I just look forward to what we've got next, really.  I think I have a romantic interest, but that went rather quickly.  I don't know if they'll allow her to have another one.  Other than that, I wait with interest as to what she's going to do next.

In England, when you're walking around, are you more likely to be recognized as Mrs. Patmore or as Aunt Tea?

People don't know much of what I really look like.  In the show, I don't wear any makeup.  There's nothing flattering about the clothes.  (laughs)  She is about as bad as I could possibly look.  In real life, I do my best to smarten myself up a bit, but people are now recognizing that's who I am.  I mean I can spend days and days and nobody takes any notice. 

Do you still get to do stage work with your busy TV schedule? 

Yes, we do.  Technically between August and February, that's all free.  So there's that.   Unlike here, sometimes I've been told they can't do any other work.  We absolutely can.  I am currently signing with an agent and stuff like that, so other work would be very welcome. 

You appeared on an episode of Once Upon a Time this year.  After years of appearing on British TV, how was the process of working on a Hollywood show different – if at all?

Well, you know, I was really interested, it was very similar.  We don't have craft services [food and drink backstage] like you do.  That was a little unexpected.  (laughs)  And I think maybe you work slightly longer hours than we do.  But as an experience it was very happy, actually because the people on this show like Downton.  So I was really welcomed.  Going into a show that is already established, when you're not part of it, can be quite difficult.  You start working with a family that you're not part of.  But nothing could have been further from the truth.  They were so sweet and so welcoming.  Once I got going, it was pretty similar.    

You also recently did some voice work for Free Birds

Oh, that was tiny, yes.  I had literally a few lines.  It's like I was there and I was very happy to do it, but don't go see it for me.  (laughs) 

As an actress, how is voiceover work different, and is it fun?

I do one in the UK called Sarah & Duck, which is an animation for children.  It's fun.  You just go in every so often and record a load of stuff.  What's always nice about voice work is you can be something that you don't look like.  That's kind of fun.  And of course, you don't remember lines.  You just look at them [in front of you].  It's just another strand of work that's really fun to do.

If you weren't acting, what do you think you would be doing?

Well, now having in the last few years having gotten involved with the animal world I think I'd love to work with animals.

What would people be surprised to know about you?

That I was in the Richard Chamberlain fan club as a child.  (laughs)  That I don't like fruit in my salad. 

How would you like for people to see your career?

Oh, gosh, I hope they would just say she brought me some good entertainment.  Either moved me or made me laugh.  Do I do those?  Then I think that's a great thing to do.

Are there any misconceptions out there you'd like to clear up?

There is one ridiculous one.  It's practically of no interest to anybody, but on IMDB it says I nearly did an episode of Doctor Who, which isn't true.  I'd love to have done it.  (laughs)  Any other misconceptions?  No, I don't think so.  No, I don't think anyone has got the wrong idea about me.

What things make you nostalgic?

Oh.  (long pause)  I don't know.  I think about nostalgic, when I was saying goodbye to two of my castmates going back to London and I was coming back here, I felt a bit homesick.  (laughs)  But only because they were going and I wasn't.  It's a bit odd.  No, that's not the question, though.  Nostalgic?  I don't know.  I don't think anything comes to mind, to be honest.  I'm very happy with the way my world is now.

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