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.
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
Superstar and you starred in Mamma Mia later. What was it
like being a young girl on stage? How is it different and similar
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.
of the great things about your character of Mrs. Patmore in
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)
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Do you have a
fantasy storyline for Mrs. Patmore that you would love to see the
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.
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
You also recently
did some voice work for
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.
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
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
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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