InDepth InterView: Lesley Nicol On DOWNTON ABBEY Season Four, Playing Mrs. Patmore, MAMMA MIA!, DOWNTON Musical? & More
Today we are talking to a standout star of the internationally adored period-set drama series Downton Abbey all about her unforgettable character on the show as well as what we can expect from the highly anticipated upcoming extended Christmas episode, and, stateside, the entirety of Season Four, as well - the convivial Lesley Nicol. Looking back at an incredibly accomplished career thus far, Nicol shares some insights on her favorite TV and film roles to date while also casting a glance back at some of her most memorable stage performances - as an original cast member of the inaugural West End JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR as well as her multi-year run in long-running hi MAMMA MIA! included. Most importantly, Nicol outlines the finer points of her charming and committed characterization of the belabored chef of Downton Abbey itself, Mrs. Patmore, and imparts her enthusiasm and enjoyment with the delectable and dramatic storylines conjured up by creator Julian Fellowes and also shares some of her own favorite scene partners and events in the show's rich history. Additionally, Nicol clues us in on this year's Christmas ep and her own impressions of this year's sequence of events just as US viewers gear up for the first stateside showings of Season 4, starting on PBS in early 2014. Plus, Nicol looks ahead to Downton Abbey Season 5, set to film in 2014, and beyond. All of that and much, much more awaits in this seasonal chat with a stalwart star!
DOWNTON ABBEY's Christmas Special airs in the UK on Christmas Day and Season Four begins in the US in January on PBS. More information on Lesley Nicol is available at her official site here.
Take A Chance On She
PC: Do people come up to you on the street and address you as Mrs. Patmore given the immense popularity of DOWNTON ABBEY?
LN: They do! Last week, a strange thing happened - as they normally do, actually. I went to see a show, and, as I was leaving, this guy was giving me this sort of weird look like something had happened - slightly mad in the eyes - and then he just mouthed to me, "I love you." [Laughs.]
PC: How sweet!
LN: It was! I just said back to him, "I love you, too!"
PC: Do you think you caught on with audiences early in the show's history due to your character's memorable eye surgery storyline?
LN: Yes, I do. I think that is true. You see, that was the first time that Julian really allowed us to see her real vulnerability - because, of course, it all started with her being a bit of a battle ax and all that.
PC: To say the least!
LN: What's so great about Julian, though, is that he really develops all of the characters - and not any one of them are just one thing. The eye surgery left her alone in that little bed in the hospital in London and I think that that scene affected people a bit and changed their thoughts about her. So, yeah, I think that you're right - that was a big part of it.
PC: Mrs. Patmore's nephew and his disgraces also offered viewers the chance to relate to your character's plight, would you agree? What a dynamic storyline.
LN: Yes, yes - I think so. Since we're talking about all of this, I really should mention our historical advisor on the show, Alistair Bruce. He is onset a lot and often just fills in the gaps for us - you know, none of us are historians, so he often just tells us about particular things that were relevant in the day and how they may work differently from now. So, when I talked to him about Mrs. Patmore's nephew, I remember that he said to me, "I can't tell you the shame that would be attached to the fact that he was found to be deserter. That was just the most mortifying thing back then - nowadays people wouldn't necessarily feel the same, but back then it was very shameful," so, that, mixed in with the fact that she of course loved the boy made for a shocking, shocking shame on her.
PC: Surely some dramatic meat for you to play.
LN: Yeah, it was great to play. We don't really have that same sort of shame associated with deserting anymore, really.
PC: Mrs. Patmore is also often afforded with the lighter material in many episodes, so it gives some nice juxtaposition.
LN: Yeah! Yeah! Exactly. And, what I like is that Mrs. Patmore has turned into a character that you can laugh at and laugh with and who also has a more emotional side - which is all a very lovely thing for an actor to have. I love having that broad of a spectrum of a character to play - it makes it feel more real for me, and I think for the audience, too.
PC: I have to say, having seen it all so far, I think Season Four is the best season yet - and Mrs. Patmore certainly is given some wonderful stories.
LN: Oh, that's really great to hear that you liked it so much!
PC: The final episode of the season proper in particular you were featured quite a bit, I must say - were you thrilled when you first saw the script?
LN: Well, here's the thing, Pat - I haven't seen it yet! [Laughs.] I haven't even seen it yet, so I've no idea how much or how little I have in it. I just know that I shot what I shot, even though it feels like it was a long time ago now. Of course, there are so many of us and so many stories going on that you are never sure of what you are doing will make its mark or not - you just do it and see. But, if you're saying you've noticed things I've done in it, that's a really good thing!
PC: In the bazaar sequence in Episode 8, you have a hilarious scene with lemonade I wanted to specifically ask you about...
LN: Yes, I do remember that scene, actually! Mrs. Hughes [Phyllis Logan] was next to me, yes? I remember we were pouring lemonade like mad people for all of the supporting artists! And, I can tell you that when we are not necessarily featured in a scene, Phyllis and I will get silly and do silly things for our own amusement and I suppose one of those moments must have made it into the background of a scene from what you're telling me! [Laughs.]
PC: You and Phyllis Logan have a rich rapport, as well - the scenes you have sharing a pot of tea at the end of the day are some of the warmest moments on the series.
LN: I think they are lovely, too - and, as you may know, those scenes weren't there in the beginning; Mrs. Hughes just used to annoy the hell out of Mrs. Patmore because she held the keys to the store cupboard and all of that stuff, which, apparently, was very accurate and that's how that stuff would have been. So, they didn't start out particularly close, but they have allowed them to get closer with all of the things that have been going on over the years in the house - which I think is especially great because I love working with Phyllis and I think she is an exceptional actor. She's brilliant, just brilliant to work with - as they all are - but it's been particularly brilliant to develop that with her.
PC: The downstairs storyline certainly held a lot of weight in Season Four - particularly what happens with a rape scene. What is your opinion on that scene in particular and how it was handled on the show? It was totally shocking.
LN: I was actually talking to some journalists the other day about it. There's been a huge uproar about the rape in the UK, but I've been here in the States since August so I don't really know that much about it, really. I do know that Julian was on breakfast TV explaining why they did it and he said that they shot loads of footage of it and ended up not really showing it, so it was done with great thought. The point behind it was not to just randomly sensationalize the story - it really wasn't - but, this is a drama and bad things happen!
PC: It's the nature of the beast - and why people tune in.
LN: This journalist said to me, "But we don't want anything bad to happen!" [Laughs.]
PC: There's no fighting it in a drama!
LN: We love that character and we don't want anything bad to happen to her, but it's a drama! Bad things have to happen.
PC: As we've previously seen with Matthew Crawley's demise last Christmas, as one famous example.
LN: Yes! Exactly.
PC: Leaving it to the imagination is the most powerful method with tricky scenes such as those, it seems, no?
LN: Yes, I agree. I'm not really the authority to talk on the subject, of course, but that's what other people are saying - as I said, I haven't seen it myself, so I can't comment on how it was done. From what people have been saying, though, it sounds like some bloody good acting! People said to me that there will be a hell of a to-do when it is shown here, though. We will see.
PC: Given Matthew's demise, do you have a favorite love interest in mind for Lady Mary?
LN: Honestly, I've read all the scripts, but it was so long ago I can barely remember. All I knew at the time was that there were some good-looking guys walking around the set hanging around Lady Mary! [Laughs.] To be serious about it, I think that if something as devastating as what happened with Matthew dying is going to happen, the positive you can say that comes from that is that it opens it all up in a different direction and that's what's happened.
PC: This season the series certainly seems to have hit a new stride - it will be very well-received here, I bet.
LN: I hope so, too! I'm so happy to hear you've enjoyed it so much.
PC: Who are some of your favorite celebrity fans of the series?
LN: Oh, well, I've heard that Barbara Cook watches it - and Hillary Clinton! I recently Tweeted Chelsea Clinton about something and she Tweeted me back, saying, "The whole family loves to watch you on DOWNTON ABBEY!" So, I can just imagine them - all of them - sitting around the television on a Sunday night now.
PC: Kiri Te Kanawa memorably guest stars on the show this season. Was it a particular thrill to have an opera mega-star like that onset?
LN: Actually, I have a picture now of her in a head-scarf with her dogs! [Laughs.] You see, she had to wear a wig for the scene, so she was wearing a head-scarf at the time - so, I went round to her trailer when she was onset and I said, "Can I say hi to your dogs?" because I am a big dog lover. People love their pets, so we got on talking about that and she was so kind - such a wonderful lady.
PC: And that voice...
LN: That voice! We all went to the rehearsal, and when she started singing, God help us, it blew your mind! And, this was early in the morning - I think she had to get up at 4 to be able to create this sound. We all were just sitting there with our mouths open. It was in the hall at Highclere, so being so close to that sound in that room was... [Pause.] I've never heard anything like it. It was like a vibration in my soul or something! And, on top of it, she's such a lovely woman! She had a lovely, lovely young pianist working with her, too - very dashing, with hair slicked down and in a very nice evening suit and everything - and he came up to me while we were shooting and said, [Very Thick Accent], "I come from Scarborough and me mum is a big fan. Can I have a picture?!" [Laughs.]
PC: Appearances can be deceiving - especially in show business.
LN: It was so funny - but he was just a brilliant pianist and a lovely guy.
PC: Given you are the chef of the house on the series, tell me about how all of the sumptuous food is supplied to the set.
LN: Well, there are two different things that happen: one is the prop guys, who dress the set with food - if it is a tea; they will get cakes; stuff like that. We have a thing in England called the Women's Institute and it's all ladies who make jams and pies and stuff and they will get stuff from there - because they have been homemade and so of course they look more period. They get proper nice loaves and bread and things like that, too - all of the correct things of the time. Then, when we have a dinner party, there is a food stylist who comes in and creates dishes for us - dishes that would be from the time. So, she often leaves them slightly unfinished so in the scenes we will be chattering away and adding the final garnish or olives or whatever to finish off the dish. And, as you know, what often happens is that we will be having a conversation while we finish off the dish and then we hand it to the footmen and off they go.
PC: What is a common theme of the food you've noticed?
LN: A lot of aspic! Do you know what aspic even is? It's like jelly.
LN: Yes - it's just like Jell-O. So, yeah - lots of aspic. That was used a lot back then - partially because it preserved the food and partially because it was just fashionable. There are quite a few lovely French-inspired dishes that they have done for us, as well - which were also very popular at the time. The food decorator is the real brains behind it, though - I just throw parsley at it.
PC: You and Ivy (Cara Theobold) have a lovely developing maternal relationship this year, as well - much to the disdain of Daisy (Sophie McShera). Tell me about working with both of them.
LN: Yes - having all of these new youngsters in the kitchen has changed the dynamic quite a bit this year, obviously. It's an interesting shift, I think - I mean, originally, you just honed in on me and Daisy in the kitchen and you saw that relationship develop. Then, suddenly, you've got Alfred and Jimmy and a couple of new characters and they're all falling in love with the wrong person and all of that - and I think that's interesting. So, I think my job is to oversee them and be the boss, but, also, their world is so little that you're bound to get involved in one way or another in it - to a lesser or greater degree - and her main link is still to Daisy. They go way back in their history together, so it is very interesting to me to see how the others affect their relationship - how Mrs. Patmore is still pretty protective of Daisy and how she is feeling and all of that.
PC: What can you tell me about the soundstages you film on versus when you appear at the actual estate itself?
LN: When we started out, all the upstairs scenes were at Highclere - including the bedrooms and the hall and the library and so on. Meanwhile, they built this interconnecting set - like they did for GOSFORD PARK, for instance - which is what you see; the kitchen leads into the hall which leads into the servant's hall and into Mr. Carson's room and Mrs. Hughes's room and all of that. So, that's one set that has been built at Ealing Film Studios in London and has been there since the beginning of the series - we've always had that set and it's been lovely to have, actually, because whenever I go back there it's like going home.
PC: It's familiar.
LN: Yes - and it's such a brilliant set! Such amazing detail. [Sighs.] It's just fantastic. But, back to your question, what they have changed - for reasons I am not sure - they now shoot some of the upstairs bedroom scenes at Ealing. They have one room which is transformed from Lady Mary's into Lady Edith's bedroom whenever they have to do it. So, they do the scenes, change it, and then do the others.
PC: You appeared on an episode of THE GRAND, which many cite as last decade's prototype for Downton Abbey in some ways. Do you have any memories of shooting it? How do they compare?
LN: Oh, THE GRAND! That was so long ago I can barely remember - I played somebody's mother, I think, didn't I? [Laughs.] That was years ago.
PC: Many children of the 1980s and 1990s also know you from your appearances in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA TV films, as well.
LN: Oh, yeah! I'll tell you a funny story about that, actually, since you asked: one day before Dan Stevens left, he came up to me and he was a little bit teary-eyed and I said, "Well, what's the matter, darling?" and he said to me, "I just found out you were Mrs. Beaver." [Big Laugh.]
PC: And what a Mrs. Beaver you were! And another character, too!
LN: He's about the same age as you, so he was also of the age where he was a kid who would have sat down to watch THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE when it was on back then. There's a certain age of people who do tell me, "Oh, good God! I remember that so well!" And, I'll tell you another story: since I have a slightly recognizable voice, shall we say, the producer of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE asked me when we were finished filming if I would come in and do THE SILVER CHAIR next. He said to me, "Since as Mrs. Beaver you were covered in brown fur, no one really knows what you look like, so we're going to have you in to do the Giant Queen in THE SILVER CHAIR," and I thought, "Marvelous! I've got another job and it's particularly hilarious because I am playing a giant and I am so short - it's perfect!" So, then, a little girl sent a letter in to the producers right after THE SILVER CHAIR was on and she said, "That lady who played the Giant Queen also was Mrs. Beaver." And, it's all because she recognized my voice! [Laughs.]
PC: What precisely were you working on just prior to becoming involved with DOWNTON ABBEY?
LN: I had just finished a film that I had done called WEST IS WEST, which is a sequel to another film I did called EAST IS EAST. When I heard I had gotten DOWNTON ABBEY, I remember I was standing on a freezing cold street in Manchester where we were shooting the Manchester part of WEST IS WEST.
PC: Growing up, did you know women like Mrs. Patmore yourself?
LN: For me, for some reason - and I am not sure why; it's perfectly fine with me - I have tended to play working-class, sassy, usually quite kind women. I was brought up near Manchester and my dad was a doctor, so we weren't particularly from that world - but, yes, I did definitely know women like that and like Mrs. Patmore. And, I always just loved them - loved them.
PC: What hints can you drop about the Christmas episode of DOWNTON ABBEY?
LN: Well, without giving away anything, I just did some ADR on the final scene of the Christmas special and all I can say is that it's so sweet. I can't even tell you - it's so, so sweet. Wait until you see it.
PC: Is it nice to know DOWNTON provides its fans with a Christmas gift every year byway of the specials?
LN: Yeah! And, I know people were upset about last year's special, but this year it is not going to do that - I promise.
PC: How much must be deleted from any given show from script to screen? Ten percent, maybe? More?
LN: I'd say some stuff doesn't make it in, definitely - I couldn't quite tell you how much, though. To be honest, I try not to think about it too much myself, though, because it would drive me crazy! "Oh, no! We lost that scene?!" You just have to allow the edit to be the thing and accept it and judge it on that. I'm sure we all get bits chopped away that we wish would have stayed, but with that many characters, obviously, if it's over-running they have to just keep what's crucial to the story. That's what's best.
PC: Have you gotten to work with Shirley MacLaine and Paul Giamatti yet on the series?
LN: No, not at all, unfortunately - I did get to meet them both, though. The Production Company invited us all to have a drink with them, so we got to meet them then - I had a little word with them both at the party, actually. Shirley MacLaine said to me - because I don't usually look like Mrs. Patmore in real-life; I put a bit of make-up on and I do my hair - "You don't look like you at all!" [Laughs.] I think they are both brilliant and I'd love to get to work with them someday - and I can say the same for Maggie Smith, who I've never gotten the chance to do a scene with yet on the show. We chat whenever we have those big scenes together, but we've never had a scene together.
PC: So, will Mrs. Patmore ever find real romance, do you think?
LN: Well, I requested a romance last year and I got one with the grocer in the last episode, but he was a bad one - she realized he wasn't a good person, so she just let him go. But, yes, I am hoping so - I even said to Julian, "Can she not have a boyfriend?!" And, he said, "Well, do you want her to leave the show?" and I said, "No," and he said, "Well, she'll have to leave the show if she gets married!"
PC: Maybe she needs to get up and sing "Take A Chance On Me" ala your character in MAMMA MIA!
LN: [Laughs.] I'd love her to get up and sing! I'd love to get up with Daisy and have a sing, actually - we both love to sing. She actually played in ANNIE in the West End when she was little kid - so, there's a lot of singing that goes on onset.
PC: DOWNTON ABBEY: THE MUSICAL can't be too far off!
LN: That would be fun, wouldn't it?! [Big Laugh.]
PC: Additionally, I was curious how you enjoyed working with the vast green screen when you appeared on ONCE UPON A TIME?
LN: Well, I think they use the green screen more for the Queen and all of that stuff - what I filmed for ONCE UPON A TIME, I had a stunt double to be flung through the window, though. And, I'll tell you, I nearly died when I saw the stunt double - she had the biggest backside I had ever seen! I said, "Is that really what my backside looks like?" And they told me that she had extra padding because of the big fall.
PC: How hilarious.
LN: I think working with green screen and all of that is really about getting to the emotion of it - pulling your heart out; what does that do to you? How does that feel to have your heart being squeezed inside your chest by Regina? It's a bit of fun to imagine things like that.
PC: One last thing I wanted to touch upon was your West End resume - what exactly was your first professional job?
LN: Well, my first West End show was actually my second professional job - I was in the very first production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.
PC: Wow! What a legendary production to have been a part of at the very start of your career.
LN: People always say to me, "Well, what did you play?" And, I always say "Well, there's only one female part!" So, I was in the ensemble, of course, and then I was like the third understudy for Mary Magdalene. You see, I had always sung with my dad growing up - I was a very, very shy individual; that's actually why I became an actress, because I realized that when I was onstage you could do amazing things...
PC: Such as?
LN: Oh, make people laugh - generally just become confidant being someone else, you know? So, that's why I became an actor and I think that's true for a lot of people who do - actually, I know that that is a reason. So, I did sing - rather hesitantly - and my dad would sit down at the piano and we would murder things together like WEST SIDE STORY and THE SOUND OF MUSIC and MY FAIR LADY. I just loved it. So, when I went to drama school in the early '70s, I had an amazing teacher named Anthony Bowles and Anthony was one of the West End musical directors - everybody who knew him never forgot him; he was an extraordinary character - and he was the original musical director of the original JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR and he did the album of EVITA with Julie Covington, too.
PC: He sounds like a fascinating figure, for sure.
LN: Yes, he was. I'll give you one little quote from him - he was so witty and quick. One day, we were at Guild Hall trying to get something on and we were doing very badly - very, very badly - and he was sort of Cockney London and he said, "All right, who can tell me the difference between augmented and diminished?" And we all went, "Oh, God..." and sort of mumbled among ourselves. Then, he said, "I am augmenting your knowledge and you are diminishing my sanity." [Big Laugh.]
PC: What a line!
LN: When somebody says something like that, it really, A, makes you understand, and, B, you just never forget it. It was hilarious. So, anyway, basically what happened was that Anthony put me into JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR - and it had been running for about five years or so by then, I think. So, after that, I did a lot more musicals across the country and a lot of repertory stuff, and, then, 22 years later, my friend said to me, "You've got to go in for MAMMA MIA!" And, at the time, I didn't even know what that was! It had only been on for a year. So, I thought, "What one of the ABBA girls am I going to possibly play?!" And, she said, "No, no - it's a story! There's a character that's absolutely perfect for you." And, so, I went in and auditioned and in the end I had to actually audition for Bjorn [Ulvaeus] from ABBA.
PC: Was that particularly nerve-wracking to endure?
LN: Are you joking?! It was terrifying! Terrifying. But, I got the job, and there I stayed for two years.
PC: Did you enjoy singing "Take A Chance On Me" for him?
LN: Yes, yes - he actually asked me to go to the piano, too, and run through a bit of "Dancing Queen" with him, but I didn't bring my glasses!
PC: Oh, no!
LN: Yes, so... I mean, I know the tune, but I don't know all the words, so I was sort of singing along while he played, [Sings.] "Digging the Dancing Queen," and he said to me, "No, no - it's not 'Digging the Dancing Queen," it's 'Doing the Dancing Queen'," and I said, "Oh!" Then, I thought, "Well, that really doesn't make any more sense, though, does it?" [Laughs.]
PC: The show exploded in popularity during that period and became a global phenomenon. Could you feel that change happening?
LN: Yes, you really could. I would stand onstage at the end singing "Waterloo" with the cast - you know, in platform boots and lycra and everything - and I would look out into the stalls every night, and who would I see? I would see Cher, Tom Hanks, Paul McCartney; they all came! Then, Tom Hanks became involved with the movie and Meryl Streep came. They were all there - some several times. Posh and Becks, too. They all regularly came to see the show - it was like being in the hottest show in town. Plus, three of the main parts in it are for middle-aged women - how great is that?!
PC: Just wonderful.
LN: I was so lucky that the other women in it with me were so great and such great actors, too. So, I did it for two years and then after that I felt like I really couldn't do it justice anymore. You know, some people can do a show for years and years, but I think you have to know when to leave. Of course, some people are very good and very skilled and can put something fresh onstage every night, but I think there is a limit to what you can do.
PC: Is there another role you particularly enjoyed in your many stage roles over the years?
LN: BLOOD BROTHERS - that's a show I loved to do. For me, it was a part I loved to play - a funny, working-class woman, but with some really difficult emotional stuff to play, as well. I guess that is my favorite thing - to make people laugh and also to maybe engage them emotionally and touch them somehow in telling the story.
PC: Looking ahead, are you anticipating the next season yet? Season Six, too?
LN: Well, I know we are doing the next one, of course - but, that's all that I know! It's all up in the air right now, so all I know right now is we are definitely doing the next one.
PC: This was exceptional, Lesley - thank you so very much for this today. We all can't wait for what's next from you!
LN: Thank you so much, too, Pat - this was absolutely lovely. Merry Christmas. Bye bye.
Photo Credits: ITV, Zimbio, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro