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Interview: DOWNTON ABBEY'S Matt Milne and Lesley Nicol

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Interview-DOWNTON-ABBEYS-20010101

The Great War is over and a long-awaited engagement is on, but all is not tranquil at DOWNTON ABBEY as wrenching social changes, romantic intrigues, and personal crises grip the majestic English country estate for a third thrilling season.

With the return of its all-star cast plus guest star Academy Award®-winner Shirley MacLaine, DOWNTON ABBEY, Season 3 airs over seven Sundays on PBS beginning on January 6, 2013. BWW brings you a series of interviews with the award-winning cast of this popular PBS series. Next up, actors Matt Milne and Lesley Nicol.  

AN INTERVIEW WITH Matt Milne

With the death of William Mason, Downton Abbey has been in need of a new footman for some time. He arrives at the beginning of series three in the form of Alfred, played by Matt Milne.

“Alfred’s O’Brien’s nephew – that’s how he got the job,” says Milne, with a wry smile that suggests that being O’Brien’s nephew might be a mixed blessing.

“His great aim is to be a cook, but he’s following his family’s wishes and doing what they want him to do. His mum wants him to be a butler so that’s where he’s headed.”

It’s not an easy job, especially when you’re gawky, diffident and trying to come to terms with a below stairs culture that’s always fraught with manoeuvring.

“He’s trying as hard as he can. He was working in a hotel before he was given this job. But as he’s constantly reminded, the skills that he was taught to work in the hotel are nowhere near the sort of level that he needs to work in the house. He just doesn’t have the training - usually how it would happen is young lads would come in aged about 11 or 12 and be trained as hall boys. Then they would work their way up acquiring new skills over time. But Alfred has come in by a side route, so he’s always playing catch-up.”

It means that Alfred is not only resented for having got the job via O’Brien, but for potentially not being up to the job at all. And he has other problems, too.

“There’s this sort of bizarre kitchen love triangle because Daisy fancies Alfred but Alfred likes the look of the new girl, Ivy. And Ivy flirts with Alfred but the one she really likes is Jimmy.”

Hereford-born Milne, 21, has had a busy year – it began with him being “plucked from nothing” in his words, to appear in Steven Spielberg’s First World War epic War Horse.

“I was still studying drama at the University of East Anglia when that came up. Now this has come along I can’t believe it. It’s been an amazing twelve months or so.”

But it does mean that he’s been spending a considerable amount of his early career living in the early 1900s.

War Horse was all flat caps and thick trousers,” he says. “This is all starched collars and polished boots. But in many ways they’re closely interlinked: the changes that we’re seeing at Downton all come about because of the war. As a young man, whether you went to the front or whether you didn’t the effect was life-changing. You couldn’t just go back to being in service in the same way after that.”

AN INTERVIEW WITH LESLEY NICOL

Downton Abbey is all about change and its consequences. That goes as much for Mrs Patmore, the house cook, as it does for Lord Grantham.

“Things have changed in the house,” says Lesley Nicol, who plays Patmore. “We have new people coming into the kitchen, so I have a new maid, Ivy. Mrs Patmore sees it as part of her job to get her in and up to speed. But what complicates it is that she doesn’t tolerate bullying - though people may say she is one herself. So if she sees elements of that happening from Daisy or anybody else towards Ivy she will stamp on it. I think she is very protective of her little gang. It is only her that is allowed to shout!”

Nicol says she particularly enjoyed a plotline involving scenes with Phyllis Logan, who plays Mrs Hughes. It got her out of the kitchen, for a start.

“You see Mrs Hughes and Mrs Patmore more in a relationship than they have been before. They started a bit at loggerheads and yet she becomes her mate really. To have scenes with somebody of a similar age is different, yes. It is nice to play. That’s what is lovely about Julian’s writing. He recognises that people are more than one thing and he develops them, gives them lots of layers, like we all have.”

Nicol’s cooking skills are, she says, on a par with those of her on-screen maid Sophie McShera. Which is to say non-existent.

“I’ve learnt absolutely nothing. I’m terrible. We make sure that I try and look like I know what I’m doing. That’s the art - there’s a trick of making it look like I know how to cook. But I don’t.”

Away from the studios the highlight of the last few months for Nicol has been being photographed by Bruce Weber for German Vogue.

“He said that Mrs Patmore is his favourite character! He is one of the best photographers in the world. I was thinking on the way in to the shoot, ‘God help us, what’s this going to be like,’ because I’m not a model. I mean German Vogue?”

Yet Weber put Nicol at her ease.

“I don’t comfortably wear dresses because I don’t think they look very good on me – yet he put me in a dress. The other thing I would not be happy with is dancing unless I am in a show - yet he had me dancing outside in a dress in front of people because he put some music on and said, ‘Hey come on let’s do this.’ It was like you were doing a show. It was divine. And it’s all because of Downton Abbey. The show has just had an amazing knock-on effect.” 

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