BWW Interview: Phyllis Logan Talks DOWNTON and PRESENT LAUGHTER

Phyllis Logan and Samuel West
in 'Present Laughter'

Scottish actress Phyllis Logan has enjoyed a stellar career on stage and screen, with notable performances in Mike Leigh's Secrets & Lies and multiple British TV staples like A Touch of Frost and two iconic roles: Lady Jane in Lovejoy and eminently sensible housekeeper Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey. She's returned to the stage this summer to join Samuel West in Noel Coward's comedy Present Laughter - currently touring the UK.

When did you first get the acting bug?

It must have been at primary school. I was Mary in the nativity play - that was my first sojourn into the acting profession! Then in secondary school I was involved in the drama club, the cinema club, everything going - it seemed like a natural thing to do. Although with my family background, that was on our radar - going to drama school wasn't the done thing. But a friend persuaded me to audition for [the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] in Glasgow.

What was your early rep experience like?

I performed with Dundee Rep in this old converted church, which was meant to be just a temporary arrangement, but had been there 20 years when I arrived! There's a spanking new Dundee Rep Theatre now. But it was a wonderful training ground. Then I went to Crewe - people say you go there to change trains, but I spent seven months there. And I did some plays at Edinburgh.

Was it a challenge moving to London on your own?

By that time I did have a few friends who'd moved down, and my big brother has lived down south longer than I have, so he was installed here. I moved into a flat with a couple of good friends - he was an actor, and his then girlfriend was a dancer. The moved out eventually when they got married.

You never had a plan back then - I didn't think "I'm going to be a movie star". Really just the main goal was to keep in employment and make a living - touch wood that's happened. And I was able to look after myself with the odd five Mum sent down in an envelope.

What was it like working with Mike Leigh on Secret & Lies?

It was quite extraordinary - not like anything I've done before or since - and it became rather successful! I think it transcended all his previous work, and it made big names out of lots of people involved - Marianne Jean-Baptise, Brenda Blethyn.

Had you done much improvisation before?

Yes to a degree at drama school, but this was a very intense, different thing altogether. It goes on for months before you actually turn a camera on. I'm not saying it's down the coalface, but it's tough! You don't know how it'll end up, so you do all that process and you're still not sure what'll be on screen - don't even have a story arc when you start. But once you actually get on set it's much like any other filming experience.

'Downton Abbey'

You've done two shows - Lovejoy and Downton - that inspire great affection

Still, to this day, people come up to me and say "I've never watched Downton, but I always watch the Lovejoy reruns!" That was a fabulous job. I feel I've been lucky throughout my career to have not just one but two jobs that struck a chord with people.

Did you know you were onto a winner with Downton?

Nobody could have predicted quite how much of a phenomenon it would become. I imagined it would be well received, with people like Maggie Smith, Julian Fellowes and Hugh Bonneville involved, so I thought it might be reasonably successful, but you just never know. The three scripts I read before I started were fantastic, the characters were so well-drawn and portrayed, and I just thought "I've got to do this". I was so thrilled to get the part.

It was lovely working with that big team of actors - almost like a company. I was mainly in Ealing Studios with the "downstairs" people, occasionally going to the big house - like being on your holidays! I've remained friends with all of them.

What about the movie rumours?

There is talk of a movie, but certainly not this year. Watch this space - who knows! They need to get on with it, while they can still get everyone together.

Has Downton's success created new opportunities?

Yes, to a certain extent. We're very big in China and that's a huge market for drama, plus the US of course - a few of our number have gone there for a time to see what they can pick up. You can get in a door with Downton, which is a great plus.

The old buggers who are involved in it, like me and Jim, we've been around the block several times - we know this sort of thing is a once in a career type opportunity. You don't end up doing a show that becomes a worldwide hit very often. The youngsters appreciate it too, mind - they know they're lucky to be involved, and it won't always be like that. Or who knows - maybe it will be for them! Lots of them are doing very well.

What made you decide to return to stage?

Downton was great to do, but it's lovely to move onto other things. I hadn't done stage in such a long time - you forget how exciting it is to be in a rehearsal space, trying things out, discovering things about the character, and building up that camaraderie with your workmates. I was intrigued to get back to that again, and get on stage and see if I could still do it!

How are you finding tackling a Noel Coward?

Coward is quite specific in his way of writing, and there's a way of performing his work. I haven't done of his plays since my rep days, yonks ago. My character Monica in Present Laughter is very funny and acerbic - there's no flies on her. She's long-suffering but gives this rather pompous actor, played by Sam West, as good as he gets. She's been his secretary for 17 years, and she won't let him get away with anything.

Coward based the character of Gary Essendine quite firmly on himself, and he didn't pull any punches in terms of how he might behave. It's great fun for Sam West to be this expansive, posturing egomaniac, and I love playing a strong character opposite him.

The cast of 'Present Laughter'

This kind of high-speed farce is deceptively difficult

We've all worked out we could do those ridiculous adverts on the radio now, because it's really quick-fire - that's the technical skill you have to polish up, to get the farce timing right, or it doesn't work otherwise. They're very quick-witted those characters, and this gang of five have all known each other forever, so we bat off each other really smartly. There are lots of other lovely characters too, the valet and a rather eccentric Swedish housekeeper, who all supply great fun on and off stage.

Monica does follow your recent trend of no-nonsense women

There's definitely an element of Mrs Hughes in her! She is certainly the voice of reason.

The play explores the difficulty of separating on- and offstage lives. Does that resonate with you?

People are quite savvy nowadays. They know I don't go home and start bossing my husband around like Mrs Hughes. I don't do Twitter or Facebook, and I have no desire to. A lot of people don't recognise me, as I don't look much like the characters I play. That suits me fine - I can live my ordinary life. If they do recognise me, they're very sweet and don't impose. It's a fine balance. I suppose it's different for someone like Johnny Depp, who couldn't walk round corner for a pint of milk, which I can do quite easily.

Who would you recommend come and see Present Laughter?

I think it's a nice one for all groups of people. Older people would maybe relate to some of the reference like Lord Baldwin and the gallows, but younger people can see the quick wit, the fun as well. It appeals to everyone I hope.

Would you like to do more stage in future, or return to screen?

Who knows? It would be great to mix it up a bit - do a bit of film, a bit of stage. It would be nice to do something modern in the theatre too, after the Coward. You can't guarantee anything, but there are a lot of good young writers out there, so that would be fun.

PRESENT LAUGHTER is at The Marlowe Theatre Canterbury July 19-23, Cambridge Arts Theatre July 25-30, Richmond Theatre August 1-6, Theatre Royal Brighton August 8-13, and Malvern Theatres August 15-20

Picture credit: Nobby Clark

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