Going Downstairs in Downton Abbey With Lesley Nicol
by Jay S. Jacobs
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 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. And 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 he’d do it again and write a series of mega-hits. (laughs)