Friday, December 20, 2013

5Qs on Friday: Lesley Nicol

Downton Abbey's Mrs. Patmore is the Delightful Lesley Nicol

photo: Cameron Pashak
The next couple of weeks will be notable for Christmas and New Year's Eve zipping by in a flash and, then, for a few, excruciatingly slow days waiting for the premiere of Downton Abbey's fourth season (PBS - Jan. 5, 9pm). This season, which already aired in the UK and, mercifully, has been well reviewed, picks up from last year when Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) died, leaving Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) alone with their newborn baby.

On the show, a long list of characters, including newcomers played by guest stars like Paul Giamatti, are expertly portrayed by the likes of Lesley Nicol. She's the sometimes-punchy, sometimes-vulnerable Mrs. Patmore, who oversees Downton's kitchen and the lovelorn staffers who surround her.

Lesley spoke with TVFirstLook about Downton Abbey's upcoming season, the Scarf Lady in Sarah & Duck and open doors in the USA.

TVFirstLook: No spoilers, please, but we confess, we read the UK reviews for the fourth season. Whew!

Lesley Nicol: I have seen it, but I was in the U.S. when it was airing in the U.K. I was very relieved and happy to find out that the feedback was very good, starting with the producers. They're not the type of people to say that it was good if it wasn't good.

The ongoing fear is, wouldn't it be terrible if it suddenly takes a nosedive? That doesn't appear to be the case, which is brilliant.

And, without telling you anything, really, there are a lot of new characters. Mary is a pretty girl, so there are a lot of men surrounding her.

Mrs. P is still trying to manage the madness of all the kids in the kitchen. And, because we're now in the early 1920s, there is real, proper machinery coming into the kitchen. She's legitimately scared of that. She thinks it could be the beginning of the end of them needing her. The kids, of course, are saying, "Yeah, bring it on."

TVFirstLook: Has the character Mrs. Patmore changed much since you first read the part?

Lesley: What is so brilliant is that [creator] Julian Fellowes is a very good writer. We were very happy with the characters on the page. But, as he said in New York last week, he sees how we interpret the characters. Then, that gives him ideas for taking a different direction.

For me, at first, Mrs. Patmore was a cross, shouting busybody who was mean to poor, little Daisy.

But what happened is we have a historical advisor named Alastair Bruce. He answers a lot of questions. We just don't know a lot about that period. We have to constantly remind ourselves that it is not now. He said the reason she has that level of stress, and is sometimes cross, is that the stakes are really high for her. She can't have anyone who's not up to speed. It's about professional pride. And it's about giving the kids the proper training because if they develop well, they've got a chance at finding a good position in life.

So, I love that [Julian] has developed Mrs. Patmore around that. Now, we've seen her vulnerability and humor a few times. Which is exactly like life. You're not one thing. We're all many things.

TVFirstLook: There are great guest stars like Shirley MacLaine on the show. Do you enjoy working with them?

Lesley: It's great for the show. But I didn't work with them. I know people loved working with Shirley and Paul Giamatti, but I haven't had one scene with them.

In fact, I also haven't had a scene with Maggie [Smith]. I've asked Julian if he could somehow arrange that for me. He said it's slightly difficult for the two characters to meet each other. But it's too tempting for me not to ask.

TVFirstLook: You live for a good chunk of the year in the United States. How has the show's success here affected you in your professional life?

Lesley: I've met with casting people and producers. People in show business are very generous to each other, although people don't think so.

The success of Downton has opened many doors here that would not have been open for me. Those people are genuinely trying to help me be here and to be successful here. What's not to like about that?

TVFirstLook: OK, what can you tell us about Sarah & Duck?

Lesley: It's on children's BBC television [and Sprout]. It's very sweet. It's about Sarah and Duck, who is a duck. They sometimes see a character named Scarf Lady, who is me.

She's slightly eccentric. She knits everything. I was on The View last week and met Whoopi Goldberg, which was the highlight of my visit to New York. The funny thing is that she was wearing knitted shoes.

Bonus Question.

photo: Cameron Pashak

TVFirstLook: Do you have any theories to explain why Downton Abbey is such a huge, international hit?

Lesley: We do get asked that quite a lot, but we waffle around it. The obvious thing to say is that there is a nice variety of characters that appeal to different people.

But I think it's just a matter of good stories.

And I know there is a love and commitment to the highest standards among all the people on the show, in all departments. It's not people showing up and saying, "Oh, I can't be bothered." That doesn't happen.

But it's still baffling. I was in China earlier this year and was met by a group of giggly, excited university students who love Mrs. Patmore. I just thought, "What? How could you possibly understand what this is all about?"

But something about the show translates and touches people.

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