Encore: Downton Abbey’s Lesley Nicol

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Related to: Downton Abbey, Season 6

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It’s the Mrs. Patmore podcast! Mrs. P—Downton’s cook—has been dishing out one-liners and rustic wisdom for the past six years. In this episode, Lesley Nicol reveals that, while her cooking skills never materialized off-screen, her heartfelt relationship with Sophie McShera (Daisy) certainly did.

Also, Downton historian, Alastair Bruce, joins us to discuss Gwen’s return, and what it says about the rise of the working class in the roaring 20’s.

Then we’ll talk about Mary’s handsome suitor, Anna’s good news, and the rest of episode four with our weekly Downton roundtable.

 

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Transcript

Jace Lacob: MASTERPIECE Studio wants you to know that Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is currently making its US debut in New York City. You’ll see Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen, 50 extraordinary costumes, and so much more.

Tickets are available for purchase at www.downtonexhibition.com. The exhibition runs through April 2, 2018.

The exhibition is presented by Viking, the leader in river and small ship ocean cruising, also known for its national corporate sponsorship of MASTERPIECE on PBS.

CLIP:
Mr. Carson: Of course if Mrs. Patmore wants to spend her time frolicking with prostitutes.
Mrs. Patmore: Do I look like a frolicker?

Jace: I’m Jace Lacob and you’re listening to MASTERPIECE Studio.

For the past 6 years, Mrs. Patmore — Downton’s cook — has been the downstairs dowager, dishing out one-liners…

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: I said you could go for a drink of water, not a trip up the Nile.

Jace: …and snarky yet spot-on observations…

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: You know the trouble with you lot, you’re all in love with the wrong people. Now take those upstairs.

Jace: …to everyone downstairs. But as we were reminded in last night’s episode, Daisy — Downton’s assistant cook — gets the lion’s share of Mrs. Patmore’s attention:

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: You couldn’t be harder on those potatoes if you wanted them to confess to spying.
Daisy: I feel so let down. They’ve got Mr. Mason’s hopes up, let him think he had a future, and now what?
Mrs. Patmore: To be honest Daisy, wasn’t it you who put his hopes up?

Jace: This week, I sit down with Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs. Patmore.

CLIP:
Lesley Nicol: I particularly like making people laugh, and then twisting it and maybe touching them too.

Jace: I’ll also speak with historian Alastair Bruce about Gwen’s return to Downton…

CLIP:
Thomas: Mrs. Harding used to work here.
Mr. Harding: What?
Thomas: She used to be a hous…
Gwen: Thank you, Mr. Barrow. I can tell it.

Jace: …and what it tells us about new opportunities for the working class in the roaring 20s.

But first, we’ll check in with our Talking Downton roundtable.

Jace: The latest episode was filled with new beginnings — and near misses. Gwen’s return encouraged the staff to imagine a life beyond service; Anna, for once, got some very good news; and Mary reconnected with a handsome race car driver.

We’re joined by two new Talking Downton commentators:

Melissa Kirsch, author of The Girl’s Guide and contributing editor at SheKnows.com. And Melanie Hoopes, a storytelling coach, and writer for Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s The Thing.”

Jace: I loved this episode so much. What did you think? Melissa?

Melissa: My favorite moment hands down is when Thomas exposes Gwen. It kind of sets everything in motion where people start to have these sort of crises in their lives. You know, Thomas has, is angry because he realizes that he’s dedicated his life to service and he’s about to be thrown on his ear as he says, while Gwen slipped out early and now she’s, you know, made it upstairs basically. And it raises the specter of Sybil and so Mary sort of looks at her life and realizes that Sybil made something of hers and…

Jace: I mean, it’s such a mean-spirited moment that becomes a positive moment.

Melissa: Right. Well, and also it causes Lord Grantham to call Thomas out. And then you know, seeing Lord Grantham disciplining him it was just like, “Uh. Thomas. You know, become a nicer guy.”

Melanie: And yet I love that Mary remains an advocate for him…

Melissa: Yes.

Melanie: …That she totally sees the evil and yet the good.

Jace: Do you think that possibly Mary and Thomas share some DNA?

Melanie: What are you saying?

Jace: That they… Not that he is the illegitimate son of Lord Grantham but that maybe they are more similar in some ways, their characters. And she sees a little bit of herself in Thomas.

Melanie: Definitely, no doubt about it.

Melissa: No doubt.

Melanie: Absolutely.

Melanie: So my favorite moment and a moment that I think until the end of the series I will not be able to get enough of is, Henry and Mary. I love them as a couple. I love who they are when they’re with each other. She’s like a cat, you know, so you can’t kind of approach her straight on. You have to walk sideways. And I think he does it with grace and she’s hungry for more. And I loved their dinner of oh, are you boiling up to make a pass? And her, that line that she says of like, “I shall enjoy the process enormously.”

Jace: We finally get some happiness for Anna and Bates this week as she tells him that she’s pregnant. And I just said to myself, “Finally there’s a ray of light for these two.”

Melissa: Yes, fingers crossed. I don’t want to be superstitious but, you know, I’m loathe to get too excited for them because I feel like, you know, whenever you feel like things are gonna go well for Anna and Bates something turns.

Melanie: Totally disagree. I think they’ve got this one. That is my major prediction…

Melanie: …that we are going to see this baby. I don’t think you have a lot of faith in the stitch.

Jace: Favorite lines this week?

Melissa: My favorite — and I’m jumping in because I’m afraid that you’re gonna say it, Melanie — is when Gwen said, “I never had any higher education.” And Mary says, “well, who did? All we were taught was French, prejudice and dance steps.”

Melanie: “…All we were taught was French, prejudice and dance steps.” Beautiful.

Melissa: I would love it if that were the title of Mary’s memoir, “French, Prejudice and Dance Steps: The Mary Crawley Story.”

You know, that– It’s so perfect.

Jace: Lesley Nichol is a veteran British television actor. Among her many pre-Mrs. Patmore roles was Auntie Annie in the film East is East and its sequel West is West.

Jace: Welcome Lesley.

Lesley Nicol (Lesley): Hello.

Jace: Thanks for joining us.

Lesley: Thank you.

Jace: As we enter the final season of Downton Abbey, where do we find the servants and the Crawley family?

Lesley: I think there’s a real — for the older ones, certainly — there’s a real sense of what happens next? You know, because it’s clear that times really are changing, and that there will be a reduction of staff. I don’t suppose Mrs. Patmore thinks she’s for the chop because they have to eat, but she’s getting older.

And the youngsters — particularly Daisy, I suppose, because she’s becoming more educated, and she wants to spread her wings. So, she’s trying to figure out what that might be.

Jace: You mentioned Daisy. How does Mrs. Patmore and Daisy’s relationship shift this season?

Lesley: Well, as I said, Mrs. P faces some more challenges, and certainly quite a lot of them come from Daisy. And inevitably, because she’s getting older, she’s getting more confident, their dynamic changes. There’s still huge affection there, but they certainly have a different dynamic in their relationship.

Jace: Is there any chance that Mrs. Patmore finds love this season?

Lesley: Well, as you know, Jace, I can’t tell you anything at all, but I could say that I’ve been pushing for this for a very long time. I can only say wait and see, really.

Jace: Let’s talk about the evolution of Mrs. Patmore. When she was first introduced, she was a bit of a kitchen martinet, barking orders at Daisy, but over time Mrs. Patmore has become a font of rustic wisdom and tough love. What do you make of her evolution over the last six seasons?

Lesley: Oh, I’ve– I just love that — Julian really has done this with all the characters — he started out with one kind of vision of what she was like, but nobody in the world is one thing. And he’s allowed us to be showing different facets of our personalities.

He saw, for instance, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy having a good kind of relationship and a bit of a double act, really. He never thought Mrs. Patmore was going to be funny, but because we had that chemistry, if you like, that brought something to it that he thought, “Oh, I’m going to use that.” So he went off in that direction, and there came all those marvelous one-liners that he’s given her.

And as an actress, I particularly like making people laugh, and then twisting it, and maybe touching them, too. And he’s given me opportunities to do both of those, and some. I love that this horrible, scary, red-faced woman… You see her in tears sometimes, you see her struggling with the pain of her nephew. And you know, you see just different levels of her personality.

Jace: And what surprised you the most about Mrs. Patmore in terms of playing her over six seasons?

Lesley: I think– I think it’s been interesting to see her slightly gain confidence with her employers, for instance. I mean to begin with, she was very nervous of speaking to them at all.

But as time went on, she learns to — with respect, always — but she learns to speak her mind.

And I think that’s– that that’s like life, actually. That will be the same with me; I started out life a very different human being from what I am now. I was very shy and very quiet. And I’m not now.

Jace: You once told me about a disastrous attempt to make a prawn risotto for your husband. Have your cooking skills improved at all during the six years you’ve played Mrs. Patmore?

Lesley: Well, I think I told– I think I told you, Jace, that every time that happens, it puts me back a few years. So I don’t even try.

Have I got better? No. I just don’t cook as much as I probably should, really. But I intend to change that very soon.

Jace: Well, you– I have to say, you and Sophie McShera are very convincing in the kitchen. What actually goes on during those kitchen– cooking scenes, and what are you doing on camera?

Lesley: Well in the very, very brief rehearsal you get, the first question is: what time is it? Because that’s key to the speed of how things are going.

And for many years we were very lucky to have Mark, who was our props guy, but he was also a chef. So he was always on it. He would watch the rehearsal, and then he would find the right thing that we could be doing that would look authentic, but not too technical that you could say, “That person doesn’t know what they’re doing.”

So we are always doing something that’s logical within what’s being made or is being served. I do what I think a lot of chefs do, which is you taste things, you garnish them, you present them, make sure they look good before they go up, and shout.

Jace: Now, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy have long maintained a very strong bond that at time has mirrored that between a mother and her daughter.

Lesley: Yes.

Jace: Why do you think that their rapport has consistently remained at the heart of the series?

Lesley: Because it’s real. Because it’s real. Because those characters just developed that way. But it’s– At the core of it is, I just adore Sophie McShera and I think she’s a brilliant actress. I think she’s extraordinary. So I think that is a very strong relationship, on and off, and that’s– They bleed into each other, I suppose.

Jace: Aw I love that.

Lesley: Yeah.

Jace: Earlier on in the series run, Mrs. Patmore and Mrs. Hughes were set up as rivals in the household.

Lesley: Yes.

Jace: But one of the more interesting developments that has occurred over the last six seasons is that their relationship has blossomed into a full-blown friendship.

Lesley: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jace: Looking back, what did you make of the shift there?

Lesley: Well, it came about when she got the cancer scare.

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: You’ll not be alone for a minute if you don’t want to be. But we have to get it seen to.
Mrs. Hughes: And then there’s expense.
Mrs. Patmore: Well, if you must pay money, better to a doctor than to an undertaker.

Lesley: And you know, looking at it from an outsider point of view, it doesn’t look like any of them have got a billion friends, or a lot of time to have a social life outside the house anyway. So it makes– it certainly made sense to me that these two would, would become close.

Jace: I love the rapport that has developed between the three of them — so Mrs. Patmore, Mrs. Hughes, and Mr. Carson. Has it been great working more closely with Jim Carter and Phyllis Logan?

Lesley: Yeah. Those scenes, the first episode of season six — when Mrs. P tries to ask Mr. Carson about his intentions physically.

Jace: It is the most awkward conversation in the history of conversations.

Lesley: It is indeed.

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: As your wife, she wonders if you would expect for her to perform her wifely duties?
Mr. Carson: Don’t wives normally perform their duties? Good wives anyhow– Oh.
Mrs. Patmore: Yes. That’s it. I think we’ve got there.

Lesley: And again, do you know why this works? I think because it was taken from a real situation. I think Julian had an older relative at some point who remarried, or married for the first time, and was struggling like hell to deal with this subject. And again, it’s authentic, it would have not have been an easy thing to talk about.

And people have said, “You know, did you– were you laughing while you were doing it?” I said, “No, but the crew were.” And that’s always a good indication, you know, because they’ve seen it all really, and they were– they were struggling to keep it together, so…

Jace: Before this next question, a brief word from our sponsors.

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Jace: Now there is a Mrs. Patmore doll on the internet.

Lesley: Oh, is there?

Jace: There is.

Lesley: There was at the beginning. That was a horror.

Jace: Yeah. What was your reaction when you saw that– that initial doll?

Lesley: I laughed a lot. It’s the most horrible looking thing. It just made me laugh. It was Sophie who found it, I think. And it was just the most… But I thought they’d got rid of it?

Jace: There’s still photos, there are still photos.

Lesley: She’s a horror.

Jace: Now Mrs. Patmore has some of the sharpest lines on the show. I have certain favorite Mrs. Patmore lines.

Lesley: Yes.

Jace: My all-time favorite, “Do I look like a frolicker?”

Lesley: “Frolicker.” Do you know– I was in Germany last year with Phyllis, and a girl came up and gave me a cup. And on it, it said, “Do I look like a frolicker?” And I said, “Wow, that’s amazing, where did you get that?” And she said, “I made it.”

I’ll tell you what is sweet. Sophie made me — when we finished the series — she made me a frame and it’s got all my sayings in different kind of writing on this frame. It’s actually…yeah.

Jace: That’s awesome.

Lesley: The one we loved made us laugh like a drain, and I don’t know why, don’t ask me why. You know, you had to be there really. But one day I had to say, “It’s you and me, Daisy, contra mundi.” Well, we didn’t know what contra mundi meant. It means you and me against the world, we now know. So for the rest of the time we’d say, “Oh, I’m feeling a bit contra mundi today.”

Jace: I was going to ask, are you– are you ever at a loss for what Mrs. Patmore is referencing? You know, in the fourth episode of the season, she not only mentions Karl Marx, but she refers to Daisy as Madame Defarge…

Lesley: Yes!

Jace: Are you ever at a loss?

Lesley: She’s a reader, I think she’s a reader.

Jace: She is a reader, a secret reader.

Lesley: Definitely a reader, and she’s obviously got some religion, some faith because she knows her Bible. She plops that in from time to time.

Yeah, but you know what, what else were they going to be doing?

I think she’s self-educated, and I think she’s much brighter than people probably think she is.

Jace: And there’s Mrs. Patmore putting the salt in the raspberry meringue pudding, there’s Mrs. Patmore terrified of the electric whisk, and Mrs. Patmore attempting to discover if Carson will expect Mrs. Hughes to put out once they’re married. What are some of your own favorite Mrs. Patmore moments?

Lesley: I loved trying to explain tactfully to Daisy that Thomas was not a lady’s man.

Jace: Not a lady’s man, yes.

Lesley: And she didn’t get it, at all.

CLIP:
Mrs. Patmore: He’s not the boy for you, and you’re not the girl for him.
Daisy: Isn’t that what I just said? And why would he be when he’s seen and done so much and I’ve been nowhere and done nothing?
Mrs. Patmore: Perhaps Thomas has seen and done more than is good for him.
Mrs. Patmore: He’s not a ladies’ man.

Lesley: I mean I could name dozens of moments with Daisy that I– were just fun.

Jace: What was your final day of shooting like?

Lesley: It was like the last day of school. It was funny, because, people were giving each other presents. So that kind of took over slightly. It was like– I think I bought something like 150 wooden spoons. And then I was having to sign all these spoons.

We were all sitting in a dressing room together– like Jim and all a lot of the servants were sitting together before our last scene. It was all quite jolly, really. We’d have the odd moment of a slight welling up because it became, you know, the reality was looming.

We finished the last scene in the servants’ hall. And the producers came onto set, and then Jim started — being the big grown up Jim — started saying a few words, and then got a little bit overcome. Well that’s like seeing your dad cry. And that was it. Then it was like we were all gone.

Because I’d been doing this job for 40-plus years, I’ve never seen anything like that.

Jace: Did you take anything with you from the production?

Lesley: No, people keep asking me this.

No, I wish I’d perhaps taken my little cap. Because I managed to hang onto that for six years. They kept trying to give me a new one, and I said, “No, you can’t, you can’t. This is it. This is the character. I have to have this.”

No, I mean actually I think Hugh took one of the letters, which is a very good idea, because that would’ve been thrown away. And those letters were always beautifully handwritten by somebody so that when you read it, it would be like reading the actual letter.

It was how I found out I was called Beryl. I got a letter from my sister, and it said, “Dear Beryl.” And I said, “Oh, oh, excuse me. Is this– is this accurate? Am I really Beryl?” And they went, “Yes, Julian’s called you Beryl.” Oh god.

Jace: But that’s an amazing way to find out your character’s name.

Lesley: Isn’t it? I know.

Jace: What did you do on set between takes? I know bananagrams was a big thing…

Lesley: That was the upstairs thing more.

Jace: Oh.

Lesley: Oh we never played. We never played bananagrams. That was a Highclere event. We would play bananagrams when we visited, and we weren’t very good of course because we didn’t have the practice.

Maggie Smith, demon player. Demon player.

What did we do? We tended to– oh I know, we had a little phrase. Oh, there’s a big dressing room that had most seats in it, and that was usually Jim’s. Though sometimes if he wasn’t in, you know they’d change them around. So whoever was in number one, the phrase that was used was, “Are you having a party?” You’d say– or you’d go to your room and say, “I’m having a party.” In other words, anyone could come in. So that’s what would happen is people would bundle into the big room and chat.

And you know what? That is indicative of the kind of cast it was. Because in some casts, number one whoever was in there might think they’re more important than everybody else, and keep people out, and enjoyed the fact they’ve got a more comfortable room. But it was totally how people are– were in that cast, which is, “I’ve got the nice room, you come in here and I’ll share it with you.” Because that’s how people were. They were just a generous bunch. You didn’t have those ego problems.

Jace: Are you going to stay in touch with Sophie?

Lesley: Yes, I saw her only a few weeks ago when she came out here, and she’s coming again in January. Oh, she’s a lifer, she’s for life. Yes. And Phyllis, I mean, and a lot of them. Yeah. I love them too much.

CLIP:
Mr. Moseley: You’ll lose your job. And then what?
Daisy: Look at Gwen. She’s thrown off the arc of service to make a good life. What am I doing with mine?

Jace: Why were domestic workers like Daisy ready to follow in Gwen’s footsteps? Historian Alastair Bruce joins us from London to explain.

Alastair Bruce (Alastair): The industrial revolution of the 18th century had provided plenty of opportunities for working class people to leave the estates of the landed gentry and go off and chance their arm in factories, in cotton mills, and in much else besides. But the conditions were terrible. And it was often the case that people who made that decision to leave a small cottage on the Downton Abbey estate and trudge into the center of Manchester, where there was no great lord looking after your future, must have been terrifying. But when people got the chance to see a change in the way in which working people lived– and that was due in large measure to the pioneering spirit of the trade union movement.

Now, factory life was safer, you were likely to have conditions that were more attractive, and you probably didn’t have to work much beyond 5 o’clock at night. And of course, if you were in service, you got up at about 5:30 in the morning, and you didn’t get to bed until 11:30. And so no wonder people wanted to go off. And getting a job as a secretary was a step up.

And you get the sense that, with Daisy too — she starts to progress her education — she can recognize that she doesn’t have to be tied to sweating stove, madly trying to make omelet after omelet. She can go off and actually be someone, because the opportunities of the world and the empire are opening up to the working class, and that is creating a new class, the middle class.

Jace: To purchase Downton Abbey DVDs and Blu-rays, or Downton Abbey gifts, visit shopPBS.org or other retailers.

For more Downton Abbey behind-the-scenes content — and to follow other MASTERPIECE shows — check out the MASTERPIECE Studio podcast at pbs.org/masterpiece, on Stitcher, and on iTunes.

MASTERPIECE Studio is hosted by me, Jace Lacob and produced by Nick Andersen. Elisheba Ittoop is our editor. Susanne Simpson is our executive producer. The executive producer of MASTERPIECE is Rebecca Eaton.

Sponsors for MASTERPIECE on PBS are Viking and The MASTERPIECE Trust.

Downton Abbey: The Exhibition is open in New York City, now through April 2, 2018. See downtonexhibition.com for tickets and more details.

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