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Lesley Nicol Dishes on Life as Downton’s Head Cook

Downton Abbey's Lesley Nicol at The Toy Show 2012, Olympia, London - Jan. 24, 2012 ( (c) ZUMAPRESS.com/Keystone Press) Photo: Jules Annan



If the illustrious Crawley family is the face of Downton Abbey’s titular estate, then it makes sense that many would identify the house’s hardworking staff as its heart. In many ways, however, the series’ stalwart head cook, Beryl Patmore, perfectly illustrates the fine balance of the two – of the practicality that keeps the estate running, and the humanity that holds it together. It’s a combination that viewers have come to identify with, and will be able to revisit as VisionTV kicks off weekly episodes of Downton, from its first episode, to the finale of our most recently-aired third season.

As curious as she is dedicated, Mrs. Patmore’s interest was piqued (more than once) by events upstairs in Season 1.

The war in Europe meant food shortages and logistical challenges at home, putting Mrs. Patmore’s skills to the test in Season 2.

Known as well for her often brash demeanor as her skills in the kitchen, Mrs. Patmore is at once a taskmaster and a reliable friend. Of course, as with any great drama, it’s the relationships between individuals that define Downton’s characters and its tone, and Mrs. Patmore is no exception. Her interactions with each of its residents and staff provide opportunity for both episodes of comedy and moments of compassion.

Downton Abbey's Lesley Nicol at BAFTA TV Tea Party, Los Angeles - 21 Sep 2013

Downton Abbey’s Lesley Nicol (© BEImages/BEImages/KEYSTONE Press) Photo: BEImages/Jim Smeal

ZoomerMedia VP of News and Information, Libby Znaimer

Libby Znaimer, host of The Zoomer Report on AM740 ZoomerRadio and The New Classical 96.3fm

Screen Actors Guild Award winner Lesley Nicol has been bringing those exchanges to life since the start of the series, infusing her character with the combination of humility and zeal that makes her both endearing and, at times, a little intimidating. She chatted with Libby Znaimer, ZoomerMedia VP of News and Information and host of The Zoomer Report on AM 740 ZoomerRadio and The New Classical 96.3fm, earlier this year about the show’s overwhelming success, Mrs. Patmore’s true nature and, most importantly, what the future holds for the men and women of Downton Abbey. Read on to hear her take on the series’ worldwide impact and, with its renewal for a fifth run, what’s to come for Downton’s head cook!

Libby Znaimer: Are you surprised by the response to the show, and the huge success it’s enjoying?

Lesley Nicol: Yes. Anything you do, you don’t know – however good you hope it might be – until it’s in front of an audience. You can’t predict what the reaction will be, and we certainly didn’t know it would be this big globally, actually, apart from anything else.

L.Z.: It’s interesting that among the many things that have happened because of it, it’s certainly influenced fashion in all kinds of things. You play Mrs. Patmore, the cook, and one of things it has influenced is people are interested in the food of the era.

L.N.: I know, I know! About which I know nothing, in case you were going to start asking for bulbs of wisdom! I know, it’s interesting isn’t it, and fashion, and an interest in the history of the period. Yes, it’s had a huge effect really.

L.Z.: When you play a character like Mrs. Patmore, the head cook – and what a tough job that is – what do you make of that?

L.N.: Well, you know, we’ve been very blessed, from the very beginning, to have a guy on set called Alastair Bruce, who’s the historical advisor, and he really helped us at the beginning by talking to us about what life would’ve been like then, really explaining how things worked.

From the kitchen’s point of view, this has to be the best show in town, and that explains why Mrs. Patmore seems to shout quite a lot, and she’s getting people up to speed all the time, and mistakes cannot be forgiven, and when she makes a mistake, it’s, you know, tragedy. The stakes were really high, because you can’t come away from that house and say “that was a rotten meal, wasn’t it?” It has to be the best.

It was very useful to really find out how things worked, and why things were the way they were. And he also said don’t pity these people, they’ve got good jobs, they have a pride in their jobs, and they have good jobs.

L.Z.: That’s one thing that strikes us here, especially in North America, is the way service is portrayed in Downton Abbey, it’s not a shameful thing. The idea of being a servant is something that’s looked down on in North America.

L.N.: If you take it in context, their peers, the people from where they came from, would be more likely working in the fields, farming, maybe in a factory, but they weren’t glamorous jobs. These were jobs where you got given food and lodging and a wage, and half a day off a week, and in my case, a benevolent employer who helped her out when her eyes were failing. So it’s not a bad situation, you can see they’re not downtrodden. They have a pride in what they do.

L.Z.: British society at that point was very class oriented, but there was a hierarchy among the servants as well.

L.N.: Oh my goodness, almost more than upstairs. I mean really, when you hear how Mr. Carson behaves, and he’s really the head of our downstairs, I mean he’s more kind of restrictive and stuck and stubborn than the upstairs people. He’s absolutely got his pecking order worked out and finds it very hard to deviate from that, and that’s something you see in the third season, with Mr. Carson, and Robert upstairs, struggling with change.

Downton Abbey: Sophie McShera (Daisy Mason) and Lesley Nicol (Mrs. Beryl Patmore)

Mar. 21, 2013 – Sophie McShera (Daisy) and Lesley Nicol attend ‘The Book of Mormon’ Press Night in London. (ZUMAPRESS.com/Keystone Press) Photo: James Warren

Although their relationship has its ups and downs, Mrs. Patmore usually has Daisy’s best interests at heart, especially in Season 3.

L.N.: Well, I think as time goes on, you’ll see that relationship develops, and that’s what’s great about having Julian [Fellowes] write this. He writes how people are, and as the time goes on, he can see a relationship that very much developed from the early days to where it is now, and you know, they are extremely fond of each other. But when she started out, this was a kid who was just not up to speed, and Mrs. Patmore had to make her improve and get better, and then her prospects would be better.

L.Z.: And there was a new kitchen maid in season 3, right? She’s sassier than Daisy is.

L.N.: Yes, well, what happens is basically the dynamic in the kitchen changes completely, because there are more people there. Since the war, they’ve kind of been able to take some more people on, and so you’ve got two new footmen, and a new maid, and of course this is a very small world, so everything changes. So they all get fond of each other, and it’s all not working out for the right one so it all gets very mixed up. She’s a lovely, bright new character, and she and Daisy have their problems, you know.

L.Z.: It’s interesting, do you think that your role, as the head cook, is it a good window for all the changes that are taking place in the early 20th century?

L.N.: Mrs. Patmore has her world, which is her kitchen. For a while they were struggling with food supplies. You see that there are now more youngsters in the kitchen, and now the war’s over, there are more young men. Those are the sort of little indications of what’s going on outside, but it’s like a little goldfish bowl, really, it’s its own microcosm in the kitchen.

L.Z.: Does your character evolve in the third season, is there a big change?

L.N.: Yes, absolutely! That’s, again, what’s such fun about Julian’s writing, is that he never leaves people as one thing, because we’re not, and he develops the relationships around that. So in season three, you see Mrs. Patmore with new people in her life, and different relationships with the ones that were already in her life. So, yes, it’s all developing as it would, as years go by and you get to know people. And then there are new characters who come and affect her life as well. So yes, it’s all growing and evolving.

L.Z.: And do we have any hints; I mean I’m hoping there will be many seasons to come of Downton Abbey. Do you have any idea how long the series will run?

L.N.: No, I really don’t. I’ve no idea who would make that decision or when they would make it, but certainly the actors are kind of the last to know, so I wouldn’t want to guess. But I’ve never felt that they would want it to go on and on and on at the risk of it becoming tired, no one wants that to happen.

– Kate Shepherd

As announced on Nov. 10, Downton Abbey will return for a fifth season, with writer and executive producer Julian Fellowes, and executive producers Gareth Neame and Liz Trubridge, at the helm.

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