Downton Abbey - Lesley Nicol

Lesley Nicol is Mrs Patmore, the Cook

Lesley Nicol has graced UK drama and comedy with a diverse array of warm, eccentric and natural characters for the last thirty years. From Blackadder to Shameless, she brings a very natural realism to her work. As well as playing Downton Abbey’s highly-strung cook Mrs Patmore, Lesley will be reprising her role as Auntie Annie in West Is West, the follow up to the successful UK feature film East Is East.

Living in West London meant that getting to work was unusually easy for Lesley, particularly when the unit was based at Ealing Studios. ‘Mrs Patmore is rarely seen out of the kitchen and thus I had very few scenes at Highclere Castle, so I really enjoyed going there when I did - it’s a real treat because it’s such a beautiful building. But when we were in the Studio, getting to work was a doddle!” she laughs.

“It was a dream job for me,’ she continues. “Julian’s given Mrs Patmore some funny lines and also some lines that show her vulnerability like the issue with her sight. That’s fantastic for an actor to be given because it’s just like real life.”

Mrs Patmore rules the kitchen with an iron rod and only Mrs Hughes remains a thorn in her side, insisting on placing all the orders for the kitchen herself and thus withholding the last bit of power that would complete Mrs Patmore’s domain. “She appears to be a very irritable, bossy person. That’s what I thought when I first read the script, but of course nobody is just one thing in life, so you have to find out what’s underneath it and she’s particularly bossy with Daisy the scullery maid, who is at the bottom of the pile. And as time goes on, you start to find out a little bit more about why she is like that,” she hints.

“Both Julian Fellowes and Alastair Bruce said that for the staff below stairs, every day was like a show, and you want this to be the best show in town - which was very helpful advice. If anyone came to Downton they were generally very important; Dukes and visiting dignitaries etc. so she can’t afford to make any mistakes with the food. And given that they ate about five times a day the kitchen was the heart of the house.”

Authenticity in the detail of the design and layout of the servants’ areas were just as crucial to get right as the family living areas. Mrs Patmore’s stove has two real hotplates, meaning the audience can see steam and pots bubbling away all day, which is how it would have been in 1912. “A lot of Mrs Patmore’s irritability is because she is bent over a hot stove from dawn to dusk. She first of all has to feed the servants and then feed the family and this goes on all day long with armies of people to feed.”

As part of her research Lesley read a book about country living and cookery in 1912, which suggested that cooks were extremely stressed, mainly because of the heat of the kitchens. “The cook was baking hot and so busy because everything was down to getting that food on the table, getting it hot and getting it spot on, there was nothing more important than that. Even our own meals revolved around serving the family and guests and the Crawley family just never stopped eating!’ she laughs.

“It was breakfast, then luncheon, then tea, dinner and then tea and biscuits in the evening! The dinner or luncheon would be bigger if there were guests there. We were thinking about this the other day, how the heck could you eat all that food? They must have been small portions; they didn’t seem to do much exercise.”

Acting runs in the family, and Lesley’s American niece, Brittania Nicol, is a film actress. “We both have films coming out this year; Brittania is in The Wicker Tree which is Robin Hardy’s sequel to his 1973 film, The Wicker Man and stars Christopher Lee, and I’m in West Is West which will be out this autumn as well; so we are keeping it in the family, so to speak.”


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