Actress Lesley Nicol on Returning to Downton Abbey: “It Felt Like Coming Home”

Actress Lesley Nicol brings her beloved Mrs. Patmore to the big screen in the highly anticipated Downton Abbey movie.

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Downton Abbey movie premiere - Lesley Nicol
Photo: Shutterstock

Lesley Nicol on the Downton Abbey Movie

Over the course of six seasons and 52 episodes, actress Lesley Nicol played Downton Abbey‘s beleaguered (yet much-beloved) cook, Mrs. Patmore. Nearly four years after the series’ television finale, Nicol slips back into her character’s trademark cap and apron in the big screen debut of the critically-acclaimed upstairs/downstairs drama. We caught up with the English actress the day before the film’s Canadian debut to discuss historical accuracy, Highclere Castle, and (wait for it) the possibility of a sequel.

Reader’s Digest Canada: What was it like returning to Downton Abbey after four years?

Lesley Nicol: It felt like coming home. The set was the same, more or less, and I was so happy to be back there, doing more of Julian’s [creator Julian Fellowes] words with the people I love.

It seems like every popular TV show sparks rumours of a feature film, but it very rarely materializes. Why do you think Downton Abbey successfully made it to the big screen when so many others don’t?

Occasionally, they’d show us a preview of the new season of Downton in the cinema, and from those previews, everyone was very aware that it lent itself to the big screen. With the film, we were given a bit more money and time, and Julian was able to write on a scale he couldn’t have done in the TV show, and it really does seem to be very happy up there on the screen.

What was your reaction at the initial screening?

I saw it in L.A.—that’s where I live—with my American agent, and I had a big, fat emotional reaction. I’m afraid I got very messy! I loved seeing everybody—genuinely everybody. Julian has provided a pretty genius storyline, which has managed to incorporate all the characters. That’s always going to be a challenge: How the hell do you get all of those people screen time?

Is there ever any apprehension about the size of your role when you get a Downton script?

Yes, of course—but Julian always manages to spread the wealth. In the TV show, it was easier, because he could spread different characters’ storylines over several episodes, and sometimes you’d get an upstairs-heavy episode, where my character didn’t make much of an appearance. I didn’t care, though, because he’d still give me some of Mrs. Patmore’s brilliant little one-liners. I was very happy to do that, and I was happy to do anything with Sophie [McShera, who plays scullery maid Daisy], frankly. Anything on- or off-screen with her is pure bliss for me.

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Downton Abbey movie - Highclere Castle
Photo: Shutterstock

On Filming at Highclere Castle

We recently learned that although a lot of the interiors are filmed at Highclere Castle (the real life Downton Abbey), Mrs. Patmore’s kitchen is actually a studio set. Does this mean you spend less time at Highclere than much of the rest of the “upstairs” cast?

Yes—a lot less time. The kitchen was on a film set in West London, and there would be times when everybody would go up to Highclere, which is about an hour away from London—usually for a wedding, or a funeral, or a big party—but rarely poor Mrs. Patmore. It was made very clear by our historical adviser very early on, that even if there was a line of servants outside the house to meet a visiting Duke, the cook would not be among them. I asked why—because I wanted a day out at Highclere, too!—and he said, “You’ve got 16 people coming for lunch. Do you really think you’ve got time to stand out there on the drive?”

Just this week, it was announced that Highclere was opening itself up to Airbnb guests. 

It’s not! [Laughs]

Any advice for Downton Abbey fans who might want to add this experience to their bucket list?

Well, it’s a fabulous house. I’ve stayed overnight there myself, so I would say it’s pretty cool. There’s isn’t a bad view out of any window.

Mrs. Patmore gets some very funny scenes in the Downton Abbey movie. What makes the comedy in Downton Abbey work?

There’s never been a partnership so brilliant between a writer and an actress as we’ve got with Julian Fellowes and Maggie Smith. He writes these fabulous things, and she never fails. Apparently, when Julian wrote Mrs. Patmore to begin with, he didn’t imagine her to be funny; but he sees what actors bring to the table, and then he writes to their strengths. He spotted the humour in my relationship with Sophie, the potential for a double-act, and then he wrote it; it wasn’t there to begin with.

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Downton Abbey movie - Lesley Nicol as Mrs. Patmore
Photo: Jaap Buitendijk / © 2019 Focus Features, LLC

On the Future of Downton Abbey

Is this movie the grand finale of Downton Abbey?

Before we even had the first preview, people were asking about another one. Although the film’s obviously got to attract people to the movie theatre—that’s the business, after all—this was never a cynical money-making exercise. The people who are attached to Downton Abbey love it and care about it as much as they ever did. I sneakily think another film could happen, but when and how… I don’t know.

If this is indeed the last we see of Downton Abbey, what do you imagine is the fate of Mrs. Patmore after that final fade to black?

Well, Mrs. Patmore hasn’t yet got a boyfriend. I’ve been banging on about this for years. [Laughs] I just love Mrs. Patmore. There’s a scene in the last season when she sees Carson and Mrs. Hughes getting together and she gets a bit misty-eyed, and says, ‘I wouldn’t mind if somebody felt like that about me.’ I think there’s a lot of potential for humour, actually. If anybody tried to have any kind of romantic liaison with her, she wouldn’t have a clue what to do—not a clue! I also think it could be very touching to see her in a relationship, because she’s not made of stone. It’s a myth to think that when people get to a certain age, it doesn’t matter anymore. People are still vulnerable and lonely and would be thrilled if they have some sort of attention and love, and I think that’s Mrs. Patmore.

And what’s next for Lesley Nicol?

I’ve started developing a one-woman musical, called “How the Hell Did I Get Here?” It’s based on my story, but it’s absolutely not meant to be the Lesley Nicol Show. I’ve had the great fortune to work with a very clever, very successful songwriter called Mark Mueller, and so far he’s written me eight fabulous original songs. We did it for an audience in London, knowing it was a work in progress, but I think Chicago is a place that we might be doing it later on next year.

The Downton Abbey movie premieres on Friday, September 20, at cinemas across Canada.

Next, check out the all-time best Downton Abbey quotes.

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