*** Spotlight On… Lesley Nicol ***
How do I introduce this ‘Spotlight On…’? This is an actress who has been on my interview wish list since before this blog-site was born and she has been one of my personal heroes for the past two decades at least (longer, probably!). Many of you will know her as ‘Mrs Patmore’ from the ridiculously successful ‘Downton Abbey’ – so, overwhelmingly, I give you my interview with Lesley Nicol!
Lesley, thank you so much for talking to Break A Leg Review, I first became a fan of yours when you starred as Mrs Beaver in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe for the BBC, but when did you feel that your career really started?
I don’t really think there was a time to be honest, there have been certain jobs that have been important, and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was one of them because it was filmed over several months, rather than quick TV. It felt like a significant thing to do.
I don’t ever think “oh, my career has taken off”, it’s all about the current job and whether it’s fun. There have been notable high spots which have been The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, East is East, Mamma Mia and Downton Abbey. They have all been things that make you go “oh blimey that was a bit special!”
When you became a actress, were there any roles that you had a particular ambition to play or still want to play?
No, I always struggle with that when people ask me this question. I did want to play Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers and I did play her, I loved that, that was a good fit but otherwise there isn’t anything I’m aware of that I want to do.
I saw you play Rosie in Mamma Mia three times and thought you were amazing, what are your best memories of that show?
It was surreal even auditioning for it, I actually auditioned for Bjorn. I was introduced to what felt like about twenty people so it didn’t even feel like a normal audition. I was walking along a long line of people and when I got to Bjorn, I curtsied! He didn’t quite understand the joke.
Then, I was singing Dancing Queen for him and I’m good at music but I’m not very good at remembering the words of songs so I was singing “doing the dancing queen” and he looked at me, very puzzled and said “no, no, no, it’s not “doing the dancing queen” it’s “digging the dancing queen!”. I said “oh yeah, sorry!” and thought “why didn’t I know that?!”.
But it was quite a surreal job because I was in it between 2000 and 2002 when it was a hot show, I’d look out into the audience and see Cher, Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep – all the Americans were coming to see it. Of course, now we know why, because they made the film.
It was just glorious, though and my dad came to see it 35 times! He became a great fan of the show, he loved it.
Many people claim that Abba songs are notoriously difficult to sing, did you find that to be the case?
I think people who sing karaoke, for example, think it’s easy to just knock one out. We had the best musical team and they were very strict about what we did, it was very strictly organised and beautifully directed. I know we were given certain guidelines about how we were to sing the songs.
In fact I was in a tour of The Vagina Monologues with Linda Robson, we were in Worthing one night at a karaoke bar and the little minx got me up on stage to sing an Abba song, but all the words were wrong! That was really weird!
You’ve done many more musicals as well as Mamma Mia, would you be keen to perform in a musical again or indeed on stage in any capacity?
Yes, yes I would, I like to sing actually, I’m trying to get brave and follow my dear friends Annie Reid and Richard Dempsey, both of whom have done such brilliant cabarets. I’d love to have a go but I’m a bit scared, I’m trying to get my confidence together to do that.
I have to move onto Downton Abbey, the series finale was well worth waiting for, were you happy with how things turned out for Mrs Patmore? Did she have a good ‘send-off’?
I didn’t feel it was a ‘send-off’, because it didn’t feel like the end to me and it might not be the end, there might be a film, we don’t know. I didn’t feel like he’d put the final stamp on it, he did a bit with some characters, but I thought it was just a really good episode and very touching. It would have been nice if things had progressed a bit further with Mr Mason, but not everybody can have a happy ending because life isn’t like that.
I thought Mrs Patmore really got a chance to shine as a character in this series and I agree that she hasn’t had a storyline ‘ending’ as such, so if the rumoured movie does go ahead, what do you think we’d find the character doing in the future?
I have no idea, I wouldn’t even try to guess, I do know he’s got an idea for the movie and he’s always doing about five things at once, he’s a workaholic, so you never know!
The Downton Abbey Text Santa sketch for ITV was hilarious and easily lived up to expectations after the previous year’s effort featuring George Clooney, how many takes were needed to film it?
I think we did it a couple of times because I wasn’t sure how bonkers to be, really, but I just decided to be totally bonkers, I thought that was the way forward. Of course, Gordon Ramsay wasn’t actually there so I didn’t have anyone to shout at. But I got the best Christmas jumper, with a pudding on it! I’m glad you thought it was good because the George Clooney one was quite special wasn’t it.
As you’re a household name, you have been able to promote exceptionally worthwhile charities such as Animals Asia. How did they come to your attention?
I read about it on Twitter throughPeter Egan, Peter was a friend, not a close friend at that point, I didn’t know him very well but I was aware that Peter is very very involved with animal welfare. I remember clearly looking at a picture of a moon bear, about to investigate and read the article with it and said “oh god, Peter not another sad animal story”. I do follow him on Twitter, I read what he shares and it’s always sad, but on this occasion I didn’t think for one moment that it would grab my heart, which it did. Then I investigated the site and started reading about what bile bear farming is and I suppose interestingly when I look back, I was showing one of the videos to my niece here in America and my husband, just to show them and I started really sobbing and they looked at me like “what in god’s name is wrong with you?” and when I think about it, if I had been aware of it (which I wasn’t), that was probably a sign that I was totally hooked by the sadness and the tragedy of this.
Then I started to watch some of the films featuring Jill Robinson, there’s a very disturbing documentary called Cages of Shame which I watched, and I met her after that. Somewhere in the works somebody told me that 160 million people in China watch Downton Abbey, so I asked Jill if that meant I could be any help to her and she said “yes it would mean that and if you’re able to come out to China to visit us we could get the local press and use the fact that you’re here”. So I did and now I’ve been out four times because I’m totally and utterly besotted with Jill and the cause. To meet a moon bear is absolutely amazing and I’m totally up to my neck in it, I won’t ever be able to walk away from that.
The fact these bears can learn to trust humans again is something we can learn from, when all they’ve known is fear of pain and that a human has meant hurt to them – when you go out there you can hand feed them and they’re relaxed with you. You wonder how they’ve made that transition after twenty years stuffed in a cage.
Medical Detection Dogs is your other main charity, how did that one come to the fore?
I was at Chiswick Dog Show which is very close to where I live and I walked my dogs through the park and noticed these dogs with red jackets on and I heard someone say “go and find out about this, it’s amazing” so that got my interest and I went and listened to somebody and it was connected with things that I related to. I’ve had Cancer in the family and my husband has type 2 Diabetes, I love dogs and at this point they were quite a young charity, really not very well known at all. So I said “I think this is amazing and if there’s anything I can do”, I then watched a demonstration and met some of the dogs and the people, many of whom I’ve grown very attached to.
That is also not something I can walk away from, there are other ambassadors on board now and while I’m not in the country, that’s a good thing that other people are supporting and fundraising, but there place in my heart and always will be.
You recently filmed a piece for ITV’s This Morning reporting from Blue Cross and Dogs Trust, I thought it was fantastic…
I want to know if Teddy from Blue Cross has been re-homed! He was so beautiful and people are scared of staffies and rotties, but in the right hands they’re completely people pleasing, easily trained dogs.
I give money to the Oakfield Oldies because we can’t have a dog where we currently live.
Oh do you! They were lovely and I can’t tell you how full of beans they were. There was a fabulous one called Chewbacca, he’s 13 and probably has many years left because they go into their twenties, that breed. He was a beautiful dog and all he wants is to sit next to you and have a cuddle.
Are you going to be doing any more of those films for This Morning?
I think the door might be open to do more, yes, they seemed to be pleased with it, they know I’ve got an interest in animal welfare so it could be something different next time.
Favourite Things (give me your first reaction to these questions):
Favourite time of year?
Favourite memory from your career?
Seeing my dad dancing in the stalls at the Prince Edward Theatre, he was dancing to Waterloo.
Favourite Mrs Patmore line?
“Daisy, I said you could go for a drink of water, not a trip up the Nile”
and the other one which Sophie (McShera, who plays Daisy) and I laugh because we didn’t know what it meant:
“It’s you and me, Daisy, contra mundi”
Favourite way to spend your time off?
Walking the dogs on the beach.
Favourite holiday destination?
I’d like to go to Bali.
You can hear Lesley’s voice in ‘Goldie and Bear’ on Disney Junior – she plays the mad ‘Fairy Godmother’! I think I speak for many when I say I hope the ‘Downton Abbey’ film happens.
Also, ‘Teddy’ from ‘Blue Cross’ has been re-homed!!
Links to Animals Asia and Medical Detection Dogs can be found below: