By Jill Vejnoska
Mrs. Patmore was in the house. And she wanted . . . coffee?
“Or tea, whatever’s hot,” actress Lesley Nicol said genially at the Swan Coach House in Buckhead on Thursday morning, having just arrived pulling her own rollerboard suitcase behind her. “I didn’t get a chance to have anything at the hotel.”
It was all a bit discombobulating for your average, rabid “Downton Abbey” fan, who knows Nicol as the show’s below-stairs, blunt-talking cook, Mrs. Patmore. Indeed, Nicol told a crowd of about 100 people at the Swan Coach House, someone right here in Atlanta had taken one look at her in “real life” and exclaimed “You look fifty years younger!”
“Which makes me about 10,” Nicol, 61, drolly concluded.
“Downton Abbey” is the highest rated drama in PBS history, drawing 10.1 million viewers for last Sunday’s fifth season premiere episode. Four days later, Georgia Public Broadcasting invited some of its big donors and most loyal members to have brunch with Nicol. The surprisingly petite and sweetfaced actress with auburn locks was already scheduled to be in Atlanta on Wednesday for a gift show at the Merchandise Mart; so “basically we jumped over our desks” to arrange the brunch, said GPB communications manager Mandy Wilson.
The enthusiastic “jumping” went both ways. At the beginning of the brunch (held, appropriately enough, downstairs in the Swan Coach House’s elegant Bellenita Room) Nicol spent about 10 minutes going from table to table, greeting people, posing for photos and accepting hugs. Later, she perched her 5-foot-1 1/2 inch frame on a raised chair for a spirited Q&A moderated by GPB radio and television host Bill Nigut.
A few tidbits that emerged: That’s real food being eaten in “Downton’s” elaborate dining room scenes, just not fish anymore (“Those scenes go on [filming] forever, and the fish stunk to high heaven”). Rob James-Collier is nothing like his scheming alter ego character, Thomas, the mere mention of whose name set the crowd to hissing. (“He’s a good actor”). Nicol’s no cook herself, but she hardly lets that affect her portrayal of Mrs. Patmore (“I do what [real] chefs do: I garnish, I check presentation and I shout!”).
Her own cooking ability — or lack thereof — is what people most want to ask her about, Nicol confided in a pre-bunch interview. She’s so identified with Mrs. Patmore now, her old school in England asked her to come back for a reunion and give a speech — but, in costume as the ruddy-faced cook!
“If I was a doctor, would I be asked to come in scrubs and stethescope?” Nicol asked rhetorically, before dissolving into laughter. Luckily, she was already scheduled to be working that day. “I didn’t have to say anything other than ‘That’s odd. I won’t be able to come.'”
But the respected character actress, whose resume includes a two-year co-starring sting in “Mamma Mia” in London’s West End, is hardly complaining. Along with a regular job on a hit show, “Downton’s” brought her some guest-starring roles on American TV (“Hot in Cleveland” last month, “Supernatural” next month). And now that she and her hubby spend a few months in L.A. each year, they’ve gotten to spend some quality time with Bette Midler, director J.J. Abrams and a few other celebrity “Downton Abbey” fans.
Not to mention the non-celebrity fans.
“A Mexican girl in Costco asked me, ‘Are you Mrs. Patmore?!’ She’s obviously thinking why would Mrs. Patmore be in Costco in L.A.?'” chuckled Nicol, who begins shooting Season Six of “Downton” next month in the U.K. “I think my voice is very recognizable here. Because it’s very British and people go, ‘Hang on, I know that voice.'”
Still, she’s no Jim Carter. Forget L.A. and Costco.
. Even back in England, it seems, the 66-year-old actor who plays Mr. Carson, “Downton’s” all-seeing and all-eyebrows butler, has become a bonafide matinee idol.
“He’s been out with Laura (Carmichael), who plays Lady Edith and people have pushed her out of the way to say hello to him,” Nicol said. “It’s happened to me. Women elbow me out of the way to get to him!”