“There’s a thing in the U.K. called Celebrity MasterChef,” Nicol says, sipping a cup of Earl Grey tea at the London Hotel in West Hollywood. “I’ve been asked several times to go on that. I keep saying, ‘No, you have to be at a certain level before you even think about that, and I’m not there at all. When you look really hard, I’m doing a bit of seasoning, but I make sure I don’t do anything that will look really wrong.”
Over a lengthy afternoon tea service, she tells me a story of a disastrous dinner she cooked for her husband, to whom she has been married six years (“He came to me later on in life,” she says), an attempt to make a prawn risotto that backfired magnificently when she opted to substitute arborio for brown rice.
“This is where being a proper cook is an issue,” she says, laughing. “Before he was around, it was quite understood with my friends that if they came for dinner, they would probably have to finish cooking it because it wouldn’t be ready. I haven’t gotten any better.” Still, she says, “when it’s made with love, it tastes good, doesn’t it? The first meal my husband ever made me was a chicken curry. I have never tasted anything so delicious in my life.”
And Mrs. Patmore, it must be said, loves her job. “She cares very much,” says Nicol, perusing a tower of scones and finger sandwiches. “You don’t ever see the dishes very close up, but they are wild and wacky, some of them, particularly this last season because they’ve had a lady come in to create and design them. What they would taste like, I don’t know, but they look amazing.”
Nicol looks little like her character. On a cloudy Los Angeles afternoon, her hair cascades down to her shoulders, and there is not a single trace of the starched uniform of the stately home’s downstairs brigade, or of the corset she endures for hours at a time.
Her resume reveals a lengthy career on both the stage and screen, and several turns in the West End, where she appeared as Rosie in the ABBA musical Mamma Mia! and originated the role of Auntie Annie in the stage play of East Is East. She would go on to reprise her role in the 1999 feature film adaptation, opposite The Good Wife’s Archie Panjabi, and 11 years later in the film’s sequel, West Is West. She also appeared in a series of Tetley tea adverts—where she played an improvisational character called Aunt Tea opposite such celebrities as Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall—directed by The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci.
Still, Nicol is perhaps best known as Downton’s Mrs. Patmore, the plucky and outspoken cook whose bossiness, particularly towards hapless assistant Daisy (Sophie McShera), is now as legendary as her unexpected quips. Season 3 of Downton Abbey, which returns to PBS’s Masterpiece Classic on Jan. 6, finds Mrs. P. inching her way closer to full-blown friendship with her rival, housekeeper Mrs. Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and, judging from some promos for the show’s Christmas special—which will air in the U.K. on Christmas Day and stateside as the season finale in February—it appears that romance may be in the cards for Mrs. Patmore.
“There could indeed be,” Nicol says. “I made a request for this. I’ve asked them over the last two years, but I spoke to Julian [Fellowes] the very first day of this season. Then I worried and I thought, I’ve asked him too many times and I think he’s getting fed up … I even suggested somebody that it could have been. But he went a different way.”
As for why Nicol was so resolute in her pursuit of finding a suitor for Mrs. Patmore, she says it was because dramatizing late-in-life romances isn’t exactly typical. “People in their 50s in the world, there’s a perception that they won’t have feelings like that, which of course is complete rubbish,” she says. “And I thought there might be some comic potential if we saw her suddenly get a bit hot and bothered.”
The third season also revisits Mrs. Patmore’s relationship with her protégé, Daisy, delivering a fantastic scene for Nicol that shows the true emotion she has for Daisy, which lies hidden beneath the blustering façade.
“That’s what’s so brilliant,” Nicol says of Fellowes’s scripts. “There’s no token character in this. Everybody is given an opportunity to explore their vulnerabilities, so gradually you do see her softer side. Then you see that she actually loves Daisy very much and would kill for her and would not let her be hurt by anybody.”
McShera, who plays Daisy, later confides in me in New York that she calls Nicol her “telly mummy.” The two are inseparable on and off the set, and once even turned up to an event in the same leopard print. “She’s so maternal,” says McShera of Nicol, “she’s motherly and we’re just like that with each other. We’ll have conversations that you could probably see Daisy and Patmore having.”
That closeness has paid off, most notably in the third season, where Daisy and Mrs. Patmore nearly come to blows over the management of the kitchen, and where Mrs. Patmore is forced to come to terms with the notion that Daisy may not want to follow in her footsteps. Nicols delivers a stunning performance, a single facial expression demonstrating the weight of her loneliness and the possible loss of Daisy from her life. It’s a fleeting moment, but one heavy with emotion, one that Nicol is pleased to hear resonates on screen. “I think I said to the director, ‘Did you catch that?’”
Off-screen, Nicol has had quite a year. She and her husband are currently living in Los Angeles—and “driving around in a gold Jaguar,” according to McShera—and she’ll return to the U.K. in February to film Season 4 of Downton. But for Nicol, the highlight of the past 12 months, she says, was being photographed by legendary fashion photographer Bruce Weber for German Vogue magazine.
“He’s a genius,” Nicols coos. “He came into the makeup room and he put his hand on my cheek and he went, ‘She has beautiful skin. Don’t cover her skin. She has beautiful skin.’ I’m standing there going, I have beautiful skin! He just genuinely makes you feel fantastic. Two things I wouldn’t be necessarily very comfortable doing: one is wearing a dress because I usually don’t—I feel happier in pants—and the other thing is dancing as myself in front of people. I’ve been in Mamma Mia!, I’ve done some shows. That’s no problem at all. But as me, I would feel self-conscious. Well, he did both those things. He said, ‘Bring some clothes with you.’ They weren’t remotely interested. They brought a Marina Rinaldi dress from Milan that morning. I put it on and actually it looked quite nice.”
“People have preconceptions about women of a certain age,” she continues. “If someone had said to me 20 years ago, in your late 50s, you’re going to have a photograph taken by this guy for German Vogue, I’d have gone, ‘What? Surely not.’ That’s Downton Abbey, things like that have happened because of the show.”
Of course, says Nicol, not everything that Downton has wrought has been as wonderful.
“Within about three weeks of Episode 1, Season 1, there was a doll on the Internet, a Mrs. Patmore doll, which was the ugliest thing you have ever seen in your entire life,” says Nicols, imitating the doll’s ghastly facial expression before chuckling. “It was horrible!”