What’s cooking at Downton?

Lesley Nicol as Mrs Patmore
Lesley Nicol as Mrs Patmore
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The staff are looking forward to a break this Christmas, but actress Lesley Nicol tells Lisa Williams there will still be plenty of drama to keep them busy.

There’s a world first awaiting viewers of the special two-hour Christmas Day episode of Downton Abbey. Despite all the cliff-hanging plotlines, actress Lesley Nicol, who plays the wealthy Grantham family’s harangued cook Mrs Patmore, wants us to notice a more basic detail.

“It’s the first time you’ll see Mrs Patmore without a hat on. No hat, no cap – you can actually see her lovely hair,” says Nicol, laughing.

The downstairs staff are free to let their hair down for part of Christmas Day after the Grantham family agree to tend to themselves.

“They’re quite a generous family so they don’t seem to crack the whip too much,” says Nicol, 58. “There’s a little event that the servants have as well, a ‘do’, so you see them in their civvies, and there’s even a bit of dancing.

“I’m pleased to say that Mrs Patmore does get involved in it, and with somebody most unlikely!”

In keeping with the season, staff deck the halls of Downton Abbey (filmed at Highclere Castle in Berkshire) with bows of holly and a “ginormous” Christmas tree.

Nicol reveals: “It’s gorgeous. You’ve never seen such a big tree. It goes practically up to the ceiling of Highclere. I got a sneak peek of the opening scene, and when the lights come on the music does a ‘whoosh’ as you see the tree – it’ll get people in the mood.”

But it’s not all fun and dancing during the festive special. Fans know that the second series ended with Lord Grantham’s valet John Bates arrested on suspicion of his wife’s murder, and with Matthew Crawley telling Lady Mary that a romance between them would be impossible after his fiancee Lavinia died of flu.

“The two love stories – Mary and Matthew and Bates and Anna – are very prominent, and people want to see those resolved,” says Manchester-born Nicol. I always get asked what’s going to happen to them and I have to say ‘Well, you better watch if you want to find out!’”

She can reveal, however, that the episode is as much of a “roller coaster” as previous ones.

“There’s usually a lot going on in Downton and this is no exception. And it is beautifully shot, it’ll be a real treat,” she says.

In the first and second series, Mrs Patmore has acted as mother hen to young kitchen recruit Daisy. She bossed her about in the kitchen and encouraged her to marry footman William on his deathbed, even though she didn’t return his feelings.

“The relationship between Mrs Patmore and Daisy goes on to a different level in the Christmas special.” says Nicol.

“Julian Fellowes [the writer] recognises that people change, and particularly in Daisy’s case as she’s getting older and bit more confident, so that’s going to have an effect on what happens between them.”

While Mrs Patmore seems at home fussing about the pots and pans in Downton’s kitchen, Nicol admits she can only cook “two or three dishes” well.

“The fact is I’m married to a very good cook, so he’s the main cook in our house,” she explains.

Many of her friends found it “hilarious” she’d landed the part of a cook on the series, having had to cook for themselves at some of her previous dinner parties.

“It was quite well known that if you came to my house at 7pm for your dinner you’d probably have to finish the cooking because I wasn’t ready and I’d be flapping!” she says.

There was more irony when her friend Anne Reid was cast as the cook in Upstairs, Downstairs.

“Anne rang me last year to tell me about her casting and we laughed like drains because if there’s one person who’s slightly less confident in cooking than me it’s definitely Anne Reid! And I can say that with love and affection because she really doesn’t like it.

“It seems very ironic that her and I should be heads of cooking on television!”

Alastair Bruce is Downton Abbey’s historical advisor – referred to by the actors as “the Oracle”. He says that at Christmas the link between the staff and the family in a great house was important.

“With celebrations like the giving of presents and the servants’ ball, it was very special to be brought in to meet and share with the family. It was a tradition at Christmas that those in a position of greatness shared with those that were less fortunate.”

Christmas in 1919 had an extra-special feel. “As it was the end of the war there was a tremendous amount of celebration. They have been through so much and look forward to the joy of a new beginning.

“Prince Albert introduced this Bavarian tradition of putting up trees from his childhood and it caught on. A house like this would have been able and keen to get a tall and wonderful tree and it would be festooned with decorations, both the family and staff would have been involved in preparing it and it added in the build up to the great celebrations.”

Susannah Buxton is Downton Abbey’s Emmy award-winning costume designer. Having designed the costumes on series one and the beginning of series two, she came back for Christmas and explains how the whole look and style is beginning to change, moving away from the Edwardian era and into the Twenties.

“We’re seeing dresses and styles we haven’t seen before, the shapes must change without making any kind of leap, so it must be a smooth transition. We’re seeing a lot of slightly drop waists, just hovering where the waist would be and the men go in for black tie for informal occasions but we only touch on this.”

Susannah says she had a lot of fun designing the costumes for the shooting party scenes. “The beauty of designing for the shoot was that I had amarvellous opportunity to design in tweed and I could use a lot of different styles with colours that all blended perfectly.

“I could put the pieces of cloth of the lead actors together before they were made to make sure they all looked good together and I think it worked really well.

“It’s always a collaboration. It helps them work with the character and the progression of the story. Michelle (Dockery, who plays Lady Mary) is a particular favourite and is a real pleasure to work with; she has a fantastic figure and has a real sense of what works for her.

“I hope it’s going to look romantic, rich and sumptuous.”

Downton Abbey is at on ITV1 on Christmas Day.