The upstairs and downstairs of life

2012-02-18 00:00

THE multi-Emmy and British Academy of Film and Television Awards (Bafta) winning period drama Downton­ Abbey is making its debut on South African screens at 8.30 pm tomorrow night.

Airing on BBC Entertainment (DStv channel 120), the series, which is written and created by Oscar-winning writer Julian Fellowes (The Tourist, The Young Victoria, Gosford Park), depicts life in an Edwardian country house in 1912.

The Crawleys have been the Earls of Grantham since 1772, but their lives are thrown into turmoil when the heirs to the estate die on the ill-fated Titanic’s maiden voyage.

The arrival at Downton of the new heir, distant relative Matthew Crawley, creates more turbulence as the family must come to terms with their precarious financial situation and a changing world.

Meanwhile, below stairs, the servants are as fiercely possessive of their ranks as those above, and there’s plenty of plotting, intrigue, love and scandal on both sides of the social divide.

The series stars British acting luminaries­ Dame Maggie Smith as Violet, Dowager Countess of Grantham, Hugh Bonneville as Robert­, Earl of Grantham and Elizabeth­ McGovern as Cora, the Countess of Grantham, as well as some of the country’s best character actors.

Among them is Lesley Nicol, who plays Mrs Patmore, the cook, who rules her culinary domain with a rod of iron and is at war with the butler, Carson, and the housekeeper, Mrs Hughes, who actually runs things in the great house.

Nicol, who has played a range of warm, eccentric and natural characters during her 30 years in the acting business, says that working on Downton was a dream job, not least because the set was just a short drive from her home in West London.

“Julian’s given Mrs Patmore some funny lines and also some lines that show her vulnerability, like the issue with her sight. That’s fantastic for an actor to be given because it’s just like real life.”

In the series Mrs Patmore’s vision problems are spotted by Lord Grantham and she’s sent to London to have her eyes checked by a specialist. While she’s away, Mrs Bird looks after the kitchen, something which worries Mrs Patmore terribly as she believes she might lose her job to the newcomer.

Asked what she thought of her character, Nicol said: “She appears to be a very irritable, bossy person. That’s what I thought when I first read the script, but of course nobody is just one thing in life, so you have to find out what’s underneath it.

“Both Julian Fellowes and Alastair Bruce [the royal equerry in charge of historical accuracy and etiquette­ on Downton Abbey] said that for the staff below stairs, every day was like a show, and you want this to be the best show in town — which was very helpful advice.

“If anyone came to Downton they were generally very important — dukes and visiting dignitaries, etc — so she can’t afford to make any mistakes with the food. And given that they ate about five times a day, the kitchen was the heart of the house.”

In creating the Edwardian world of the series, attention to detail was paramount. Mrs Patmore’s stove has two real hot plates, meaning the audience can see steam and pots bubbling away all day, which is how it would have been in 1912.

As part of her research for the role, Nicol, whose credits include acclaimed TV series like Blackadder, Shameless and Heartbeat, Mamma Mia in the West End, and roles in the film East is East and its sequel, West is West, read books on country living and cookery in 1912 — most of which suggested that cooks were extremely stressed by the heat in the kitchen and the number of meals they had to prepare.

“The cook was baking hot and so busy because everything was down to getting that food on the table, getting it hot and getting it spot on ... even our own meals revolved around serving the family and guests and the Crawley family just never stopped eating,” Nicol said.

“It was breakfast, then luncheon, then tea, dinner and then tea and biscuits in the evening. We were thinking about this the other day — how the heck could you eat all that food? They must have been small portions, they didn’t seem to do much exercise.”

• Downton Abbey can be seen on BBC Entertainment tomorrow (Sunday) night from 8.30 pm on DStv channel 120.

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