Have a Very Downton Christmas
Published 08/12/2011 | 09:23
Fans are in for a two hour festive treat.
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 scene.
"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!"
A quick look at Nicol's CV reveals that Mrs Patmore is one of the many 'Mrs' characters she has played in her long career, which took seed when she fled boarding school in Manchester for a London drama school at the age of 17.
Among the most notable are Mrs Beaver in the Eighties television adaptation of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, and Mrs Pants in one memorable scene in Blackadder.
"I was only in a scene, but people remember it because of one of my lines. I'm talking about the privy at Blackadder's house, and I say, 'You mean you crap out the window?' And because I said that word on television in 1986, people remember it!"
:: Downton Abbey is on ITV1 on Christmas Day