Actress Lesley Nicol was in Chicago for a few days minus the white apron and cap she wears in the kitchen of PBS-TV’s “Downton Abbey.” She was here to bring the story of legendary English pianist Myra Hess to a sold-out crowd at the Chicago Cultural Center on Jan. 29.
The U.S. premiere of the theatrical production “Admission: One Shilling” with pianist Inna Faliks is being held in the hall where the free lunchtime Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concerts are presented by Chicago’s International Music Foundation. Written by Hess’ great-nephew and composer Nigel Hess, “Admission” celebrates Myra’s determination to lift the spirits of Londoners during World War II with noontime performances of classical music.
When “Admission” premiered in England, Patricia Routledge (BBC’s “Keeping Up Appearances”) played Myra. Nicol has her own personal connection to the performance: “I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama which is of course where Myra went,” Nicol told us, of the London institution. “So that's kind of nice.”
The Chicago rehearsals and performance are a break from a 3-month stint living on the West Coast with her husband and two dogs (a Tibetan terrier and rescue miniature poodle) where the “Downton Abbey” actress was surprised at the number of people who recognized her (even at Costco). While there, the actress added her voice to those of Owen Wilson and Woody Harrelson for an animated film (“Turkeys”) and headed to Vancouver to film a bit for ABC’s “Once Upon a Time.”
And while Nicol doesn’t consider herself a cook, she does appreciate the Downton pros around her who keep the whisk and kettle action true. How else would the culinary disaster of a broken hollandaise be saved by a yolk in Season 3?
She’ll be heading back to her West London home soon for the February filming of Season 4 of “Downton Abbey.” But we caught up with Nicol for a chat on goings-on in the kitchens of Downton Abbey. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: So Alastair Bruce, the historical adviser to the show, does he find stuff wrong in the kitchen? (See Bruce tour the kitchen on YouTube)
A: He’s very strict. It’s as simple as this: In (this) season, we’ve got more people in the kitchen because there are more kids around now that the war’s over. And there was a thing where the director said, “So, I think Mrs. Patmore comes in with Daisy, and she’s got a tray...” and Alastair goes, “No!” And we go, “No? No tray?” And he says no, because now we have plenty of staff back, and Mrs. Patmore does not carry the tray. She doesn’t need to carry the tray because there are plenty of people to do that. And you won’t find her doing the menial tasks in the kitchen because she doesn’t have to. Her job is Gordon Ramsay. She’s seasoning, she’s checking, she’s making sure everything is up to speed like a proper chef. ... It’s not carrying a tray. It’s the servant’s role. He’s always looking for detail like that.
Q: Alastair covers people’s behavior, who does what, that sort of thing. What about the food?
A: We also have some very good props guys who are the ones who prepare the dishes, give you the equipment if you’re whisking something or whatever. Luckily one of the prop guys is a chef. So he’s fabulous. But he is a proper chef so fortunately. And I try to avoid doing anything technical so nobody will be able to say well that doesn’t look right. But we were doing something with a sauce, and I just said to him: “What stage are we? What have we done? And where are we at, and what do we have to achieve?” and he would just be able to tell you that.
We also have a home economist who creates those big dishes when there’s a dinner party and amazing elaborate dishes. She brings those in. So if we need to, we can ask her technical questions.
What’s also helpful, they have a couple of working rings on the stove. So that if things are being cooked you will see steam always. ... And if a cup of tea is poured, it will be coming out boiling because they do care about that detail.
Q: What are some of the challenges you’ve had in that kitchen?
A: Usually there’s a scene going on that is not about the cooking. Cooking is happening on the side of it. Every time we’re in the kitchen, in order to get the right activity happening and the energy level and the speed of it, we always say, “What part of the day are we in? Have we made lunch? Is this lunch? Where are we?” That dictates who’s doing what and at what speed. As far as the speed goes, Alastair said at the very beginning, which has been really helpful for us, “This is a really, really busy part of the house.
Sometimes not as busy, but usually when there is action, you are going at it like a rocket.” ... He says this house was providing food for the family, maybe guests and the servants. They were eating three times a day on top of which there would be other things as well. It was like an engine that had to go. There was a real urgency to do it efficiently and fast. So you will never see a kitchen scene slow. It just doesn’t feel right. ... It’s kind of organized chaos.
Q: On set, your meals are served aboard a double-decker bus, but are there any good cooks on the set?
A: The wardrobe department, there’s a girl who bakes beautiful cupcakes and things. Sophie (McShera) can bake, the little girl who plays Daisy. She doesn’t much, but she can bake. I know she can. She does bring stuff in.
Q: There are lots of great TV cooks in England, do you have a favorite?
A: Delia Smith — everybody swears by her, don’t they. When I have a dinner somewhere and people go: “Delia.” And then everyone goes, “Oh, Delia! You can’t go wrong with Delia.” If I was a cook and did a lot of cooking, I would head for Delia probably.
Q: I know you don’t cook, but I bet you boil an egg occasionally?
A: Oh, yes, yes. It’s not my joy to do it, but of course I can up to a point. But I do have disasters and then that throws me. ... I have a few things I can do like mince and potatoes — that’s ground beef. Roast chicken. Shepherds pie. I can do eggs and bacon. And I tried to find something healthy and I found a recipe for prawn risotto. And you had to put the rice and spices and get that all going and that would have been lovely except that I put brown rice because I thought it would be healthier rather than white and. ... we never did cook it because it became known as prawn grit because it was absolutely inedible.
Q: But your husband cooks, right?
A: He does a very good curry. ... The first meal he ever made me was chicken curry. It was the most delicious thing I’d ever tasted in my life.
A: I don’t think anyone’s ever been offended. It’s the highest form of flattery for a start and mostly they’re very funny.
Q: And Maggie Smith off camera?
A: I love her. I haven’t worked with her at all, haven’t done any scenes with her, but I get to sit with her when there are big groups scenes when everybody’s there. ... She’s very witty lady. She’s a funny lady.
Q: There was life before “Downton” of course and a wide variety of roles — Auntie Annie in “West is West” and “East is East,” Tetley Tea ads, parts in “Miss Marple,” “Blackadder” — any role you’ve particularly enjoyed?
A: I played Rosie in “Mamma Mia” in the West End ... I stayed for two years because it was such a fun job. I mean, three women in their middle years running around in Lycra with great roles and at the end, singing “Waterloo” to an audience all on their feet because they all want to dance was a bit like playing a rock concert which obviously I’d never done.