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My life: Lesley Nicol

The actor who plays Downton Abbey's irascible cook Mrs Patmore talks to Simon Parry about using her fame to help China's moon bears

 

BARD FOR CHILDREN I'd never been to mainland China before but I did come to Hong Kong in 1979, with a theatre company set up by the British Council. At that time, Chinese children were learning Shakespeare but never got the chance to see it. We brought a production of The Merchant of Venice and cut it down to the bare bones of the story. We did the play then we would go and sit in front of the children in character and they would be given the opportunity to ask us questions, so they would understand it better. People thought the children wouldn't want to speak to a bunch of gweilos, that they'd be too shy - but they absolutely joined in. It was great. I stayed for six months.

BEAR IN MIND I found out about Animals Asia after the actor Peter Egan came here a few months ago and said it was a life-changing experience. He is responsible for introducing me to the moon bears (at the Moon Bear Rescue Centre in Chengdu). I had no idea about them or about bile farming before that. Then I met (Animals Asia founder) Jill (Robinson). She came over to a couple of events in London and she really is something else. We're in the middle of filming series four of Downton Abbey and they gave us a week off. I was going to go to New York and then I said to my agent, "I want to go to China." I don't know what is going to happen at the end of the show. You don't know as an actor what's coming next. I said, "If I don't go now, I don't know when I'm going to go." He said, "Just go."

LAUGHTER AND TEARS We had a funeral for one of the bears today. I don't imagine there are many ordinary days here but this has been really jam-packed with events and emotional moments, and fun as well. It is a place with an awful lot of humour about it and I guess that is probably down to the leadership. Jill is such a fun lady. They are making such a difference to the lives of these animals. It is a place of utter goodness. Peter said these bears get a hook into your heart and I can see how that's true. All the other actors on Downton Abbey want to know what the experience is like here and I will tell them and anyone else who will listen.

EVERYBODY LOVES DOWNTONDownton Abbey is already being shown in China, on CCTV, with our voices dubbed into Mandarin. My agent found a clip of me and Daisy (a maid at Downton, played by Sophie McShera) having an argument in Chinese. I liked my voice - it was marvellous. The success of the programme is totally gobsmacking because it's being shown all over the world. I was in Los Angeles - my husband and I went there for three months after the last series - and I was in a supermarket, at the checkout, and a little Mexican girl looked at me and nearly fell off her feet. She said, "Are you Mrs Patmore?" I said yes and she said, "My family love your show." I thought, "There's a family of Mexicans watching Downton Abbey - this is too weird." Who knows why, but there seems to be something in it that touches people of all cultures. It has made a big change to my life. I have been an actress since I was 16 years old. In England before, people would ask me, "Are you an actress?" They think they might have seen you but they aren't sure. After Downton, everything changed. I went to the opening of the London Olympics and I get invited to things I wouldn't have been invited to before. I wouldn't be here in China - but I am here because I am in something on television that a lot of people are devoted to. So, if you can make any difference at all, why wouldn't you? That's how I feel about it.

FROM REEL TO REAL Am I like Mrs Patmore in real life? Well, I got a really good bit of advice from a friend, Anne Reid (who plays the cook in television drama Upstairs, Downstairs, currently being aired on BBC Entertainment). She is a wonderful actress. She advised me when I got this job, "Don't try to get complicated with this. You are right for this part. You know how to play it. Try to integrate whatever is appropriate of you, because it will make her richer as a character." So that's what I did. There are elements of Mrs Patmore I can relate to. Part of it is her humour. I can be sarky and quick-witted. And also, when you see her more vulnerable side, I do have that side to me, too. When I read the part, I thought: "I know where this woman is coming from." I'm not as bossy as her though. What's great about Downton writer Julian (Fellowes) is that he wrote 18 original characters out of his head. You are not just one thing and that is what is brilliant. We are all layered. We all have lots of characteristics and he explores that.

IN LOVE WITH THE COOK I met my husband nine years ago and we got married seven years ago. Mr Patmore, as I like to call him, is fabulous. He is extremely supportive. One difference between me and Mrs Patmore is that my cooking is terrible in real life. My husband is the cook. Some things I do are very good; roast chicken or meat and potatoes, for instance. Those are my signature dishes. I can go horribly wrong with other things. Once, because I felt guilty about him cooking all the time, I tried to make prawn risotto. I substituted brown rice for white rice because I know it's better for you but I didn't realise it takes much longer to cook. I had all the spices and ingredients and it should have been delicious but the rice didn't cook. We called it prawn grit.

Red Door News Hong Kong

 

For more information about Animals Asia, or to make a donation, go to www.animalsasia.org.

 

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