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Mrs. Patmore and Daisy Visit ‘Downton Abbey: The Exhibition’ in New York City
November 18, 2017  | By David Hinckley

Trust the downstairs people to know where the secrets were hidden in Downton Abbey.

A new retrospective celebration called Downton Abbey: The Exhibition opens Saturday in New York and Lesley Nicol, who played chief cook Mrs. Patmore in the beloved series, isn’t 20 feet inside before she points to a chest tucked in a corner.

“This,” she says, “is where we kept our cell phones. And sometimes a snack.”

Cell phones, okay. But a snack? Didn’t Mrs. Patmore run the kitchen?

“I don’t cook,” says Nicol. She laughs. So does Sophie McShera, who played Mrs. Patmore’s assistant, Daisy, and has joined her again for this tour.

In the interest of full disclosure, Nicol adds that McShera “can bake.”

McShera rolls her eyes with a modest shrug that says probably not for a party of 25 aristocrats at Downton.

Ah, those Downton dinners. Viewers feel like they can still taste the pheasant and the wine, which is why NBC Universal put this exhibition together. If all goes well, it could serve as a bridge between the heartbreak of the series coming to an end in 2016 and the tantalizing if not yet concrete prospect of a Downton movie.

McShera and Nicol have heard that movie talk, and they’d love to join the fun. “But at this point, we’ve really not heard anything,” says McShera. “We’re in the dark like everyone else.”

The re-created Downton kitchen at the exhibition is bright and quite tangible, and for its former proprietors, it summons a random pack of memories.

Looking at Mrs. Patmore’s hand-written recipe book, a cook’s bible, Nicol recalls how the producers wrote a stash of letters, never seen on-air, that helped the actors flesh out each character’s backstory.

“That’s where I found out my first name was Beryl,” says Nicol. “It was in one of the letters.”

McShera picks up a chopper, her favorite kitchen implement, and muses how fish was often used to portray chicken on the plates, “because it looked better.”

That calls to mind the lobster.  

“One day they brought in this giant lobster,” says Nicol, “which everybody loved because it looked sensational. But it had started to go bad. Then they put it in the refrigerator and brought it out the next day, by which time, of course, it smelled worse. We finally told them to get rid of it.”

This is not a complaint. This is two veteran players returning to a meticulous re-creation of the field and savoring memories of the games.

The kitchen, the dining room, the bedroom of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) and more will have that same familiarity to fans in Downton Abbey: The Exhibition, which opens Saturday at 218 W. 57th St. in New York (www.downtonexhibition.com).

It packs a whole lot of Downton into three floors, making the visitor feel he or she has entered the estate. You almost expect to see Isis or Pharoah trot in for a biscuit.

Besides refreshers on all the characters and bonus video from folks like the butler Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the exhibition includes fun features like a 10-question application for a job at Downton.

To a question about what to do if your employer faces a vexing problem, for instance, possible answers include either trying to solve it or stifling a chuckle. Choosing both is not permitted.   

The exhibition naturally also features dozens of costumes, from Lord Grantham’s black-tie dinner outfit to both wedding gowns worn by Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) – the one in which she was left standing at the altar and the one in which she finally made it to the “I do.”

There is also a sprinkling of downstairs costumes, which are somewhat less elaborate. McShera notes that it was a festive occasion when Daisy wore a blouse, which she adds “really belonged to Lady Sybil [Jessica Findlay-Brown] . . . . That was what Daisy would have worn, hand-me-downs.”

To the possible surprise of some fans, both Nicol and McShera say they never had wardrobe envy.

“Our outfits were comfortable,” says McShera. “And once we were in them, we could stay in them. The people upstairs had to change all the time, maybe a dozen times a day.

“We liked to look at their costumes. We didn’t want to be wearing them.”

“Besides not always being comfortable, those beautiful outfits were fragile,” Nicol adds. “If you put your hand on a sleeve, you could tear it. Our outfits, you could dump your lunch on them and it didn’t matter.”

Downstairs characters also had to spend less time in hair and makeup, though there were unique touches.

“They put little marks that looked like burns on Lesley’s arms,” McShera says. “For how she could have brushed against hot pans.

“On the back of my hands, they put little blotches, like eczema, which made them look horrible. They put black marks under my nails, to look like dirt. You couldn’t get it off. I’d go home and hand a cup of tea to someone, and when they’d see my hands and nails, they’d pull back and go ‘Euew.’ ”

Call it a price worth paying.  

Downton was a wonderful show to be on,” says McShera, who got to shepherd Daisy from a meek churchmouse into one of the show’s most nuanced and interesting characters – among other things, a campaigner for women’s and worker’s rights.

“I had absolutely no idea any of that was coming,” says McShera. “We were surprised every week. I got the joy of playing a character who grew up.”

Nicol says she and some of the other veteran actors urged the young ‘uns to savor it while it lasted.  

“Pay attention and enjoy the moment, we’d tell them,” she says. “They’re not all like this.”

It’s certainly not every set where the cast is invited to play Bananagrams – a relative of Scrabble – with Dame Maggie Smith.

“Anyone could play it with her,” says Nicol. “But she always wanted to win. And she’s very good.”

“I think Penny, Penelope Wilton, could sometimes beat her,” muses McShera. She laughs. “Of course, the people who were on the set with her all the time had more practice.”

In case anyone is wondering, Mrs. Patmore and Daisy will not be the regular docents at Downton Abbey: The Exhibition. They were just dropping in for a visit as things were undergoing final prep earlier this week.

“You might notice this kitchen table had shorter legs than a real kitchen table would have,” Nicol muses, “because I’m short and they didn’t want it to come up too far on me.”

A shorter table also served another unintended function.

“At the beginning, they put us in corsets,” McShera says. “Which got very tight. In between takes, we’d sometimes just sprawl out on the table to get some relief.”

Like all the Downton regulars, McShera and Nicol still get recognized on the street.

“We had one of those moments just this morning in Whole Foods,” Nicol says. “It’s different here in America than in England. People know you there, but they’re more reserved. Here, people run across the street to tell you they loved the show.”

That love over the last year and a half has been buoyed by the movie talk, and in September NBC Universal President Michael Edelstein said, “We’re hopeful to make a movie next year. We’re working on getting the script [by original creator Julian Fellowes] right.”

The only major cast member who seems to have pre-emptively declined participation is Smith, who suggested that if the show is set several years in the future, her Dowager Countess character would simply be too old.

For the others, perhaps a phone will ring soon in that unseen drawer in the corner chest, and it will be someone’s agent saying it’s time to take the costumes off the mannequins and climb back in.

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