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How did you get involved in ‘Downton’?
‘An email came through that said, “Accident at Downton”. And I thought: why are they telling me this? But I didn’t have my glasses on – it actually said “Inquiry”. And I went, “Oh my God, my favourite programme in the entire world!” I met with Julian Fellowes and some others and they asked if I’d be interested in doing a cameo as Dame Nellie. I couldn’t say yes fast enough, I nearly choked. It was the most wonderful experience.’
What’s the appeal of the series?
‘The story’s very special and very delicate. Beautifully written and performed.’ Did you research the role? ‘I have someone in New Zealand who knew a lot about her, and the Metropolitan Opera had a lot of information about her. I’d been very interested in her anyway. I had her logsheet of all her performances and saw how much she earnt and how many roles she played. Almost every other night she was doing a different role in a different town in America, and her wage would have been about £3m today for that year.’
Who chose the songs you’d perform?
‘I was told “Songs My Mother Taught Me” was one of her favourites and she sang it everywhere, so we tried to copy this recording of her doing it. And “O Mio Babbino Caro” was another of hers – I was trying to stay true to the character. She’s the only real-life character in the whole “Downton” series.’
How did you get on with the acting?
‘I’m not sure I was acting…’ Who do you interact with? ‘Lord Grantham and Branson. I took my two dogs along, although Lady Carnavon [owner of Highclere Castle, where ‘Downton’ is filmed] didn’t want them anywhere near the place. Then I got dog number three and she’s called Abbey, after “Downton”!’
Can you talk through the day of filming?
‘It started quite early – it was a long day – I got there and my first line went “bleurgh”. The second time I sort of got it out. It was the most exciting and frightening thing, because you're with people who are incredibly comfortable with what they're doing. It was a great privilege.’