Almost unrecognisable from her role as the dowdy housekeeper in Downton Abbey, Phyllis Logan is starring in an exotic new medical drama. She talks to Judith Woods about seizing the day and those Downton movie rumours…
‘Obviously I never had a career to speak of before Downton Abbey,’ says Phyllis Logan drily, raising an eyebrow for further effect. ‘I sometimes wonder how on earth did I fill my time?’ It’s not true, of course, but we all know what she means: sometimes a jobbing actress is swept away by a juggernaut of a role that takes her a very long way from where she used to be.
The Downton effect has had an impact on the career of every member of its award-winning ensemble cast. Lily James has starred in the BBC’s War & Peace and the movie Cinderella, Michelle Dockery landed a role as a criminal in the gritty US show Good Behavior, Joanne Froggatt played a serial killer in the ITV series Dark Angel – and now Phyllis is set to star in a new ITV drama series, The Good Karma Hospital.
But it’s her years in service to the Crawley family that have made her a poster girl for ladies of a certain age who refuse to accept that life holds no more adventure. When her doughty but warm-hearted character Mrs Hughes finally found love with the pompous but kindly butler Mr Carson, it struck a blow for midlife love. In those days ‘Mrs’ was an honorific title bestowed on senior female staff, regardless of whether they had ever wed, so Mrs Hughes’s comical angst about whether he would be expecting ‘a full marriage’ struck a chord with any woman over 40 who has ever fretted about going to bed with a new partner.
‘Mrs Hughes was aerated about the sex thing because she probably hadn’t had much experience, but that turned out to be the least of her bloomin’ worries,’ acknowledges Phyllis. ‘God preserve us all from nitpicking middle-aged men who can’t abide change.’
In the phenomenally successful series, which ran for six seasons, Mr Carson (played by Jim Carter) turned out to be irrevocably stuck in his ways – the routines of the big house where he had been serving for many years. Ironically, it was his new wife’s performance in the couple’s kitchen (as opposed to the bedroom) that proved his greatest source of disappointment.
Eventually, with affectionate pragmatism, the pair decided he should eat his meals at the Downton kitchen, cooked by Mrs Patmore, as before. ‘It’s a very identifiable scenario,’ says Phyllis, 61. ‘When a more mature couple makes a life together, each brings certain expectations and baggage and of course there’s always need for compromise, which some men in particular find difficult.
Phyllis, once best known for playing posh totty Lady Jane Felsham in the 1980s and 90s series Lovejoy, was a late starter herself when it came to settling down. She met her husband, Pirates of the Caribbean actor Kevin McNally, in the 1993 miniseries Love and Reason when she was in her late 30s, but they didn’t get round to tying the knot until she was 55. ‘I had always sworn I would never have an actor in the house because they are so much trouble and so vain, but you can’t legislate for Cupid’s bow,’ she says.
When she got together with Kevin, theirs was not a series of careful compromises but a classic coup de foudre. ‘I never thought real love – the sort where your blood tingles and your world explodes with joy – would happen to me at my time of life. I believed I had missed out. But I’m ever so glad it happened.’ A couple of years later, aged 40, she had their son David. He is now 20 and studying music and music production at university in Leeds.
Once upon a time, reaching six decades was a milestone to be dreaded rather than celebrated, but, in well-cut jeans and a flattering floaty top, her burnished hair hanging loose, Phyllis provides incontrovertible proof that though life may not begin at 60, it sure as heck continues at a rip-roaring pace – as long as you have the right attitude towards the rollercoaster.
‘We packed David off to university not so long ago and as we drove back to our house in West London we were listening to the Elaine Paige show on Radio 2,’ recalls Phyllis. ‘She played Peggy Lee singing “The Folks Who Live on the Hill” and as soon as I heard the line “and when the kids grow up and leave us” I burst into absolute floods of tears and spent the rest of the journey splashing about in the passenger seat. But since then I’ve thought a lot about empty nest syndrome and how once your chick flies the coop it gives women the freedom to stretch their own wings once more, too.’
And as fate would have it, Phyllis’s new role in The Good Karma Hospital has allowed her to do just that and will doubtless prove a source of inspiration to a great many female viewers in a similar position. Set in India, the series features another estimable actress, Amanda Redman, 59, who plays an eccentric expat running a ramshackle cottage hospital, which is short on resources and long on compassion.
‘It’s a cross between Holby City and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel but with dark secrets, so it should be right up everybody’s street,’ says Phyllis. ‘I play Maggie Smart, who has come to India for her daughter’s wedding and becomes unwell, so ends up in hospital and falls deeply in love. Not with a man – she already has a husband – but rather with the community, the culture and the way of life. She’s a fascinating character who has such humour and joie de vivre and it was great to play a woman finding herself and connecting with a wider spirituality.’
Phyllis spent months filming the six-part series on location in Sri Lanka. She, too, found herself smitten with the place and the people and at one point Kevin flew over from the US where he is in the cast of the US television series Turn: Washington’s Spies and they managed a 12-day break together. ‘We stayed in a hotel on the beach and it was bliss. The majority of the population are Buddhists and seemed so calm, open and thankful for whatever life gave them; I think we could all learn from them.’
All the same, Phyllis isn’t entirely convinced she believes in karma as a concept. ‘It would be nice to think that if you are a decent human being then eventually things will turn out right,’ she says. ‘But fate can intervene and pull the rug out from under you without warning and there might be nothing you can do.’
It is something she and Kevin can speak of from personal experience. Phyllis’s mother died from a dementia-related illness aged 90, but it was the agonisingly slow decline of Kevin’s mother over many years that proved more devastating. ‘Kev’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in her early 60s and from then on his father became her carer and it was so hard for him. She reached the point where she didn’t recognise her own son and was agitated and upset because she had no idea where she was or who she was; that was heartbreaking to witness.’
Phyllis is an ambassador for Dementia UK and does what she can to support the charity’s work. ‘It’s such a cruel disease. I am aware there’s a genetic component so I do brain-training on my phone every day. Will that help stave it off? I have no idea; I think of Iris Murdoch – such a clever woman who dealt with words and complex memories all her life, and yet all those things that made her so creative and unique were taken while she was still alive. Ultimately, all you can do is cross your fingers and make the most of every day.’
Phyllis is certainly doing that. Last year was a veritable Air Miles bonanza; as well as her sojourn in Sri Lanka she went to Sydney for a Downton DVD launch, Los Angeles where the ensemble cast of Downton won yet another Screen Actors Guild Award, and then to New York to receive the prestigious Great Scot Award from the US branch of the National Trust for Scotland (previous recipients include comedian Billy Connolly and actor Alan Cumming). She wore a dress bought in John Lewis embellished for the occasion with a tartan sash and matching ribbon.
‘I’m not interested in fashion,’ Phyllis confides. ‘It’s just not on my radar. Whenever I’m doing a contemporary role, the wardrobe mistress will usually say, “Let’s go to Selfridges and get a personal shopper.” Most women would probably love it, but my face falls because I absolutely hate trying on clothes. One of the things I loved about Downton was the fact I had two outfits and maybe a coat if I got to go into the village; the girls in the Crawley family kept having to go for fittings every time there was a big dinner, which would have driven me mad.’
Reading Alan Bennett’s Keeping On Keeping On. I love him; my husband Kev played him in the stage version of The Lady in the Van.
Listening to The Today programme on Radio 4 and Classic FM.
Watching I do enjoy a good nature documentary. Planet Earth II was spectacularly good.
Guilty pleasure A whole bag of Kettle Chips with a crisp glass of Picpoul de Pinet.
Beauty product Boots No7 moisturiser; it’s not fancy but it does the job.
Desert island luxury A karaoke machine, stage, lights and all the songs from the 70s. I’ll make a row of coconuts for an audience and there’ll be no stopping me.
The ongoing international popularity of Downton means Phyllis and various other cast members are still asked to appear at events to meet the fans and launch DVDs. She’s often asked about her wigs and whether she kept one; she had three identical hairpieces all of which she affectionately dubbed Elsie.
‘People ask me if I was tempted to take a wig or that big bunch of keys I carried, but that would be theft, because these things aren’t my property,’ says Phyllis emphatically. ‘Besides, if there’s a Downton movie, which I hope will happen, all the props and costumes will be needed.’
Ah yes, the Downton film; rumours still swirl but so far there’s been no confirmation. According to Phyllis it may yet happen if – and it’s a huge if – the cast members can ever be gathered in one place long enough. ‘It’s like herding cats!’ she laughs. ‘We’re all so busy and in different countries, but it would be such fun to get together again. The camaraderie on set was extraordinary.’
Phyllis was in every episode of the family saga. Her husband even appeared in a handful of episodes as Horace Bryant, the stern father of an army major who fraternised with housemaid Ethel (Amy Nuttall), getting her pregnant before he died in action. Horace persuaded her to hand over his grandchild to him, which was brutal but necessary as she had been sacked from Downton in disgrace and had taken to prostitution in order to survive.
‘I was quite miffed that the producer had offered Kev a job without even consulting me,’ laughs Phyllis. ‘I wouldn’t dream of queering his pitch – although I do think I’d be great as Johnny Depp’s mother in a Pirates of the Caribbean film [in which Kevin plays Joshamee Gibbs]. And every lad needs a cuddle from his mother now, doesn’t he?’ Her eyes glitter with the sort of mischief Mrs Hughes would most certainly not approve of, but now Phyllis has emerged from the shadow of her fictional alter ego, she is keen to push boundaries.
Last summer she resolved to challenge herself by taking on a theatre role in a dazzling touring production of Noël Coward’s Present Laughter, alongside Samuel West. ‘The prospect of going back on stage was a bit frightening, but that is exactly why I embraced it,’ she says. ‘I can be a bit of a scaredy-cat so I have to push myself and I was so very glad I did. It took me right back to my early days as an actress: booking my own digs, sitting on the seafront on my day off eating fish and chips. I also got to see fascinating places such as Canterbury, Cambridge and Brighton.’
Seeing the world – be it near or far – is something she gently urges all women to do once the kids have left. ‘Travel does broaden the mind and fill the senses,’ she says. ‘It gives you a new perspective and there are so many beautiful regions in Britain that I can think of no better way to spend time than exploring them because you’re a long time dead – so carpe diem, ladies!’
The Good Karma Hospital will be on ITV next month. Phyllis is an ambassador for Dementia UK and is supporting its campaign timeforacuppa.org
Styling: Natalie Read. Hair: Alex Price at Frank Agency. Make-up: Lucy Gibson at Frank Agency using Clinique. Table and vase, both Habitat
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