It is hard to believe the beloved historical drama Downtown Abbey is over. WYZA® chatted with Downton Abbey star Phyllis Logan about the end of an era and her six years as the loveable housekeeper Mrs Hughes on the award winning British drama.
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Phyllis Logan, 60, pulls up the blinds of her exclusive Sydney hotel room. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect her to do in her role as Mrs Hughes (later Mrs Carson) in TV drama Downton Abbey but that’s where the irony ends because as the blinds go up the views of Sydney Harbour are breathtaking. Her lavish surroundings are in stark contrast to her character’s simple means as the housekeeper of the estate in the award winning drama and they speak volumes about her status as one of the most admired TV actresses of recent times.
Logan is in Australia to promote the latest DVD release of Downton Abbey and to reflect on the show’s final season, a time that she says was both “sad and emotional” and the “end of an era” for herself and the rest of the cast.
What were your favourite moments from Mrs Hughes?
“On the last day on set we did this lovely scene where we were all singing ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ which is quite an emotional song anyway, but then we suddenly heard the crew say ‘That’s a wrap on Jim, Phyllis, Raquel and Lesley,’ and we were like ‘Oh God, this is really the end of it all,’” says Logan.
But the straw that broke the camel’s back was when Jim Carter who plays the ever stern and dutiful Butler, Mr Carson, began to well up, much to Logan’s surprise.
“Jim saw the boom operator and the camera dolly operator hug each other in the corner of the room. And then Jim started to get emotional and we all thought ‘Oh no, don’t!’ Because there was stalwart Jim getting sad and if he started there was no hope for any of us. It was terrible,” says Logan.
Logan says she became good friends with the ‘downstairs group’
Logan along with the cast of Downton Abbey won a prestigious award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series at the 19th Actors Screen Guild Awards in 2013. It’s a fitting tribute to a role that she now claims was the highlight of her career.
After graduating from The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in 1977 she began her acting career in theatre and then in TV films The White Bird Passes (1980) and the 1980s TV series Shoestring and Play for Today. But her big break came when she starred in the lead role of the 1983 film Another Time, Another Place for which she won numerous awards including a BAFTA award in 1984. She is also well known for her role as Lady Jane Felsham in the TV comedy drama Lovejoy which aired 77 episodes.
But Logan is more nostalgic about her recent stint on Downton Abbey and the tinge of sadness the cast felt on the final day’s shooting is a testament to how much this series meant to her and the cast and the enduring friendships they made in the six years and 52 episodes of filming.
Logan says she became good friends with the ‘downstairs group’ who she shared most of her scenes with, especially Jim Carter, and Lesley Nicol who plays Mrs Patmore. The actors live close by in London and she would often have a “good chin wag with them on the way to and from filming.”
Phyllis Logan and Jim Carter would often play tricks on crew members
“There were plenty of laughs on set with the cast,” reflects Logan. She even remembers some good-natured gags played on unsuspecting crew members.
“Sometimes Jim Carter would put the call out for everyone to come to his dressing room and so we’d all congregate there and lock the door so that the Second Assistant Director or another crew member couldn’t get in. We’d hide and pretend we weren’t there – it was hilarious fun,” she recalls.
While she doesn’t know of any real life romances on set, she does have some words to say about her own marriage to Pirates of the Caribbean actor, Kevin McNally, and about her character’s marriage to Mr Carson.
This onscreen romance made our hearts melt
Logan married McNally just five years ago in 2011, her first and only marriage. It’s a union that many have dubbed ‘a real life Mrs Hughes romance,’ but she is quick to dismiss any talk of a comparison.
“The only similarity is the ages that we got married. Kevin and I have been together for twenty two years and we betrothed ourselves to each way back then. It just took a while for us to get our act together,” she says.
McNally played the part of Horace Bryant in Series Two and Three and Logan was originally surprised when her hubby broke the news to tell her he would be joining her on set. “I wish the producers had told me, because I was a little upset at first. I felt like he was moving in on my pitch. But as it turned out it was good fun and we were in all the same scenes,” admits Logan.
About her character’s marriage to Mr Carson, Logan says she was originally sceptical about the idea. “I thought no, that’s just ridiculous, that can’t work,” she laughs. But having now reread many of her old scripts she can now “see some wee clues in the writing as to how they really felt for each other.”
As housekeeper, Logan didn’t get to wear the expensive, lavish 1920s clothes and art deco jewellery donned by upstairs cast members such as Laura Carmichael who plays Lady Edith Crawley, so was she envious of the ‘upstairs group’ for not being so fortunate with her costumes?
Logan says, “I just had the two outfits and I liked my costumes.”
“Yes and no,” says Logan quickly. “The upstairs people were constantly getting changed – sometimes up to seven times a day – because for every meal they had to be wearing something different. So they were constantly going to annoying fittings. I just had the two outfits and I liked my costumes. They were very beautifully made and quite smart,” she says.
She also didn’t envy the ‘upstairs people’ for having to sit through long shoots of extravagant dinner parties with food that was going off and ‘on the nose.’
“The chef would make all this amazing food but you couldn’t eat it because it had to be used for more than one days’ filming,” explains Logan. “They would spray it with this stuff to preserve it and then bring it out of the freezer the next day. When fish was on the menu, Jim would come down from filming with the upstairs people and say ‘Oh my God that haddock’s high!’ They just had to get through I suppose,” says Logan.
While Logan’s wardrobe was as simple as choosing from two outfits, one for day and one for night, her dressing routine was anything from easy. “Many people might not know that I had to wear a wig and corset right to the end of the show,” reveals Logan.
“I was in the corset at quarter to eight in the morning and wouldn’t take it off ‘til seven in the evening. It was very uncomfortable, but it fit the part,” she says.
Logan says her role taught her quite a bit about the plight of the servant class in times gone by. “I knew they worked hard in those days but what I didn’t know was exactly how hard they worked. If you were a footman or another kind of servant and your employer got up at 5am you were expected to get up with them, no questions asked. It’s hard to see how they ever had a life of their own,” she says.
Of all the shocking story arcs on the show none had a greater impact on her than the sexual assault of the character Anna Bates played by Joanne Froggatt. “It’s shocking to think that it was quite common for assaults to happen in these big houses in those days. These women were just going about their business and that’s the last thing they needed to happen,” she says.
“I had to wear a wig and corset right to the end of the show,” reveals Logan.
Logan doesn’t have any real life aristocracy in her family but she has rubbed shoulders with Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge who made a visit to the set and whom she describes as “delightful and a real fan of the show.”
She also recalls another memorable fan experience at a convention in Atlanta where she met a fan who had the dubious honour of having “Mrs Hughes’ housekeepers keys tattooed to her body.”
So what’s next for the veteran actress? “I might go into the theatre again,” says Logan. “Unless they want me for a Downton Abbey movie,” she adds. Until then she’s going to enjoy a bit of the ‘upstairs life’ herself – stately views, travelling and going out to fine restaurants. And, having faithfully served the Crawleys for so long, who can blame her?
(Featured image: s_bukley/Shutterstock)
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