Downton Abbey Dish #27

Deborah Gilbert | July 27, 2014

What better way to beat the summer heat than with some reruns of wintertime shows? You can settle down in front of the telly and pretend you’re snowed in in February (which you likely didn’t appreciate at the time, but which you may have a new appreciation for now that we are lumbered with 100% humidity.) Luckily for us, THIRTEEN and WLIW are rerunning some winter favorites in amongst the great new shows. First up is Call the Midwife. I don’t know about you, but as I was looking through the reality-blighted telly landscape the other night and came to my PBS stations and saw Call the Midwife listed, I just smiled and exhaled and settled down for a lovely evening with the ladies of Nonantus House. It was like catching up with old friends. Love it! And it’s so great to see the encore.

Among the many familiar faces in the Call the Midwife cast is Cliff Parisi, who is best known in the States for his long stint in EastEnders. Cliff had a long and very busy career in British TV before his friend Steve McFadden gave him the heads up that there was a part going in EastEnders. He auditioned and was cast as Rick Roach, Janine’s mean bedsit landlord. How mean was he? So mean that desperate Janine had to sleep with Ian Beale to get the money to pay her rent. That’s mean. But the producers liked him and decided to create a different part for him, and lucky for Cliff his character’s name had never been mentioned anywhere but the closing credits. This allowed the show to transition him from the bedsit to The Arches, where he became the lovable loser Minty Peterson, comic foil for Phil Mitchell, and partner in haplessness for the equally lovelorn Garry Pele Hobbs.

Born in Hackney, in London’s East End, Cliff is on familiar turf in both EastEnders and Call the Midwife. Recently I interviewed him about EastEnders for The E20 Chronicles. And of course, I had to ask him about Call the Midwife as well! When we spoke it was early evening in London and he and his wife just finished putting their young son, who was ‘being a bit of a monkey’ to bed.

E20: You were on EastEnders for over eight years. What was it like coming off such a long run?
CP: It’s odd because it is so much a part of your life, but what was brilliant was I’d got married just before and I had a small child, a new baby, so I had this great life to go too. When I was working on EastEnders I didn’t see much of my new family and so when EastEnders finished I had a lot more time to spend with them, and so that was brilliant. Obviously I missed everybody up at EastEnders but pretty much immediately, I think the week after I left, I started work on a musical. After that I did five different TV shows, and then Call the Midwife came up, so I haven’t really stopped. But the schedule isn’t as punishing as EastEnders. None of the schedules are.

E20: EastEnders was established before you joined but with Call the Midwife you were in at the beginning. Does that make a difference for an actor?
CP: Yes, I suppose so because we were all new and all boarding a new ship and we didn’t know where it was going to go. We had the books so we could see what was going to happen in the first series but we had no idea what was going to happen after that. And Fred has developed quite a lot so I wasn’t expecting Fred to have quite as much to do. This year there’s lots of exciting things happening. It’s a great show. What a fantastic cast, and probably the most talented team of writers that I’ve ever worked with on a TV series. And the design department, the producers, and everybody on it are so excellent and so experienced. It’s such a lovely show because it’s not as intensive so we do have time to reflect and look at it and work out what we’re going to do. It’s not as fast paced as EastEnders. So it’s much more of a collaboration in lots of ways with the actors.

E20: Was Fred based on a real person?
CP: Yes, he was. But he was bow-legged and cross-eyed and had one tooth so, you know, they went for good looks with me (laughs).

E20: At the beginning they showed such grinding poverty that the people were living in, it was almost like a third world country. Is that accurate from the period in the East End?
CP: Yes, because it was a time when it wasn’t long after rationing when people got one egg a week. It was only a few years after that, and so Fred spent a lot of time eating cake as soon as rationing had stopped. But yes, it was tough when we were kids. There was still quite a lot of poverty, and lots of dereliction in London. There were lots of areas that were still flattened from the war and there was quite a lot of poverty about. But there was great opportunity and there was such spirit of hope because it was a new era: The war was over, the birth of the teenager had just happened, and young people were getting jobs and getting paid a man’s wage, which didn’t happen before the war.

E20: On Call the Midwife, what’s it like being basically the testosterone representative surrounded by all those women?
CP: Hey, it’s tough. I’m surrounded by nuns, nurses and pregnant women. There’s absolutely no chance Fred’s gonna get himself a girlfriend there. But it’s great because I am surrounded by the best, most talented women in the country, I think, and it’s a real privilege to work with them all, and be one of the only males in the show.

E20: Call the Midwife is so popular here, as in the UK. What do you think makes it so appealing and touches so many people?
CP: I think the heartwarming stories with the poverty, for one, though the grimness of it is shocking. Then just to kind of sweeten it you put in a wonderful story about tiny babies being born, and the heartbreak of that and wonderful love that that brings to people. You only have to dress a baby up in a little hand knitted wooly hat and a cardigan and they break your heart, and so I think it’s the furry kitten isn’t it? (laughs) Put a little kitten in just as you’re about to turn over because it’s grossing you out. You put a little kitten up, which is what we do with the babies (laugh). Is that a great analogy? But they’re good stories and they’re heartwarming stories of life in amongst death, in amongst poverty, and usually love wins through. And there’s always hope. I think, at that time, that’s what everybody had in their heart. They had hope for once and I think the stories reflect that.

E20: I don’t want to ask you about any spoilers but can you say anything about what’s coming up this next season?
CP: We’ve got Vanessa Redgrave coming in this year, she’s going to appear in the Christmas special. So that’s a real treat for us all.

E20: When Call the Midwife is over could you see yourself on any of the costume dramas like Downton Abbey?
CP: Yes, I’d love to do any of those. I love costume dramas. I think we’re brilliant at it and I’m really proud of the fact that we churn them out every year and they always seem to come up with new stuff.  I’ve done quite a few TV series and costume dramas in the past and I’d love to do some more, although the costumes are incredibly uncomfortable. What can I tell you? Sometimes you actually are wearing a hundred year old pair of trousers and they can be incredibly rough and itchy.

E20: Do you have any messages for American fans?
CP: Thank you very, very much! And if I come over there to visit, hopefully you’ll be nice to me if you see me in the street. Cheers!

*The complete interview, among others, appears in Issue #4 of The E20 Chronicles, which will be winging its way, soon, to the Easties who pledged for it.

Goodnight Nurse:
We’re not sure exactly what is happening here other than the actors from Mr. Selfridge are having a bit of fun posing as the nurses of Nonantus House (of course, Selfridge’s is a full-service department store, so who knows). This picture was tweeted by Tom Goodman-Hill (Mr. Grove), who is coincidentally posing here as live-in partner Jessica Raine (Jenny Lee), so it is quite possible that we have cracked the space-time continuum. Stay tuned for updates…

Time to Tango:
Here is something else on tap this summer that you can file in the ‘hope’ category: Celia (Anne Reid) and Alan (Derek Jacobi) return as Season 2 of Last Tango in Halifax premieres on THIRTEEN Sunday, June 29 at 8pm. You can see a sort-of preview here. Will Caroline stop judging Gillian? Will she stop judging herself? Will Alan and Celia go all Blue Lagoon on us and ditch their crazy kids and just run off to a desert island so they can get some peace? Who could blame them if they did?

And see a whole different side of Derek Jacobi as he and Ian McKellen play a couple who have been together for fifty years in the comedy Vicious.  See a clip here. I don’t know about you, but I have been looking forward to this one ever since it was announced! And how perfect that it premiers on the same day as the annual Gay Pride Parade! Happy Pride!

Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On:
When last we saw our friends from Downton, they were cautiously wading into the surf. Now, in this newly released preview of Season 5, Carson feels the earth move under his feet. But does his heart still start trembling whenever Mrs. Hughes is around? Oh baby, if you’re looking for clues about what’s coming up in Season 5 this preview doesn’t really give much away.  All we know is Carson says things are changing, but when are they ever not? And so we wait… But while we wait, what is it you are hoping to see in Season 5?

Remains of the Day:
The juggernaut that is Downton Abbey has changed the profile of and the demand for many things, not the least of which is butlers! Yes, butlers are making a come back! Once thought of as a stuffy thing of the past, they are now increasingly on the must have list of those who must have everything. In this story, NPR talks about that demand, what it’s taking to meet it, and how it is changing the profession. But the question I have is, do people want a butler in the abstract, or do they really just want our Carson, the very wise yet supportive friend who is always at the end of a bell when your confidence needs boosting? For me it would be the latter, and I have a feeling it’s the same for many others new to the butler game, who will likely be very disappointed when the butler they found on Craig’s List doesn’t quite measure up. But for those yuppies who want butlers as simply the latest status symbol of the nouveau riche, it would likely be different. Are we now going to see city yuppies replacing their nannies with butlers? Will we see strollers being pushed by tall British men in white tie and tails? That remains to be seen, but I do look forward to spotting my first one!

Keep a lookout for my next Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora when I file a special report about a truly fabulous day I spent communing with all the Crawleys in their splendor. Well, at least with their costumes at Winterthur. Till then, keep COOL starting off your British summer!