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Downton Abbey’s Lesley Nicol on ITV Post Office drama | UK | News UK News

Lesley Nicole in Mr Bates vs The Post Office

Lesley Nicole in Mr Bates vs The Post Office (Image: ITV)

Between 1999 and 2015, the Post Office held thousands of its staff liable for mysterious financial discrepancies – some amounting to six-figure sums – after refusing to believe its expensive IT accounting system, Horizon, could be at fault.

The ensuing Post Office scandal saw countless lives destroyed over two decades as corporate bosses relentlessly pursued criminal charges against innocent subpostmasters
and mistresses.

Of those affected by the faulty IT system, 736 were prosecuted.

Hundreds more lost their livelihoods, homes, and life savings as they were forced to pay back money the Post Office claimed was missing. To date, the case has been linked to four suicides, and several people – including a pregnant woman who already had a young son – went to prison.

Many more were shunned by their communities who believed they were frauds.

Now an ITV dramatisation has brought to the fore the stories of a group of victims who fought back using the courts.

Mr Bates vs the Post Office tells the David vs Goliath story of Alan Bates, a Welsh subpostmaster who formed the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance in 2009 after losing his job six years earlier. Bates is played by Toby Jones in the four-part drama, also featuring Amy Nuttall, Julie Hesmondhalgh and Katherine Kelly.

Downton Abbey star Lesley Nicol portrays another prominent victim, Pam Stubbs.

Pam was subpostmistress at the Barkham Post Office near Wokingham in Berkshire. She bought the Post Office with her husband Martin in 1987 for £186,000, and took over as subpostmaster after her husband died of cancer in August 1999.

Horizon was introduced into the Post Office network that same year and Pam began to experience regular discrepancies.

Nicol explains: “In June 2010 she was suspended by the Post Office who claimed she had managed to lose around £25,000 and were demanding it back.”

In Pam’s case, an auditor sent to her Post Office branch saw the Horizon system experience a glitch and lose track of £300 while they were there. Unbelievably, she was informed the investigation hadn’t brought up any problems with the system. Pam was suspended in June 2010 due to her financial shortfalls, by which point she had resigned and, at one point, was threatened with prosecution by her Post Office manager.

Hounded and bullied into submission, she paid almost £4,000 to the company and sold her business under its market value.

After developing anxiety and depression, she was subsequently diagnosed with a heart condition she attributes to the stress.

Nicol can barely believe what Pam and her fellow subpostmasters and subpostmistresses endured, often in silence after they were shunned by former friends and associates.

“One of the things that especially got to me was how isolated and alone Pam and the others were,” she says. “Feeling totally desperate, they called the helpline but were never told that there were thousands of others like them in the same awful situation.

“They were helpless. Until Alan Bates managed to form the alliance and investigations slowly began as a result, they believed themselves to be totally alone against this huge, national corporation.”

Nicol was and continues to be deeply shocked by what occurred, and of her own ignorance. “Before I took on the role, I’m ashamed to say I didn’t know much about the scandal,” she admits. “It has been a truly appalling miscarriage of justice. These good, decent, ordinary people were led to believe they each owed thousands and thousands of pounds.” In 2018, following several years of pressure, the Justice for Subpostmasters Alliance finally took the Post Office to the High Court in a Group Litigation Order.

The judge ruled in 2019 that Horizon did indeed contain “bugs, errors and defects”. This led to the Post Office finally agreeing to settle with the claimants.

After the ruling, a compensation scheme totalling £58million was set up by the Post Office – which, after legal costs, left the group with £12million, or shamefully just £20,000 per person.

“It’s been an absolute nightmare for them, although thankfully now there is an official inquiry being carried out as to what really happened and there is talk of proper compensation,” Nicol continues. “Hopefully, they will finally get justice and be able to try to put the whole horrific experience behind them. Even so, their lives will never be the same.”

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The real Mr Bates

The Real Mr Bates (Image: Andy Stenning Daily Mirror)

Downtown’s global success means she is best known to millions as the drama’s hot-tempered, flame-haired cook Beryl Patmore.

But playing Pam Stubbs meant being openly vulnerable in a way audiences won’t have seen before. So it was of tantamount importance that the real Pam was happy with her on-screen interpretation.

As soon as she got the part, the actress asked to meet and talk with Pam.

“She was very generous with her time and very helpful and honest,” says Nicol.

Despite working on stage and screen since the early 1980s, this was the first time the 70-year-old had portrayed a real-life person.

“It was a little strange,” she smiles. “As an actor you’ve got to honour the script but the story was very well researched and written by screen writer Gwyneth Hughes. I know Pam was happy with my interpretation of her and what she went through. That means a lot to me.

“All I wanted to do was give as honest a picture as I possibly could.”

Like Pam, Nicol has had her share of sadness. In May 2022, her husband of 15 years, David Heald, unexpectedly passed away.

He was a spiritual healer and the couple lived together in west London. Today she finds it difficult to talk about him. “What is there to say?” she asks. “Anyone who has been through it knows it is a truly awful thing to experience.”

Born and raised in Manchester, her father was a GP and her mother was a television presenter and supporting actress in Brideshead Revisited and Crossroads.

For many years, Nicol lived between Los Angeles and London but is now permanently based in the latter. Travel remains a passion, however, something she combines with her love of animals. Last year she visited Vietnam for charity Animals Asia to open a new part of a sanctuary for former bile bears. “They are bears who have previously spent their entire lives in cages and are tapped for their bile, which is wrongly believed to be a cure-all for all manner of ailments in the Far East,” she explains. “Fortunately, this hideous practice has become illegal in Vietnam.”

She also travelled to Portugal, New York, the Caribbean for a friend’s milestone birthday and Salt Lake City in Utah.

“I narrated a Christmas concert with the Tabernacle Choir [formerly known as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir] in front of 21,500 people!”

Nicol is unsure as to what 2024 will bring. “As an actor, there’s no job security,” she sighs. “But you know what? I’ve never known anything else. My dad used to say, ‘I don’t know how you deal with it – I’ve had a job every day of my life.’ I’d reply, ‘But I don’t know what that’s like.’ It’s as simple as that. I don’t exactly love it when there seems to be nothing on the horizon, workwise, but I know it won’t be forever.

“I still have ambitions. I definitely do not want to retire. That sounds like hell to me. It can be tricky the older you get but I absolutely love working.”

After many years in drama, she’d love to do more comedy.



“What I’ve realised is that you maybe have to start creating your own work if you want to keep busy,” she says.

And that’s exactly what she’s planning to do after performing her one-woman show, How The Hell Did I Get Here?, in 2021-22 in the US. Unfortunately, it came to an abrupt halt after two shows after she lost her husband. She is, however, planning some dates in the UK this year.

With her writing partner, songwriter Mark Mueller, she has renamed the show as Mrs P And Me, and has rewritten lots of the content. “It’s about me and my journey but the aim is that people will watch and hopefully be entertained while triggering thoughts about their own lives,” she explains.

And Downtown fans will be delighted to learn that a third Downton Abbey film could be on the cards later this year.

“There is a very strong intention to do it, I believe, although it hasn’t been greenlit yet,” Nicol says. “Certainly, all we actors want to do it. I think they’re looking at later this year but we’ll probably be the last to know!”

Meanwhile, she enjoys walking her two dogs and spending time with her many friends, including Downton thesps Phyllis Logan and Michelle Dockery, both of whom live close by. And she’s finally getting round to honing her culinary skills. What, only now?!

“It’s a taken me a while but I’m beginning to learn how to cook,” she laughs.

“It’s probably about time considering
I play a cook in Downton Abbey. I’m finding that I actually quite like it.”

She turned vegan several years ago after visiting an animal sanctuary near to Los Angeles. “I started rubbing the tummy of a pig who was gorgeous and I immediately realised I wanted to only eat a plant-based diet,” Nicol adds.

“It hasn’t been easy – I was well into my sixties when I made the decision – and had always loved a bacon sandwich and roast lamb, in particular.

“But eating animals and animal products is something I’m no longer comfortable doing.”

● Mr Bates vs The Post Office is streaming now on ITVX

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This notice was published: 2024-01-04 11:32:00

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