Hugh Bonneville: My name is Earl

By Russell Baillie

Downton Abbey star Hugh Bonneville talks to Russell Baillie about another sort of peer pressure.

Hugh Bonneville has revealed that he didn't think Downton Abbey would travel well because it is so 'quintessentially British'. Photo / AP
Hugh Bonneville has revealed that he didn't think Downton Abbey would travel well because it is so 'quintessentially British'. Photo / AP

Today, in an Auckland hotel room set aside for his Downton Abbey promotional duties, Hugh Bonneville doesn't much look like Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham. He seems taller, younger and definitely beard-ier.

The role in the period drama, the third season of which hits New Zealand screens this month, has become the biggest role of the 48-year-old Londoner's British screen career - he flew into New Zealand after the Emmy Awards in Los Angeles where he was in contention for the best actor award among the show's 16 nominations. He didn't win - no doubt disappointing British headline writers unable to declare "Triumph Bonneville!"

But his tweets (@hughbon) about the madness of the event were comedy gold. And he has done quite a bit of comedy - mostly in roles which require him to be quietly exasperated, as he was in the BBC's pre-London Olympic Games mockumentary Twenty Twelve where he played Ian Fletcher, "Head of Deliverance of the Olympic Deliverance Commission."

Next, though, he's bumping himself down the socio-economic ladder to play a tramp in Mr Stink, a family comedy adapted from a children's novel by Little Britain's David Walliams.

So, the career seems to be going rather well?

Yes. Downton keeps me busy for six months of the year and I have been lucky enough to do Twenty Twelve and I go back to start shooting Mr Stink next week.

Where you are playing a tramp in a shed.

Yes, a tramp in a shed. A tramp in a park who comes to live in a shed. So I really can't complain. I am very blessed. I love my work I am very glad I haven't been found out and told to go do something else.

Downton has gone from being a initial hit at home to an international phenomenon. Has that surprised you?

It's been a really strange evolution for the show. It took us by surprise how it was embraced in the UK and then you expect a certain degree of appreciation in America for period dramas. But when the second series came out, it started to just mushroom. We were getting emails from all over the world. It's huge in Spain and Finland, in places where you think "how on earth are they getting this?" I remember thinking it won't travel because it is so quintessentially British and it's about the nuances of social structure that are so tiny and delicate - the inflection of a line almost can determine whether someone is in or out. But because it's been true to itself, that has translated.

That international success must bring with it a pressure to sustain the series - how long would you like to see it go for?

That's really a question for Julian [Fellowes, Downton creator] because unlike so many TV shows we only have one writer and one imagination being brought to bear on this world. I would be surprised if we didn't do another one because I think there is enough momentum in the stories and characters and, above all, interest from the audience. I personally feel that series three is the best that we have done and the emotional journey that we are about to take the audience on is huge and it's an awful lot of laughs and a lot of the opposite as well.

The third series really becomes about the house trying to regroup, with the house as the central character trying to re-establish itself after the wounds of war. And so the pace slows down and it's much more about the family and the staff, as we saw in series one, without the impact of the outside world.

Series two was criticised for ripping through too many storylines, some of which came to nothing. Is series three a reaction to it?

I don't personally agree with that. I loved series two. Some people thought it was too fast and I felt that its pace was fine. It didn't bother me. I watch it like any other punter frankly, because it's six months since we filmed it when it's on air and I've forgotten most of it ...

Oh that's right, I snogged one of the staff ...

Oh hello! And there are storylines I haven't seen. I've read them but I haven't seen them. So I watch it with as much of an open eye - there's a bias obviously - as the audience. So I didn't get those feelings. But I don't think series three is a reaction to that. I think it's an evolution. Now that the characters are so familiar to audiences, Julian trusts the audience and allows the characters to breathe, to go on emotional adventures that are often unpredictable. So how much is left in the show? I would love to see another series. I will be surprised if we don't. But the other thing is how long does Julian want to keep writing it and how much does the audience want to keep watching it? That remains to be seen.

After playing him for three series, is his lordship a role that still challenges you?

Yes, it does. The writing is intelligent writing. I know it looks - hopefully if we get it right - effortless, natural and all that. But there are only so many ways to put on a bow tie. So if you are in one of the dressing room scenes it is not about the dressing, it is about what you are talking about. So you are trying to find new ways of refreshing the atmosphere of the scene. Is there a divide between the cast in the upstairs roles and them downstairs?No, not really, apart from the fact they have a lot more fun mucking about at Ealing [Studios where the basement scenes are shot] than we do at Highclere where we have to be careful of the furniture. My favourite scenes are when we are all together - it's a nightmare for costume and make-up - because they have so many actors to attend to but I love it when we do big set pieces.

There is inevitably a physical division. I've not seen Mrs Patmore for months on end because she rarely comes up unless she is looking for cures for cataracts. Jim Carter, who plays Mr Carson, is always a great messenger because he has to hover around, poor chap, in our scenes upstairs and he sort of conveys messages between upstairs and downstairs which are in different parts of the country.

So did you get good tickets for the Olympics?

No I didn't. Our bosses from Downton took us all to the opening ceremony. Twenty Twelve, not at all. But I did happen to get tickets for the middle Saturday when Britain had this incredible good night when we won three gold medals and it was just sensational. Twenty Twelve was obviously set against the Olympics and was obviously more about office speak and office management and catastrophes.

"I was so glad it finished when it did. There was this nervousness in Britain - "Are we going to be able to do it?" - and that show encapsulated it.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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