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Celebrity interview: Hugh Bonneville from Downton Abbey

PUBLISHED: 14:27 29 November 2019 | UPDATED: 14:56 29 November 2019

Hugh Bonneville

Hugh Bonneville

Rex Shutterstock

The much-anticipated big-screen version of the TV phenomenon, Downton Abbey, is here. Hugh Bonneville, who stars in the movie, filmed at Berkshire's beautiful Highclere Castle, reveals all

Have you seen the Downton Abbey movie yet? The film is set in 1927, and King George V and Queen Mary visit Downton Abbey (Highclere Castle in Newbury, Berkshire), causing a stir among the Crawleys and servants alike. Many of the original cast return, including Hugh Bonneville, Laura Carmichael, Jim Carter, Michelle Dockery, Elizabeth McGovern, Maggie Smith and Penelope Wilton. Here, Hugh Bonneville talks about stepping back into the shoes of Robert Crawley, 7th Earl of Grantham, the impact that being in Downton has had on his life, why he thinks the show has been such a success plus whether he'd like to return for another movie…

How was it, returning to the role of Robert Crawley?

It was lovely. It was like putting on a very familiar sweater, you know where the holes are and you know where the patches are and it's very comfortable. So it was great. It was like one of those school reunions that actually goes well. Because some school reunions are ghastly and you think: "Who is that person? 
I never knew them anyway." But this was a very happy reunion.

Does it get you back into a certain way of being?

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Allen LeechHugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech

Yeah, it does actually. I don't normally wear suits, so it's made me up my sartorial game. And when you're doing the show again, you're wearing these stiff collars for the dinner scenes; they are like razor blades, so it does make you sit up. And I don't put my hands in my pockets as much as I used to, that sort of thing. So yeah, it does take you back into a certain way of carrying yourself. And I don't normally talk in good sentences, no. [laughs, joking]

Was getting the cast to reunite a bit like getting the band back together?

That was exactly what it was like - that familiarity of the comfort of friends. One of the reasons we did all come back was because we were all friends and we had managed to do six years without throwing chairs at each other. We've met up since, two or three times for dinner, and tried to keep that connection going, well not tried to, but because we wanted to. And it was easy to do so. The real challenge for the producers was to get us all back together because we were all over the world doing different projects. And the timing was the key thing. All credit to Gareth Neame and Julian Fellowes for managing it. If any one person hadn't wanted to, it wouldn't have worked. I think we all sort of tacitly agreed that if only three of us were happy to do it then it wouldn't be the same. It took everyone to hold hands and jump in the pool together - and we did.

The film is set over 90 years ago. What was better back then?

Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech Image credit: James VeyseyHugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery, Laura Carmichael, Allen Leech Image credit: James Veysey

Manners, courtesy, leadership - perhaps not leadership, because let's face it, we've had our international hassles since then. But I think certainly with the level of public discourse which we see today, we could learn a lot from the civility of those days, even though we've had international tensions and disasters since. Frankly, I despair at the moment of the level of our discourse, so even though it was an intolerant society in many ways, I think the way in which public discourse was conducted did have a degree of civility that was preferable. Maybe it made things move glacially slowly and possibly in wrong directions but now you can't hear because of the noise of your own silo. Everyone shouts their own opinion and doesn't really want to listen to others and I think that would be a good level of public debate to return to.

The British people then had a King and not Boris Johnson...

[laughs] Yeah, we currently have Boris Johnson. I predict by this time next year we probably won't have Boris Johnson. But at the moment we probably are in the biggest existential crisis our country has ever faced - and it's frightening times. Not frightening, but sad times.

Hugh BonnevilleHugh Bonneville

You meet the King and Queen in the movie - have you ever met our Queen?

I haven't met the Queen but, in the movie, obviously it's lovely to have, because normally the Granthams are sort of treated with respect at the top of the tree in our little world and suddenly there's another branch from above. That was fun. The real engine of the story is to do with the impact of the Royal Family's arrival. When you think back to King Lear and he says he's going to tour his daughter's estates and they are going to put up with 100 nights - I mean, who actually pays for this stuff? I think the Royals just come and stay and the Granthams have to foot the bill, so that's quite interesting. I wonder if that happens today. And I like the idea that the Royals don't say: "Can we come and stay?" They say: "We're coming to stay." [laughs] So yeah, it makes Robert Crawley and the family up their game.You can't blame them for wanting to stay at Highclere...I'm sure Lord and Lady Carnarvon would be delighted if you dropped in - unannounced! [laughs]

Was it the finale that you wished for?

The movie? Yes and no. I think it's a lovely continuation of the story. I wasn't sure what to expect, whether it was going to be taken off in a different direction. But I think Julian had to navigate a delicate course. He wanted to make it cinematic but he didn't want to disappoint the fans. So in one way, it's another episode just on a bigger screen. I would like to think if there was to be another movie then it could probably take flight in a different direction, geographically or in terms of story. Because I think if this film works it shows that the audience has got out of its armchairs and gone to the cinema and maybe they'd like to come on other journeys with us. So who knows? It does look cinematic. It's beautiful; the design cinematography and costume departments have excelled themselves. It looks ravishing. And I'd love to think it is the start of a new franchise because if I am going to be paid a lot of money to do absolutely nothing for 10 weeks that's lovely. I'll sign up for a series of movies!

How has Downton changed your life?

I've always tried to say: "Oh it hasn't, it hasn't," but of course it has - totally. I managed to keep working for 25 to 30 years before but in terms of the opportunities that it has afforded all of us, it has been remarkable. And the friends we've made around the world have been extraordinary, as well as to know that in every territory that the show has been shown it has been successful and loved. For a time I thought maybe it was just because the world is in a gloomy place and it needed a show like this. But actually, the fact that we are now nearly 10 years on since the first season was shot and it's still resonating, it shows that it does have a longevity and an impact. So it's changed my view of television, actually. We managed to come in at a time before things like Game of Thrones and House of Cards were just starting and we felt like we were on a rising wave of interest in long-form drama. I think it rejuvenated confidence in writers and producers to take, not risks, but to deepen their interest in long-form drama. And now there is a hunger for long-form drama, which is great. And yeah, the opportunities… I wouldn't have met a small bear called Paddington if it hadn't been for Downton Abbey, or done a movie with George Clooney. So I am completely aware of the impact that the show has had on one's career, all of our careers. And it's been wonderful and will always have a great place in my heart because of that.

What do you think is the secret of Downton's success?

I think it was to do with timing, but it's not to do with timing because, as I say, it's sustained itself over the years. I think actually it comes down to the very essence of Julian Fellowes' approach, which is, he writes from a default position that people try to be good and they do bad things, he doesn't paint black and white, goodies and baddies, he writes people who are flawed. And I think that sense of humanity is what shines through. I certainly felt that when I first read it. I wanted to know what happened next and I could see these characters, even though it wasn't cast; they were vivid characters off the page - and that's very rare. Characters with day-to-day hassles and aspirations that we share, with a decent humanity underpinning everything and a sense of tolerance and compassion. I think that's what united people in watching it, possibly. Having said that, then you get the attack on Anna, which suddenly subverts what you're expecting. You think you understand the piece and suddenly it took a left turn in that particular sequence and took on something dark and challenging, which one wasn't anticipating. So there's no simple answer - it just seemed to work.

What have you learnt from your time on the show and the issues it explored?

As a result of doing the show, I probably am more tolerant than I used to be. The way that Julian tackled, for instance, Thomas' storyline, is wonderful. He's a character who is deepened and in the first series you knew trouble was up when he and O'Brien were sitting out the back smoking. Cigarette means bad stuff going on. And actually, the way he's handled, even into the movie, you see the delicacy with which Julian has navigated a man being gay in that era and in many societies still today. The fact that it is illegal, that your world cannot exist, that you are not allowed to be yourself if you are of a certain sexual persuasion. To handle that in a costume drama and navigate it in the way that Julian has with such compassion, I think is remarkable. And so I think that sense of tolerance in that particular story is exemplary. And Robert's approach to so many situations, you know, he's far more tolerant than you might expect him to be, you expect him to be a reactionary and right wing, if you like, and intolerant. But actually, there is a decency and an acceptance of other people's strife that I like to think has ebbed into me as well. u

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