On the glossy posters for the long-awaited Downton Abbey movie, Hugh Bonneville as the dashing Earl of Grantham looks positively regal and incredibly serious. It soon becomes clear that the actor has a lot on his mind, and not just about Downton, whose 52 episodes and six series were eagerly devoured by 280 million people all over the world.
But today, it’s Britain he is worrying about. ‘I think, like all of us, I am feeling rather at sea,’ he says thoughtfully, as the talk turns to the tumultuous political environment we find ourselves living in. Just before our Saga Magazine photoshoot, he heard that the BBC spoof mockumentaries W1A and Twenty Twelve – in which he starred as bumbling Olympics ‘deliverance’ chief Ian Fletcher – were back on BBC iPlayer. ‘I thought, how lovely, and suddenly in an instant I was transported back to the summer of 2012. The whole joke of doing Twenty Twelve was that we Brits have a capacity for getting things horribly wrong, and somehow putting them right at the last minute. A general mood of “Oh my goodness, we’re going to muck it all up”.
‘But in those two weeks of July and August 2012 when I went to the Olympics, there was something extraordinary – a sense of being connected to something that in our case happened to be called Great Britain. It is the most united Britain has been. The Olympics brought us back to pride in the flag. So I felt incredibly depressed yesterday that we are so far away from that feeling.’
Hugh, 55, says he hasn’t met Boris Johnson (who was elected Prime Minister two weeks after this interview). ‘And I don’t wish to,’ he says bluntly. ‘I’m not a great fan of people who comment on people for a living, but there are plenty of commentators who find his duplicity and opportunism despicable. I find it hard to believe, having witnessed – albeit by soundbite and small observations on the news – his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time. It’s very scary.
‘He’s not like Trump. He has a brain; he has an education. But he should know better than to put people’s lives or the future of our country at risk.’
Five years ago, Boris passed him in London on a bicycle. ‘There was a suited gentleman who said, “Good on you, Boris”, and 20 feet later, as he cycled along, a bloke at the top of a building site shouted, “All right, Boris?” He has national recognition and that can be perceived as leadership. It’s not. It’s recognition. But I think some of the bombast and the slight smirk that goes along with anything he may say, as if it’s all a huge joke, is very scary and not helpful diplomatically.’
Hugh says he feels incredibly sad about the divisiveness in society at the moment, but he doesn’t entirely blame the referendum result of June 2016. ‘I remember people commenting that 2016 was the worst year – the year that Bowie died. There seemed to be deaths, one after the other, of iconic people whom we revered and it felt that a part of our cultural consciousness was going.
I don’t know how one gets back to the sense of 2012 that we had. Even with people I care about, we can’t talk about cultural or political identity. It just leads to division and that’s a shame.’
He reveals that in 1977 he camped out on The Mall on Jubilee night. ‘And got drizzle all over me. But I grew up with a simple patriotism, and now it is more complex. I’m afraid that in the past three years we’ve become a joke. We are confused about our national identity. But it’s not all doom and gloom. It will come back.’
Downton creator Lord Julian Fellowes has said in an interview that Lord Grantham would probably be a Brexiteer. The actor smiles. ‘Well, that possibly says more about Lord Fellowes than Lord Grantham.’ He says he both admires and dislikes politicians as a breed, and adds: ‘The biggest mistake was giving the notion of a binary referendum – in or out – to a nation that really didn’t understand what was going on. I will miss being in the EU. I will miss that sense of easy co-operation. What comes with building walls and barriers is a sense of us and them. And I enjoyed being us.’
In these trying times, it’s tempting to escape into the world of Downton, and who can blame us with the heady promise of a whole film before us? Against all the odds, the stars were rounded up for ten weeks last autumn to make the movie, and it’s finally here. No one could be happier than the man who plays the head of the Crawley family.
‘As we came to the end of season six and they hadn’t got us all locked into a movie, I thought it would probably never happen. But we all talked about it because we did stay in touch and are all friends. We have had a couple of reunion suppers and we get together occasionally,’ says Hugh, who is great friends with American actress Elizabeth McGovern (Lady Crawley).
‘Elizabeth and I have been married three times in three different TV shows. So we are close.’ He also keeps in regular touch with Allen Leech (Tom Branson) and his screen daughters Michelle Dockery (Lady Mary Talbot) and Laura Carmichael (Lady Edith Pelham). ‘We spend time together and check up on each other. Michelle has been filming in America, Laura in Australia and Allen was in LA. We are genuinely excited to be getting together to promote the film and spend a few days together.’
The first day they sat round a table at Shepperton Studios to read through the film script, which heralded the arrival of the King and Queen to Downton no less, was slightly surreal. ‘Just because it’s a movie, nothing much changes. It was a bigger table, but with the same McVitie’s biscuits and a bowl of fruit,’ says Hugh, who first played Lord Grantham in 2010. ‘I can remember vividly the first read-through and I naughtily took a picture of these people I didn’t know. And here we all were eight years later. As we looked around the room at each other there were grins of recognition, of can you believe we’re here again!’
Filming last autumn at Highclere Castle, Hampshire, there was a real feeling of déjà vu. ‘It was the strangest thing. My first scene was in the library with Penelope Wilton and Michelle, and it was like we’d not been away. There was an ease and familiarity that comes with having done a show for six years. But this time around we’re on a 70ft screen with more grandeur and a bigger budget.’
Elizabeth McGovern talks Downton Abbey
No one at Downton could have prepared themselves for the shock of a visit from King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James). ‘So you’ve got royalty with a big R coming down the drive, and it’s not just the royals, it’s their staff, which affects us all... upstairs and down,’ he says.
‘Lord Grantham is pretty much the same. I’m very fond of him. What I loved about him was his liberal conservatism. It’s safe to say this film isn’t his story and there are no rocks in the pool for Lord and Lady Grantham. They are set fair and their vessel is sailing perfectly well until the royal charabanc arrives.’
He jokes that Dame Maggie Smith, who plays the Dowager Countess, gets all the best lines. ‘And if she hasn’t, then she makes them into the best lines. She is a formidable actress. When you are in a room with her you think, this woman is in her eighties, and is she okay? Before we started filming, she had been poorly. Yet there is absolute steel in her. Dame Judi Dench is the same, so is Joan Plowright and Eileen Atkins. I’ve been lucky enough to work with them all.’
Born in Paddington, London, Hugh Richard Bonneville Williams studied theology at Cambridge, and planned to be a barrister before he discovered his passion and joined the National Youth Theatre. Appearing with Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in the 1999 Richard Curtis film Notting Hill as Bernie was possibly the turning point in his career.
But there’s no doubt that his six years as Lord Grantham opened even more acting doors for him, including his role as Mr Brown in the movie Paddington, and Paddington 2 in which he was reunited with Hugh Grant. He is equally well-known for his stage work.
But it’s Downton that creates the most warm, fuzzy feelings. ‘It’s complete escapism. It’s a world that, if it did exist, was limited to a tiny section of the population. But we can’t get away from the fact that it has a huge following across the world in cultures and societies and political structures as varied as Brazil and China,’ he adds.
Julian, he says, writes from a default position that people try to be good. ‘Even our villains. We know they are flawed people put into a position in the world where life made them do these things, but somewhere in them there is a goodness, or an attempt to make their lives better. That is the heart of Downton.’
Downton Abbey: The end of an era
The 6ft 2in actor becomes emotional when he recalls the letters he has received from those who say Downton has helped them through difficult times. ‘I had more than one letter saying “Downton reminds me of when my gran died. We watched the whole series as she was passing because it’s the one thing she wanted to do”. Yes, it is a fantasy, but it’s not so far out of reach in terms of memory. It’s my grandparents’ generation. And you’ve got nice little touches each series, like the invention of the electric whisk or the hairdryer.’
After the movie’s release, Hugh is looking forward to spending time with his family – his wife of more than 20 years, Lulu, and their teenage son Felix. He’s proudly wearing a shirt designed by his wife, who runs a company, Indigo Island, with her sister who lives in India.
His son, Felix, shows no inclination of wanting to follow his father into acting. ‘No, he is far too sensible and has a healthy disrespect for what I do. He grew up with Downton, and I would photograph him every year with a clapperboard. I have a hilarious photo of him back-to-back with Joanne Froggatt on the day he was taller than her. He’s now 6ft 7in!’
In his free time Hugh works for the South Downs National Park Trust, encouraging people to engage with the countryside. ‘My downtime now is gradually drawing in my horns and supporting my local area as I trudge into the second half of my fifties. I don’t mind getting older.
‘I wish things didn’t creak quite so much. But I am ridiculously fortunate. I live in God’s own country and have a wonderful family. I feel ver blessed.’
For 17 years home has been a converted coach house on the West Sussex/Hampshire border. ‘Someone who was born there when it was a coach house came back and brought photos of it,’ he says. ‘It was stunning to see what it was like, and pictures of his grandfather who was the coachman. He showed me a contract between his grandfather and the master of the big house. It listed the amount of coal he would be allowed, how he had to keep the horses shod and said that, if he married, his wife would have to cook for the master’s family. I’m sure Lord Grantham would have something to say about that!’
In the movie, Lord Grantham certainly has a lot to say about the royal visit to Downton. And Hugh reveals that in real life, the royals are fans of the drama. Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge, called in to see the cast at Ealing Studios as they finished the final series and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex, also paid them a visit.
‘I grew up with the royal family and what I value is their continuity, particularly with the new generation of royals. I feel their place at the centre of the cohesion of our society is invaluable at a time when we, as a society, are so broken. I think their value shouldn’t be underestimated in our current time.’
Whether it’s the last time we pay a visit to Downton is another question. ‘When we started filming, I thought this is going to be a nice full stop. But there is such an appetite for it, I can see it carrying on. So I would never say never!’
Medicine or alternative?
Traditional medicines, in so far as they are the roots of my life as my father was a surgeon and my mother a nurse. Alternative medicine because, frankly, I’d try anything to make my back less painful. I would like a sumo wrestler to stand on my back most of the time – that’s an alternative therapy I’d love to try.
Train or car?
Train, definitely. When I was young, I was very envious that my parents did a train trip across the States. It was one of those trains like those in old movies with railings on the back so you can look at the countryside going by. I’d love to go through the Rockies on a train.
As a kid, you always thought of the summer months as June and July. Now we get our best weather in the spring. I love it when you get that sense of the Easter rising of the sap and the blossom, the green shoots of recovery. The weather all goes to pot after that and winters are ghastly.
Clutterbug or minimalist?
I’m a wannabe minimalist, but I am a clutterbug. We have a rule in our house that the only things allowed in the attic are tax returns and the Christmas tree. I’ve become ruthless now and I’m sitting here in my study with a pile of ‘must get rid of’ stuff as my wife has said it’s not allowed to go in the attic.
Exercise or diet?
I try both, often at the same time. And I am not very successful at either. Apart from a good yomp with the dogs every day, I run and cycle a bit and I constantly sneak into the larder late at night.
Home or away?
The great thing about going away is that you can look forward to coming home. I love travelling and have been very lucky to travel with work. But I’m increasingly a homebody and like pulling up the drawbridge of my magnificent castle.
Twitter, yes or no?
I used to really enjoy it, but I find the vitriol painful now. It’s easier to stay silent because everyone jumps down your throat as soon as you speak.
Town or country?
Country, full stop! I grew up in Blackheath, and lived in Vauxhall for a long time. But my family roots are in the Sussex/Hampshire border and I’m happiest in these fields and on the South Downs.
Sand or snow?
Sand. I’m rubbish in snow and I don’t ski. I remember filming in Southern Morocco and, while I was going stir-crazy in a hotel that played only Frank Sinatra on a loop, I did rather fall in love with the desert landscape. And equally in India – the desert landscapes there really intoxicated me.
Informative, in-depth and in the know: get the latest news, interviews and reviews with Saga Magazine.