From my iconic feature archive… an in-depth interview with Hugh Bonneville, the British actor who plays Lord Grantham in ITV’s Downton Abbey.
I’m at the Minghella Film Festival on the Isle of Wight, an intimate Sundance beside the sea, to catch up with a man who can cause a collective sigh of feminine longing and desire from Woking to Washington, and no I don’t mean Colin Firth.
My subject is Hugh Bonneville, a man who has enjoyed a prolific and illustrious career as an actor, appearing both in leading comic and dramatic roles in Daniel Deronda, Iris, Twenty Twelve, as Sir Christopher Wren, in The Man Who Built Britain and now even a rather hirsute pirate in Doctor Who! Interestingly, none of these characters are the type of man women frequently and madly fall head over heels in lust with. Then, in a rather clever bit of casting, he took on the dashing role of Robert, Earl of Grantham, in Downton Abbey, a fictional yet rather appealing dictator with a hot wardrobe in morning suits and well-cut breeches, and surrounded by a gaggle of leonine, impetuous, beautiful women in what has become required, recessionary viewing on Sunday nights.
In fact, before Downton, Hugh seemed to be unfairly overlooked in the sex symbol stakes for choosing to play the sort of awfully clever, bumbling, balding male underdog; not that his performances were ever any less than compelling; they just weren’t sexy.
Two performances particularly shine and stand out. As John Bayley, the husband of novelist Iris Murdoch, in the Richard Eye’s poetic masterpiece, Iris, he gave what many critics have described as his finest performance to date. A portrait, of raw, heartbreaking charm, innocence and fun, ‘ following,’ as he so beautifully sums up the experience, ‘ in Kate’s (Winslet’s) luminous slipstream,’ as Iris.
A Bafta nomination for best supporting actor duly followed. And yet, he jokes, that given his very late casting in the film, he was forced to base his entire portrait of Professor Bailey on one set of rushes smuggled out by Richard of Jim Broadbent’s receding hairline (Jim plays the older John Bayley) as he pushes a trolley across a supermarket car park. Well, if he did, it was a small masterpiece.
Later, having joked that he didn’t want to play another bald man with a stutter, he gave a sensitive and wonderfully humane performance, as the reclusive poet, and secret ladies man, Philip Larkin. ‘It was great to dip into Larkin’s world and find out more about him,’ he says, hinting at the diligence, preparation and care he brings to his roles.
But now, in the wake of Downton fever, everyone is beginning to ask just who is Hugh Bonneville? For Hugh as the dashing Lord Grantham has been inviting comparison with that unimpeachable literary hero, Mr Darcy, in Pride and Prejudice. A man of such mythological splendour and shining integrity, who can render emerging from a lake in what is essentially a big wet, white shirt seem so deliciously innocent, rather than the hottest, naughtiest thing on telly, notwithstanding Dawn French having the temerity to snog Richard Armitage, another thespian pinup in The Vicar of Dibley.
How can Hugh possibly compete?
While Hugh laughs with apparent, boyish delight when he is introduced as ‘a dose of Hugh charm’, to a mostly female audience at the festival, and cracks a joke about not letting Ralph Fiennes know that he has competition. At this point someone in the audience asks Hugh if there are any roles that he would love to have played that slipped beyond his grasp. His response is witty and less guarded. ‘The history of film and television production is littered with roles I would have like to have played; usually anything with Colin Firth!’ He adds teasingly, that he is rather hoping Colin might ‘ turn down a lot more,’ now he has his Oscar. It is all deliciously low key and charming; but when I speak to Hugh about his new-found status as a costume drama pinup, he appears surprisingly circumspect and claims to know nothing at all about the universal preoccupation of most women to find a good husband.
‘ I don’t really know what it is about Downton that has struck a cord with the public; maybe it is a way of escaping into other world’s on a Sunday night; even though as I have stated before, in reality the vast majority of the population had an appalling deal in pre First World War Britain. My point is that millions of people in our own troubled times, while not wanting to live in that era, have taken pleasure in escaping to the imaginary world of Downton Abbey, and I am with them.”
As for the idea of celebrity, he doesn’t recognise the word.‘ It bounces off me,’ he says succinctly. ‘ I think it is a vacuous word. I’m enjoying Downton, but I don’t think it has changed anything about the way I approach my life, or my work.’ Nor does he understand the huge interest in what he wears on screen. ‘Fashion has never interested me. For my roles, I am lucky to work with some great costume designers, and I did go through a period of wearing rather daft clothes, but I don’t have a stylist, and I don’t go around in a frock coat. I suppose there were poseurs when I was at Cambridge; but I don’t remember them. Now I am entering my twilight years, I’m afraid my taste is rather embarrassing – usually an M&S jumper – I have nothing startling to say on that front at all, ha, ha.’
That’s the refreshing thing about Hugh. He doesn’t claim to be the next James Bond. His is a more every day sex appeal, with a quicksilver intelligence, rather good manners and dreamy 6ft stature. It’s criminal that he has only the attained the status of a British sex god at the ripe old age of 47.
I might add that he is quick witted, passionate and poetic when talking about a profession he clearly loves to bits, yet he is accessible to his public, tweeting charming little details about his wife, Lulu, their trips to Chessington World of Adventures with his son and on ideas and causes that passionately interest him. When he isn’t filming, he ‘battens down the hatches’ and spends time with his family, and that includes going for ‘yomps’ with Teddy, the family’s mad Tibetan terrier, near his home, a converted coachouse in Sussex.
And now he has reached his forties, he says he finally feels ready to go university, something that wasn’t true in his late teens, as he was always bunking off lectures to go and rehearse a play. As a young man, Bonneville was attracted to the ‘theatricality of the courtroom’, and was intent on becoming a barrister. ‘Fortunately, by my second year at Cambridge, I admitted to myself that I want to be an actor, and I think I’ve done the legal profession a huge service by not becoming a lawyer; because I would have been useless. I would not have wanted to plead for someone’s liberty or imprisonment. I am fine at playing around with a part; but not when it comes to real life.’
I like Hugh Bonneville. He appears more accessible that say than Colin Firth or Ralph Fiennes who remain quite unknowable in comparison. It’s a difficult balance to get right. And, I like him even more for giving short shrift to the idea of celebrity. Perhaps we really are returning to an age where talent, not fame is what counts.
But I think I will ask him if he still feels the same in twelve months time. The fact is that Hugh has played poets, professors, psychopaths and bureaucrats; but never a really good, old-fashioned sex symbol, until Downton Abbey. The stakes and the scrutiny are so much higher now.
Of course, Hugh has played a leading role in a costume drama before, in the BBC’s dazzling Daniel Deronda, almost a decade ago now; but Hugh’s Henleigh Grandcourt was more cruel, itinerant, aristocratic playboy; a flawed anti-hero – and a man described as having a withered heart; although, tantalizingly, we never find out why.
So which does her prefer playing? – Villain or heartthrob?
‘You know what they say, that the devil has all the best lines! Grandcourt was a great character to play, because I enjoyed exploring the dark heart of a man like that. There was something about his darkness and the unfathomable nature of the character, in a mix of interesting characters that made him compelling.’
Even so, he insists that good characters are just as much of a challenge.
When you play a good man like Grantham, the point is to make him interesting. I like to find the reality in a goodie two shoes character. Of course, as I’m playing a Julian Fellowes character he is never going to create a complete shit!’
Then he inadvertently lets the cat out of the bag, and rather sweetly admits that there is more than a touch of him in the character he brings to the small screen. ‘I am just being me’, he says. So now you know, there’s quite a bit of Hugh Bonneville in the character of Lord Grantham that has so captured the collective female imagination. I, along with thousands of other women, can’t wait for the next riveting instalment.
Alison Jane Reid Copyright May 2011/ 2015 All Rights Reserved.
First Published in The Lady Magazine June 2011
Daniel Deronda is out now on DVD
The final episode of Downton Abbey will be shown on ITV tonight at 8.45pm – www.itv.com