Article by Ian Murray for the Daily Echo
HUGH Bonneville is angry. Well to be honest, he’s outraged and with just about everyone in authority.
Politicians, health bosses, the press; they are all the subject of his fury.
Luckily for this member of the press, the targets of his frustration are both fictional and somewhat dated.
Not that the actor, best known to many for his six-year stint as Downton Abbey’s patriarch the Earl of Grantham, doesn’t suspect many of the poisons that run through the society of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People are not present today.
Indeed, it was partly the correlation between the play, written 125 years ago, and today’s Britain that convinced him to take the eponymous central role in the production being staged as part of this year’s Chichester Festival Theatre.
“When I read the part I couldn’t put it down. It was a real page-turner and by the end I was sort of shaking with fury at the injustice that he exposes.
“It felt so contemporary. You would think that it would be old and dusty and turgid but it really nips along and speaks to our society as much as it did in Ibsen’s time.”
This is Hugh’s first return to the Chichester stage in 20 years, despite the fact he lives close by on the South Downs.
Festival artistic director Jonathan Church had been trying to persuade Bonneville to find time in his schedule but it was only with the ending of the final season of Downton that the possibility became a reality.
“Now that Downton is over I have a whole new vista of freedom ahead of me and Jonathan sent me a couple of plays and this one really sprang out.
Hugh plays Doctor Stockmann whose character identifies a serious health risk to the town but after receiving initial support finds himself at odds with just about everyone.
“He doesn’t help himself and this is why I think he is such a great character because he is not just the flag-waving hero, and at times you just want him to shut up because his vanity gets in the way of him making a very good point.
“It actually resonates so much today where we have George Osborne saying we are giving power back to the town halls but what will this mean to local democracy and how people are governed?
“Is that actually true or, is it central government doing a sleight of hand and putting the blame on local government and local communities with such topics as fracking?
“The voice of the individual, is it being heard? Is it right it should be heard? It just fizzes around with all the ideas we are wrestling with at the moment: where is government, where is power?”
Power is something the actor should understand after his six-year stint as lord of the manor Robert, Earl of Grantham in Julian Fellows’ global TV phenomenon Downton Abbey.
The above and below stairs saga came to an end with a Christmas special last December, but Lord fellows has recently hinted that a film might be in the offing.
Would Hugh consider dusting off Lord Grantham?
“Yes, I would be up for it. I think that we all needed a good lie down, as Maggie Smith put it, after we had finished filming, as it had been a pretty intense six years.
“It was pretty much a year round thing, wonderful though it was, it was the right time to finish, but I am feeling nostalgic for it.
“I loved the people involved, I loved the fact people loved it and if Julian can find a balance between not just doing another episode and not diminishing the flavour of the TV version by taking it to the big screen then if there is a quorum of us then hopefully we can get together, but I think the timing would have to be right.”
For Hugh as with the rest of the Downton cast the world-wide impact of Downton was a surprise.
“I didn’t expect to be such a phenomenon. Costume drama was dead, and then the audience for it just grew and grew and it became part of the fabric of autumn viewing.
“And so it ran for six years which none of us anticipated and certainly not its effect around the world. “It has just finished in America and there has been an outpouring of emotion.
“I have already had letters from people saying what will we do without the Crawleys?
“I have had letters from South Africa and Finland and Australia, I don’t know of a territory that it hasn’t caught fire in.
“Which is strange, as I thought it would have an appeal for a certain type of Sunday night audience here and in the States, we would do one series and that would be that but then it began to mushroom.
“I wondered if it was because we were coming out of the shock of the recession and we needed something to cheer ourselves up, but then that wasn’t the case where it started in other countries two or three years later when the world had improved.
“There is something in the way Julian Fellows created these characters perhaps because it is a single authoring voice that – if you didn’t like Lady Mary then you might like Daisy the maid or there would be another character along in a moment, all these mutli-faceted storyline like in a Dickensian novel, which just seemed to hook people.
“I think a product of what resonated were the numbers of people who watched it as a family.
“The idea of three generations of a family sitting down to watch was quite a touching thing to learn.
“It was the family watercooler programme. I have letters from people saying it was great I was able to talk about it with my grandmother who would recall that her mother was in service.
“We got conversations going about history and society and I have had letters from people saying it got them through a particularly difficult time.
“That was the icing on the cake when you have been sitting in a cold field near Winchester for hours on end in the sleet that it has had that effect.
Did he think that like Ibsen’s work he will be performing at Chichester, Downton would be looked on as a classic that has stood the test of time?
“I would like to think so. We have tackled some serious and strong issues during the series such as the reactions to homosexuality and I would like to think someone would look back and wonder what all the fuss was about back then.”
An Enemy of the People has been adapted for Chichester by Christopher Hampton and is directed by Howard Davies. It also stars Abigail Cruttenden, Trevor Cooper, Jim Creighton and Jonathan Cullen. An Enemy of the People runs from April 22 to May 21. More details at cft.org.uk.
Rehearsals for An Enemy of the People have coincided with a foray into the music charts for Hugh with his association with a chart-topping musical experiment which is founded on the natural beauty of the South Downs.
Hugh is the narrator on In A South Downs Way, a collection of music and poetry inspired by the national park and forms the first part in a series of musical projects with the title Walk Upon England.
Composer Damian Montagu approached Hugh to share his love of the Downs, at first by reading poetry by others but then asked the actor to create his own works for the piece.
“He said ‘I have composed this piece after walking on the Downs and would you read some poetry over the top of it?’
“We started out with Belloc and Kipling and then he said do you have anything of your own?
“I said I can’t write and he said have a go and to cut a long story short it’s my voice and my words and poor old Kipling and Belloc have been elbowed.
“The hope is that this is going to be part of a larger work encouraging artist, composers and writers from other parts of the country to write about where they live.
In A South Downs Way out in May.
For more information visit walkuponengland.com