Interview by Susan Griffin for the Irish Examiner
From Downton Abbey to Paddington Bear, Hugh Bonneville enjoys mixing it up, writes Susan Griffin.
IT’S been a busy year for Hugh Bonneville. He reprised his role as the bumbling boss Ian Fletcher in W1A, a BBC spin-off from the award-winning Olympics mockumentary Twenty Twelve, starred alongside George Clooney in the Second World War film The Monuments Men and wrapped up series five of Downton Abbey.
“There isn’t a lot of time off at the moment, but I’m not complaining. I love the fact that there is variety,” says the 50-year-old.
Bonneville’s been working for more than 20 years now, popping up as lovable buffoons in the romcom Notting Hill and period adaptation Mansfield Park, but it’s Downton and his role as patriarch Lord Grantham, aka Robert Crawley, that has made him a household name — and recognisable to millions of TV viewers around the world. As Downton fans will know, Grantham, unable to fully comprehend how much the world has changed following the First World War, is still coming to terms with the fast-paced life of the 1920s.
“I think he’s felt like a fish out of water, wanting to revert to the way things were before the war,” says London-born Bonneville. “He’s been dragging his heels, being a bit of a dinosaur and reluctant to change, because he didn’t know which direction to go in.”
But as the series progresses, his alter ego begins to warm to the idea of progression, the actor reveals. “He is a conservative by birth and tradition and all that, but he was very forward-thinking in series one, and that’s the Robert Crawley I fell in love with,” he says. “I was aware of him making some odd decisions in series three and four, but he’s set to get some strong views about the future in a good, modernising way, so I’m rooting for him. He’s bouncing back.”
But what of his relationship with wife Cora, played by Elizabeth McGovern? Downton’s golden couple have been drifting apart of late, and the arrival of Richard E Grant’s suave art historian Simon Bricker hasn’t helped matters.
“The important thing in a marriage is not to get stuck in a rut and, as we see in the series, taking each other for granted can be a dangerous thing, especially when there are art historians coming over the horizon,” says Bonneville, laughing.
He has been married to wife Lulu since 1998 in real life, and the couple have a 12-year-old son, Felix.
Bonneville jokes that he and the rest of the cast were “like a pool of sharks with a fresh bit of meat” when Grant first arrived on set. “He’s such a hoot,” he adds, recalling spotting the Withnail And I star sniffing the walls and table on set.
“He explained that since he was a child, he’s had a very sensitive nose and loves to smell stuff. About two years ago, someone saw him with his head in a bush of flowers and suggested he should do something about it, so he concocted this perfume that I’m now a proud owner of.”
Viewers will be glad to hear that, unlike last year, this year’s Christmas special will be set during the festive period with “a chunk of” scenes having been shot at Alnwick Castle.
“Highclere Castle, where Downton is usually shot is stunning to film in but, frankly, Alnwick Castle is huge. That was the highlight of the year,” says Bonneville. “Harry Potter filmed exteriors there, but I believe it’s the first time cameras have been allowed inside. The Duke and Duchess of Northumberland are huge fans, which is why they let us in.”
One of the men behind Harry Potter, producer David Heyman, is behind Bonneville’s forthcoming project — the big screen adaptation of Paddington, due for release in November.“It was the script as always,” says the actor, on what drew him to the role of Mr Brown. “I was very nervous when I picked it up, because I didn’t want my childhood being messed with, and my memories of this adorable creature.
“Paddington’s such a vivid character for so many people of a certain generation, but within a page, I was laughing out loud and reminded of the charming innocence and warmth the author Michael Bond put on the page. It was a no-brainer to be part of the film.”
There have been many wonderful incarnations over the years, but this is the first time a computer-generated Paddington will mix with actors, including Nicole Kidman and Julie Walters, on screen.
“It’s wonderful that it’s come to life, but it’s been a painstaking process,” says Bonneville.
The story, about a Peruvian bear with a passion for all things British, who winds up on the streets of London before being taken in by the kindly Brown family, was first published in 1958. It was one of the first books Bonneville was introduced to.
“I remember being enchanted by him and wanted to see all the sights of London with the same wide-eyed enthusiasm,” he says wistfully.
No doubt he’s keen for his 12-year-old son to see the movie — and can only hope it induces more enthusiasm than his Downton set visits.
“I’ve been filming Downton for six months of the year for five years now — that’s half of my son’s conscious life,” says Bonneville. “He comes to set and we stay over in a pub down the road and have a boy’s night out. But I have to say, he’s pretty bored of it now.”