A week in the life of Hugh Bonneville

A diary Hugh wrote for Farnham Living

29th March 2012

Internationally renowned actor Hugh Bonneville, who plays the Earl of Grantham in Julian Fellowes’s hugely successful TV series Downton Abbey, tells Farnham Living about a typical week in his life, before embarking on another six months filming the third series of Downton.

Saturday, February 4, 2012
I’m currently doing a series of concerts with the City of London Sinfonia entitled ‘Conquering the Antarctic’. In the first part of the programme the orchestra plays part of Vaughan Williams’s score from the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic and I read extracts from Captain Scott’s diaries. Having opened in Birmingham last night, today we’re in Cambridge and so I take up Heather Lane’s invitation of a tour of the Scott Polar Research institute where she works as Librarian and Keeper of Collections. The Institute was founded with money left over from the public appeal set up to raise funds for the bereaved families and is now the foremost polar research archive in the world. This being the centenary year, there is a special exhibition of diaries, letters and photographs of the expedition and of the men who found the frozen bodies eight months after Scott’s final entry in his diary.

It is profoundly moving to read the documents close-up and to see photographs of these men: ambition and adventure in their eyes at the outset, through to the hollow looks of despair as they pose at the South Pole, beaten to their goal by Amundsen and with 800 miles of sledge-dragging homeward ahead of them. They fell short of safety by 11 miles.

I don’t make it back to West Sussex after the concert because snow brings the M25 to a standstill. Fortunately I have a brother in London who doesn’t go to bed early. I think of others stranded not only tonight but also a century ago. The two traumas hardly bear comparison.

Monday, February 6, 2012
The first of two days of read-throughs for Downton Abbey Series Three, in Ealing Town Hall. It’s great to see everyone again. Because of the piecemeal nature of filming, it’s one of the rare occasions that the entire cast gets together. Julian [Fellowes, writer] and Gareth Neame, our boss at Carnival, make speeches of welcome to old friends and new. On the table in front of the producers are the Emmy, the Golden Globe, the Broadcast and the National Television Awards with which Series One has been garlanded. No pressure then.

We read. The heating system rattles noisily, so it’s soon turned off. The steam from the tea urn echoes in the large hall, so that’s turned off too. Within minutes the temperature has plummeted and everyone is huddled in their coats, trying to keep warm.

In the afternoon I get a haircut over at Ealing Studios, that wonderfully shabby, cramped, eccentric jumble of buildings that is Downton Abbey’s home for 40 per cent of the shoot.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
Today we read three more episodes of Downton Abbey and afterwards our historical adviser, Alastair Bruce, addresses the cast. Alastair’s pre-series speeches have become legendary to us: his eloquence about and passion for the era is infectious; on set he’s known as The Oracle. Today he outlines the social and political backdrop of coalition Britain in 1920/21, against which this third series is set.

In the afternoon I head for Cardiff for another ‘Antarctic’ concert. I’m staying at the Royal Hotel. As fate would have it, its oak-panelled dining room is where Scott and his team had a last banquet before setting off for the South Atlantic. The ghosts of the men who set sail from Cardiff docks aboard the Terra Nova in June 1910 feel remarkably present.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Today our mini-tour rolls into Cheltenham. Wilson, the doctor and principal artist on the Scott expedition, was born and bred here. I’ve not visited the town before but thanks to Twitter – “Where should I have lunch in Cheltenham?” – I am spoiled for choices of eatery. I head for The Daffodil, a converted art deco cinema. It’s fun and relaxed and has a great menu: delicious fishcakes and a steak for me. Between bites I learn lines from my iPad.

I am in awe of the musicians of the City of London Sinfonia. Listening to them rehearse this afternoon under Stephen Layton’s baton, and absorbing the soul-stirring sounds of an orchestra at close quarters, is thrilling. The concert goes particularly well tonight.

Thursday, February 9, 2012
Back home and a pile of mail to go through. I’ve been a patron of Merlin, a medical relief charity, for about seven years and I need to draft a letter to its supporters encouraging them to – yes, you guessed it – donate even more. Merlin is a lean organisation (96p in every £1 goes into its work on the ground), which provides medical support in trouble spots around the globe quickly and efficiently. I’ve witnessed their work in the Democratic Republic of Congo and more recently in Liberia, where the Minister of Health told me that without Merlin there would be no healthcare system at all. I pretty much faint at the sight of blood so I’m of zero practical use to Merlin. But at least I can shout their name out loud.

Friday, February 10, 2012
Twenty Twelve is a spoof fly-on-the wall documentary I do on BBC TV about the Olympic Deliverance Commission, the fictional team whose job is to organise the forthcoming Games, only they’re not very good at it. Today the cast and crew gather at TV Centre to record a sketch for Sport Relief. Unfortunately, one of our lead actors couldn’t join us, so the script was re-written a few days ago. However, someone forgot to issue the revised script ahead of time, so I spend the first hour huddled in a corner, desperately trying to cram the new lines into my head. During a hurried lunch break I am interviewed about the show for a national magazine. The journalist says “from the cuttings I’ve read you come across as rather bland”.

Back on set, two extremely well-known athletes join us for the afternoon and are terrific sports (sic) about the sketch. We get it done and, exhausted, go our separate ways once more. As I drive home down the A3 I think back to the lunchtime interview. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad. After all, ‘Bland Bonneville’ has a certain ring to it and anyway if the magazine runs it as the headline I can always claim it’s a typo. Yes. I’m happy with that.

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