As the Master of the house in the soon to be televised period drama, Hugh Bonneville (who has mastered his own share of period dramas), chats about his role as the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey!
(I couldn't help but think that his situation is similar to Mr. Bennett, who he portrayed in Lost in Austen, in that he has daughters in need of a suitable match and a distant relative coming to visit, to whom their home is entailed. I doubt though that Dan Stevens will resemble Mr. Collins!)
It was during the shooting of From Time To Time, which Julian Fellowes also directed, that Hugh first became aware of Downton Abbey – then in its early stages. “While we were filming - this is a couple of years ago now - Julian was talking about a number of projects he had on the go, of which Downton Abbey was one. Its setting, a world on the brink of change, captured my imagination and then in the Summer or Autumn last year I read the first episode and loved it,” explains Hugh.
As the months went by and I heard the calibre of people who were coming on board I realised, as ever, it's the quality of the script to which people respond; the depth of Julian’s writing is just fantastic.” Despite having previously worked with Maggie Smith in From Time To Time, the two actors did not share any scenes together so to find himself playing her son in another Julian Fellowes drama was a welcome surprise.
“There's that overused tennis analogy, isn't there, about how working with the best makes you raise your game. It's entirely appropriate with Maggie: she has a devilishly witty first serve, a razor-sharp backhand but woe betide you if you're on the receiving end of her drop shot.”
As well as having worked with Maggie Smith before, Hugh has also shared screen time with Penelope Wilton who plays Isobel Crawley, mother of the new heir to Downton and American born actress Elizabeth McGovern. “It's the third time Elizabeth and I have played husband and wife. I love being married to her. And her husband doesn't seem to mind either. Anyway, it makes for a thoroughly enjoyable short-hand; we even know which side of the bed each other insists on sleeping, so that saves a lot of faffing about in rehearsals.”
For Hugh, what makes Julian Fellowes’ scripts so compelling is that he writes from a default of people inherently trying to do good in the world. “He's the most humane of writers, I think. Lesser authors judge their characters, Julian doesn't. Sure there are some nasty pieces of work in the world of Downton, but they are all three dimensional – they aren’t goodies, or baddies; they are like all of us – flawed. So I think it’s the humanity of the writing that appeals. I don't mean it's soft or soppy,“he explains.” Julian's characters are recognisably human, with all their faults. “And the structure is so good – you may leave one storyline for ten minutes of screen time but when you return to it, you know exactly where you left it, so vivid is the narrative. And I think it is cast incredibly well; everyone is very distinct and feels part of this world.”
Bonneville plays Lord Grantham whose key role throughout the series, is to maintain the family estate and hand it on to the next generation. There is just one crucial detail preventing him from completing his custodial duties - he doesn’t have a son and heir. “We have aligned our eldest daughter, Lady Mary, to marry her cousin and my heir Patrick, so the house and the title will stay within the immediate family. So the shock of Patrick's death as the story opens, plus the discovery that the next in line is a third cousin whom none of us knows adds complication to tragedy." The Crawleys are about to enter a time of great change and Lady Mary is faced with the prospect of seeing her inheritance pass to a stranger.
“Robert has an overwhelming sense of duty and responsibility to Downton Abbey but on the other hand, because his wife brought loads of money into the estate, millions of pounds in fact - she was an American heiress and our marriage was first and foremost a business deal - it seems unfair that her money is now going to go to someone we have never met. So it’s a big dilemma for Robert,” explains Hugh.
Matthew Crawley, played by Dan Stevens, represents the next generation: a bit before his time and as such has very different views to his cousins. “He is a man who has a 'job', imagine! While no-one of my background has ever worked. My responsibility is to maintain the legacy of Downton, so a whole new dynamic comes into play with Matthew's arrival as the Earl-in-waiting. I have got to try and embrace his new ideas while preserving the way of life I have inherited,” he explains.
“Once Robert gets over his initial surprise at Matthew having a job, which of course my mother (Maggie Smith) finds an absolutely bizarre concept, he comes to realise that Matthew does in fact have good ideas about how to revitalise the estate. Robert realises Matthew is a man he can trust and he becomes a surrogate son to Robert – which of course rankles with my daughter, Lady Mary.”
Regular visitors to Newbury might stop off at Highclere Castle which has a wonderful history and sits proudly on the top of an impressive estate designed by Capability Brown. Filming took place there for ten days every month from March to June. “We had a wonderful time filming at Highclere and the staff and family were very accommodating. It must have been a nightmare having 100 strangers tramping round your house on and off for four months,’ says Hugh. “The house is a significant character in the story. What I love about Highclere is, while it's big, grand and imposing, it’s not so huge and cavernous that you get lost in its vastness. It's a family home, a working one at that, so it has a familial warmth... as well as frightening running costs, which of course is a recurring theme of the show!”
Photo credits: Nick Briggs, Victoria Brooks