The Forum talks to Hugh Bonneville


Hugh Bonneville has the voice and looks of the quintessential Englishman attributes, that meant the role the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey seemed tailor made for him. But the fact that he appeared so effortlessly and utterly believable in that role is the result of an acting pedigree that started in the National Youth Theatre and continued from the stage through to television and film, with numerous memorable roles and justified accolades in a career that already spans thirty years; as his web site biography testifies.

‘Hugh Bonneville studied Theology at Cambridge and made his professional debut at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, in 1986, bashing a cymbal in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and understudying Ralph Fiennes as Lysander. He then spent several seasons with the National Theatre where he appeared in School For Wives, Yerma, Entertaining Strangers, Juno and the Paycock and played Charles Surface in The School for Scandal and the title role in The Devil’s Disciple. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1991, appearing in Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Alchemist, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Virtuso and Amphibians. He also played Laertes to Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. His work at the RSC brought him a nomination for The Ian Charleson Award. Other theatre includes Habeas Corpus at the Donmar, directed by Sam Mendes, and seasons at Colchester, Leicester Haymarket and Chichester. ‘He also appeared in My Night With Reg (Criterion & Playhouse), Us and Them (Hampstead), Cloaca (Old Vic, directed by Kevin Spacey) and most recently in An Enemy of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre’. In television his leading roles include The Cazalets, Take a Girl Like You, Armadillo and The Commander. He appeared in the Emmy award-winning The Gathering Storm and played the poet Philip Larkin in Love Again. Other credits range from comedies like The Robinsons, The Vicar of Dibley, Freezing, Rev, Getting On, Mr Stink (BAFTA nomination, Best Comedy) and Galavant to dramas such as Diary of a Nobody, Tsunami: The Aftermath, Miss Austen Regrets, Five Days, Hunter, The Silence, Doctor Who and The Hollow Crown.

Twenty Twelve won a British Comedy Award (2011) and a BAFTA (2013) for Best Comedy, Hugh being nominated two years running as Best Comedy Actor. In 2014, Hugh’s character, Ian Fletcher, appeared in W1A, a follow-up series about life at the BBC, which won the Broadcasting Press Guild Award for Best Comedy and Hugh received a third TV BAFTA nomination for his performance. Four new episodes aired in April 2015. Downton Abbey has won dozens of awards worldwide and Hugh has received a Golden Globe and 2 Emmy nominations for his performance as Robert, Earl of Grantham. The show was awarded a special BAFTA for its contribution to TV drama.

Hugh made his feature film debut in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1994, directed by Kenneth Branagh. His many film appearances since then include Notting Hill, Mansfield Park, Stage Beauty, Asylum, Scenes of a Sexual Nature, Man to Man, From Time to Time, Glorious 39, Burke & Hare, Third Star, Shanghai, The Monuments Men and Paddington. Hugh received a BAFTA Best Supporting Actor nomination for Iris and won Best Actor at the Monte Carlo Film Festival for his performance in French Film. Gurinder Chadha’s Viceroy’s House, in which Hugh co-stars with Gillian Anderson, is currently in post-production.

Behind the scenes, Hugh co-produced the first West End production of Jonathan Harvey’s acclaimed Beautiful Thing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in 1994 and wrote Half Time with Christopher Luscombe, which he also directed.

Hugh is a patron of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, The National Youth Arts Trust, Scene & Heard, Giant Olive Theatre Company, The Primary Shakespeare Company, The Centre Stage Academy and Mousetrap Theatre Projects. He is also an Ambassador for Water Aid.’

Do you have a special attachment to Hampshire?
“I have lived on the Hampshire Sussex border on and off for 40 years. I grew up sailing in the Solent with my father and his cousin, who shared a boat, which they moored in Gosport and later on, on the Hamble.”

Do you have a favourite place here?
“I love the South Downs, with Harting Down, south east of Petersfield, holding a special place in my heart. The view from up there always brightens my day.”

What is your mantra for life?
“Don’t shoot the messenger.”

Which three things couldn’t you live without.
“Apart from my family? My Cross fountain pen; Count Arthur Strong and a good pair of wellies.”

The charities that you are affiliated with have strong connections with young people, is that something you feel strongly about?
“I feel I can contribute better to charities with which I have some sort of connection related to my own experience. I grew up with the great good fortune of being taken to the theatre regularly by my parents and so my interest in the performing arts was sparked at any early age. To be able to connect young people with self expression in this way means a lot to me.”

Could you tell us about upcoming charitable events?
“Having narrated a film appeal for Naomi House some time ago, I’m finally going to see this brilliant and vital facility. I’m heading to Southampton soon to visit Fareshare, a great initiative which takes unwanted supermarket food and redistributes it – simple idea, shameful that it has to exist. I’ll attend the National Youth Theatre’s 60th birthday gala, which I am helping fundraise for, and am looking forward to supporting Scene and Heard’s July event, Risk It For A Biscuit.”

Whilst it must be an actor’s dream to play a role like
the Earl of Grantham, do you have concerns about
type casting?
“I’m lucky enough to have been a character actor as well as in some cases playing the lead in shows so I feel comfortable in a variety of roles. However, if The Earl of Grantham and his trusty Labrador is a badge some may want to pin on me for evermore, then I’ll wear it with pride.”

In the celebratory year is there a Shakespearian role you
especially like?
“One of my favourite productions that I’ve been in was Two Gentlemen of Verona at Stratford in 1991. This is a beautiful, simple play, one of Shakespeare’s earlier works. You can sense him trying out ideas, which he revisits with more complexity and depth in his later work (eg Twelfth Night and As You Like It). Our production struck a chord and was a tremendous success and I loved playing the role of Valentine.”

What has been your worst moment on set?
“Standing filming in a sun-kissed olive grove in Mallorca on 7th July 2005 as the news gradually rippled around the set of the atrocities in London. Everyone was concerned for their loved ones and felt so far away.”

Why did you become an actor?
“Because telling stories through the imagination of being a character is something I’ve enjoyed since childhood and it became a passion and a need to carry on in to my adult life. Most people get proper jobs.”

What would be your dream cast/director/producer if
you could make any film?
“Olivia Colman / Roger Michell / David Heyman”

Who are your heroes and why?
“My mum and dad, who encouraged and supported their three children and gave selflessly to their professions and to the local community for decades, with modesty and no fanfare.”

Do accolades mean a huge amount to you?
“Not in the least.”

What preparation do you like to do for a role?
“It varies from project to project. When preparing for Viceroy’s House, a film set against the backdrop of the partition of India that is due out in 2017, I wanted to understand the context more than my schoolboy history allowed. In reading around the subject and about Lord Mountbatten, whom I play in the movie, the main thing that struck home is that there is no such thing as objective history. The same single event, or sequence of events, can be interpreted any number of ways, depending on the historian’s viewpoint. I look nothing like Lord Mountbatten but it was useful to meet with his daughter and to read her memoir alongside other biographies in order to try and pick up traits of his character and behaviour. Lady Pamela told me, for instance, that he always wore his naval cap at a jaunty angle!

What do you do to relax?
“Walk on the South Downs with my two bonkers Tibetan Terriers.”

What next for Hugh Bonneville?
A visit to the Sunseeker boatyard in Poole followed by camping outside the Pig On the Beach hotel near Studland Bay until they have a cancellation – I’m dying to stay there but they’re always fully booked!

Written by Gill Grant