Before I tell you what Brendan Coyle is like, a caveat. Whenever I meet an actor who seems like a hero – thoughtful, inventive, self-aware, interesting, curious, generous, self-effacing, funny, the lot – I am immediately suspicious. Well, I say “whenever”, as if that happens all the time; in fact, it’s almost never. But my suspicion is: how do you know they’re not acting? They are actors, after all – how can you tell whether this is really them, or just a likeable creature they’ve conjured up for you?
You can’t know: so on the understanding that my word may mean nothing, I want you to take my word for it: Coyle is an awesomely nice person. If anything goes wrong, it’s always his fault; if anything goes right, it’s because someone he works with is brilliant. He is full of enthusiasm, but never asinine. Honestly, it’s enough to make you go back and watch Downton Abbey all over again.
Julian Fellowes, the writer and vision behind the ITV1 drama, has said in the past that Coyle was in his mind when he wrote it, that, effectively, he’d written it as a vehicle for the actor. Coyle absolutely scoffs at this idea. No, no, no, it was simply that Brian Percival, Downton’s director, also directed the BBC dramatisation of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South in 2004. That drama had fired up Fellowes’s famously capacious, busy imagination, and Brendan Coyle just happened to have been in it.
This is Coyle being modest. “I wrote John Bates for Brendan,” Fellowes has said. “I knew he had the capacity to suggest a character’s bitter and painful past without doing much to indicate it. Above all, he never asks for sympathy as an actor, and consequently he gets it.
And that admiration is reciprocated. Coyle says of Fellowes (left, at last year's Emmy Awards): “I’m…” Long pause. “I’m just worried about blowing smoke up his arse. He’s a very generous man, a very funny man, who also writes really great stories. He’s one of the funniest men you’ll ever meet. I find right-wingers, the best right-wingers, are much, much funnier than the old lefties I used to hang out with. They have this wit and hilarity.”
The alliance is quite an unlikely one, for exactly this reason – Coyle did start his career as a bona fide leftie, doing plays that he describes as agitprop, exploring the minds not of unreadable manservants but of striking miners and exploited steelworkers. His family is a patchwork of luvvies, lefties, butchers, working-class Tories; his great-aunt was the head of a cleaners’ union, and he conjures up an amused descendant’s pride with a twitch of an eyebrow. His first big break was a part in a stage version of Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, directed by Stephen Daldry in 1987. “We didn’t change the vote,” he says ruefully. “Thatcher still got in.”
To fetch up, then, in a series with this unalloyed fascination with the upper class, not as something to be dismantled, but as something to be admired and cooed over, seems incongruous. Also, I personally think Julian Fellowes is a cracking snob, though plenty of people insist he isn’t. Coyle laughs this off completely. “You have to remember, Julian is an old luvvie. He’s one of us. If Julian were Michael Gove, you wouldn’t go anywhere near him. But he’s not, he’s one of us.”
This class issue is always an aftertaste following a forkful of Downton Abbey. Born in Corby, Northamptonshire, Coyle ruminates on the whole thing with an affectionate detachment: “My dad was a butcher, and at one point we became middle-class. We had a house in the country, we had a horse. I was nine or ten, and we were successful, living in a very, very lovely village outside a really rough town.
“My parents had this big debate about sending me to Ampleforth. I really resisted it, but anyway, they decided not to. When I think of what I regret – I regret not going to university, but no, I never regret not going to Ampleforth. But I wonder how things would have been different. I’d be Rupert Everett by now, wouldn’t I?”
Sorry, I’m straying wildly off the subjects you really want to know about: will John Bates ever come out of prison? Did he really kill his wife? Will Downton carry on for ever, or will we have to cancel Sundays?
The prison sequences bring so much to the series that I almost don’t want him ever to come out. If drama is all about light and shade, John Bates’s ambiguous, gnarled desperation, shot on location in an oppressive Lincoln gaol, carries enough shade to countermand all the glittering opulence of the main house. The series has a mixture of visual extravagance and meticulous detail that is rare on TV, and is also hard to put your finger on, from your sofa. You know it’s better, but you can’t figure out why.
“One of the big advantages we had over Upstairs, Downstairs [the BBC’s rival period drama] was the place. Instead of a set-based show, it was sumptuous. It was a big risk in terms of budgets, especially because at the time people were saying, we don’t want any more costume drama. But it works. Highclere is about scope. Those scale shots take a day to do. The difference between Shirley MacLaine as Martha Levinson arriving in the sunshine and Allen Leech as Tom Branson returning in the rain takes two days to do. You don’t get that on television any more.”
Coyle, of course, won’t reveal when or if his character is released. He won’t get anywhere near telling me whether or not he’s guilty. "If you think it’s ambiguous now, it gets more ambiguous. Bates has been in the Boer War. I did some research on this, he would have killed a lot of people. Does that mean he can kill his wife? What does it do to you?”
You get the impression that Coyle would hate to have to say goodbye to his increasingly mysterious valet, the world of Downton and the fellow actors he inhabits it with – “it’s a very irreverent bunch, so the craic’s good” – but at the same time, a cast containing this many heavyweights couldn’t stay happy with any show indefinitely, let alone a show so straightforward and well liked. In British culture this popularity is a double-edged sword.
“The difference between LA and here is that there, the insiders, the taste-makers, they all love Downton. It’s much more effusive there. By contrast, the initial response over here was that it must be a cultural guilty pleasure.”
For Brendan Coyle, household-name status has come quite far into his career. He’s 49 – he was in Lark Rise to Candleford, of course, but much of his memorable work has been in theatre. It sounds as if fame has come as a bit of a shock. “One thing I’m really keen not to do is complain about the fact that I got a job that’s made me very successful. But what I will say is that every single f***er on the planet has a camera. I posed for about 40 photographs yesterday. I don’t mind stopping for a photograph, yes, sure, what I really mind is…” He stops to do a droll impression of someone trying to film him surreptitiously. It makes a very funny mimed anecdote.
With household-name status, of course, comes heart-throb status, but he waves off that kind of chatter good-naturedly. I’m going to be 50 soon. It just doesn’t seem to be that important any more. I’m single, I’m looking for something meaningful…” There’s a pause, as it seems to strike him that this makes him sound as if he’ll go out with just anyone. “By the time you’ve been single for quite a long time, you can get quite specific about what you can and can’t put up with. If this TV success had come in my 20s, if I was young and I’d become a heart-throb, I would have been very stupid. I would have got into a lot of situations that I really wished I hadn’t. But in my 40s, that’s not going to happen.”
It would take more than the advent of camera phones to dent the pleasure Brendan Coyle takes in Downton Abbey. “Any actor who told you that he didn’t want to get a hit show is a liar. It’s rare beyond belief. To get to do what you want at all is rare. Most of our struggles revolve around getting to do what we want to do, and be with the people we want to be with. These are our designs for life. I want to be with people who make me happy and do the things I want to do.”
And does he see Downton continuing indefinitely? He insists that he’s the wrong person to ask for concrete information on the future of the series, but does give us this: “I can pretty much say all of us know when Downton is going to end. This is a show with a finite life. If we bring this into the 50s, it’s Emmerdale. He thinks for a minute. Though I really like Emmerdale.”
Downton Abbey continues Sunday at 9pm on ITV1