Hugh Bonneville: “The writing’s on the wall for Downton Abbey – if it doesn’t adapt it will die”

The Downton star talks Robert Crawley's plummeting IQ, dramas in series 6 and a shocking series finale

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Over the last five seasons, Downton Abbey’s characters have gone on a momentous journey. We’ve had scandals, affairs and jiltings, financial woes, wars and death. The characters we know and love are almost completely different from those we met in season one. But according to star Hugh Bonneville, the final season sees the show return to its roots. 

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“There is a lot of this series which reminds me of the first,” Bonneville tells RadioTimes.com. “[Robert’s] IQ plummeted quite a lot somewhere in the middle and he became incredible insensitive to things that were staring him in the face, like grieving daughters and what to do with your money and things like that! I think this final series does have a sense of closing back in around the characters that we got to know very well in that first outing.”

The man we meet in season six is closer to Bonneville’s heart. “It’s a Robert I like spending time with, actually. He does realise that change has to come. The writing’s on the wall for Downton – if it doesn’t adapt it will die. Bearing in mind that Robert’s sole function in life is to hand on Downton in the best way possible, he realises that he’s really got to move with the times.”

When it comes to Robert’s relationship with his wife, things are a little calmer than they were last year – “There are no art historians honing into view this series!” – but Bonneville promises “there’s still a bit of grit in the oyster.”

“There are divisions, certainly. Cora is ploughing her own furrow as an independent person, standing up for the cottage hospital. Of course Violet is completely against this change so Robert is stuck in the middle as usual between mother and wife, as I think a lot of people might recognise in their own life!”

His daughters, as ever, are also preventing him from having a quiet life. While Edith is trying to find peace, with an illegitimate daughter at her side, Lady Mary finds herself at the centre of yet another sex scandal. 

“Some of my favourite scenes are between father and daughter, whichever daughter, ” says Bonneville, adding: “There are some gorgeous ones coming up further on down the line.”

“These are strong, fully formed women now; they are not just capricious little girls. They are women with life experiences. They’ve had deaths, they’ve had pregnancies, they’ve had all sorts. And so Robert is meeting them on properly adult terms now and that’s really enjoyable to play.”

As the series progresses, Bonneville assures us there will be plenty of “surprises”. 

“A couple of sequences I literally had to read twice! I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Julian [Fellowes] always manages to do it, the shift from melodrama to high comedy to lump in your throat to ‘what the hell?!’ There’s a few of those!”

And when it comes to that final ever episode, Bonneville’s lips are sealed. Except to say that we won’t be disappointed. 

“Bearing in mind the entire series has a flavour of ‘end of an era’ both on-screen and off, I like to think it’s satisfying.” 

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Downton Abbey returns to ITV on Sunday at 9:00pm 


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