Hugh Bonneville on Downton Abbey, Twenty Twelve and the perils of infidelity

There’s a secret passion burning beneath his polished dignity... could it be disappointment?

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The last time I saw Hugh Bonneville, it was summer on the set of Downton Abbey, where he was pacing up and down the lawn right in front of the stately home of Highclere, looking slightly creature of the night-ish, in an ankle-length black coat over his Lord Grantham tuxedo, talking very intently into his mobile phone. He seemed stressed, but when I stopped him to say hello later on, he was gracious, smiled and exchanged pleasantries.

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At this meeting, six months later, he is in costume again – navy suit, white shirt, dark tie – as Ian Fletcher, head of deliverance at the Olympic Deliverance Commission, the guy in charge of making everything run smoothly (in his dreams) for London’s big moment, in the award-winning mockumentary Twenty Twelve.

Watching some of the first series again (shown on BBC4; the second moves to BBC2), it strikes me that Bonneville, 48, may have modelled himself on our Prime Minister: the same clipped way of talking, with that tone of eminent reasonableness; and particularly his chipper rejoinder, usually when everything has gone belly-up (ie most of the time), “Basically, it’s all good.”

Calm

“I think if there is a similarity it’s that everyone in politics, and the public eye, these days is desperately in that duck-paddling syndrome of giving the sense that everything is calm when, in fact, chaos reigns underneath,” Bonneville says. “There is that panic behind the eyes that sets in just as their brain is trying to think, ‘What I want to say is A, but what I have to say is B’ because otherwise I could end up… you know, fired.’

“In this world of spin and soundbites, you can’t even say, ‘Calm down, dear’ without it becoming a sort of ‘sexist, fascist pig’ headline. I wouldn’t like to be in my character’s shoes – he’s in the PR spotlight the whole time and anything he says will be judged not only by Seb Coe and Boris Johnson, but by the nation. So he’s in a no-win situation.”

Lord Coe has already made a couple of cameo appearances in the show; what are the chances of Boris coming on? I would love to see some Latin duck-paddling syndrome repartee between Fletcher and the Mayor (one of the running gags is that the head of deliverance always ends their phone conversations with a Latin quip, presumably in response to Boris’s valedictory flourish).

“I know Boris wanted to,” Bonneville says, “but when it came to the day, or the day before, something came up – like London had to be organised – so Boris was pencilled in, but couldn’t turn up. It would be nice to think that he could come on, ’cause, like Seb, he’d be a good sport.”

Classic

As it happens, although Bonneville says he was never very good at Latin at school (Sherborne), he was always madly interested in classics, and now he’s involved in a new charity called Classics for All with the history academic and broadcaster Bettany Hughes, among others. The charity’s target is to try to get a thousand more classics teachers into training and then into schools over the next decade, “because there’s something like 3,000 schools that don’t have any classics whatsoever at secondary level…

“Anyway, Bettany is the bright one and I’m the ‘little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ one – the gork [geeky dork?].”

The ridiculous scenarios in Twenty Twelve seem to presage even more absurd goings-on at the real 2012 Olympics. This series’s running theme is that no one, not even members of the Olympics Committee, can get tickets for the Games. Bonneville explains: “My secretary says, ‘We’ve got Alan Sugar on the phone about tickets’ and I say, ‘Well, he’s certainly not getting any’ and she says, ‘No, he’s offering some…’ Alan Sugar being the only person in Britain who can actually get hold of them!”

The slavish adoration of Fletcher’s secretary, Sally Owen (played by Olivia Colman), is almost painful to witness. “Exactly,” agrees Bonneville. “She will do anything for him… she keeps feeding him and goes and has his trousers altered at ten o’clock at night…”

And she buys him socks… and there’s a suggestion that he may have gone back to her place after he was kicked out by his wife. So..?

“Well, it’s sort of ambiguous as to what happens, but it’s clear in the second series that nothing has gone on…”

Romance

Bonneville is becoming a weird sort of love interest in Downton Abbey, too. “I do keep being teased that I’ve become a ‘Saga pin-up’. While I’m happy that ladies of a certain age aren’t throwing bricks at the telly when I come on, it’s really not an area I’m interested in talking about,” he says, with a slightly uncomfortable laugh.

As Downton fans will know, Robert, Earl of Grantham developed a tendresse for one of the housemaids in the most recent series. Although they exchanged nothing more than a chaste kiss, the maid resigned before her boss felt compelled either to ask her to go or risk disgracing them both. I’m not sure how I feel about this development. Obviously, it makes his character more human, but will he keep the incident to himself or will he tell his wife, Cora? And since Lord Grantham has paid for the education of the maid’s son, will this generosity come back to bite him in some way?

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, actually, so I can talk about what’s been on Downton, but not what’s coming up.” Does he talk to the creator, Julian Fellowes, about his character’s development? “Oh, sure, we talk all the time,” he says. “The other day I went up to him and said, ‘Actually, I’m not sure about this, it doesn’t quite make sense.’ And he explained it in one line and I said, ‘Oh, I see exactly what you mean.’ He’s a far better actor than I am because he’s seen these characters in his head, so he knows their journey, their whys and wherefores.”

Why does Bonneville think it was important for Fellowes to create that particular frailty in Grantham? Why did he need to fall for a maid? “Because Julian likes to surprise you, as he’s said more than once. As human beings, we do surprise each other. We’re not everything that… we’re not black and white. There’s shades in everyone. There are surprises in every- one. So I think that’s really what Julian wanted to do, to stop people feeling too complacent and that they know someone too well. If you have a character you think you completely understand, then a) it’s not so interesting to play, and b) that’s not what human beings are like.”

Fame

Does he think that the price of fame is that the public feels it has a right to know everything about people in the public eye? “I don’t, no.” Do you think journalists use that as a justification to be intrusive about public people’s private lives? “Quite possibly, yes. I mean, I’ve only ever wanted to be an actor and celebrate the parts in the shows that I’m in – but that’s as far, I think, as any reader or viewer is really interested.

“It’s how you handle fame. Let’s put it this way. I can walk through Lidl or Waitrose quite happily and people come up to me and say, ‘I enjoy the show’ or ‘I don’t like the show’ or whatever…”

Does he really shop at Lidl? “I’m sort of joking but I have been known to! You know, what I feel about fame is that it’s not like some sort of coat you put on, it’s just the scarf around your neck.”

What does his wife, Lulu, think? Does she like him being famous? “My wife thinks acting’s a funny old thing and it pays the bills, frankly!”

Names

While we’re on the subject of his wife, Bonneville would like to correct a few errors that have been reported in the press and have got on his wick. Firstly, his wife is not called Lulu Evans. Evans was the surname of her previous husband: “She has been Williams for the past 14 years, which is my surname.” The actor’s actual full name, you see, is Hugh Richard Bonneville Williams. But when he started out as an actor, his first director kept talking about another Hugh Williams, the actor father of Simon Williams, also an actor, and Simon’s brother, the poet Hugo Williams: “So I thought, ‘This isn’t going to be very helpful’ and decided to use my middle name [becoming Richard Bonneville for ten years]. That then got confusing, ’cause my mates didn’t know whether to call me Hugh or Richard, so I became Hugh Bonneville, although I’m really Hugh Williams – but I answer to most things.”

Neither, he’d like to say, is Lulu an artist: “There were about five minutes when she was doing something very creative – she is a very creative person – and I said, ‘At the moment, she’s an artist’ and that has stuck despite me saying in every single subsequent interview that ‘No, she’s not an artist – she’s now a full-time mum.’”

So is it true or false that she once said to him, “You are as fat as a pig”? “Yes, she’s always saying it. I do go up and down like a pair of bellows. Sometimes I’m good and healthy and exercise an awful lot and sometimes I don’t and I eat the wrong things. A few years ago, she said, ‘Come on, Hugh, you’re as fat as a pig.’ So with some mates in my village, we did a 100km walk over the South Downs and raised some money for charity. But I’m no great athlete.”

Lulu may think acting is, indeed, “a funny old thing” but her husband has been entranced by it since he was eight when he saw Michael Bates, who was a friend of his parents (Hugh’s father is a surgeon), in Forget-Me-Not-Lane by Peter Nichols, being applauded by 300 people. After Cambridge, where Bonneville read theology (he went up as an atheist and came down an agnostic, he says), he did his fair share of spear-carrying and rep.

Rejection

I say that there is a definite thread in his interviews of him talking extremely nakedly about various disappointments in his career. “Oh really? Gosh!” he says. It’s rather admirable, his honesty. “Right,” he says tensely. Don’t be tense, I say, it’s my job to be a detective. “Ha, ha,” he laughs glumly. When he didn’t get a second season at the Royal Shakespeare Company, for instance, he said he was “devastated”. And when Colin Firth got the part of Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, ditto.

“That was just funny.” You said, “It hurt like hell”, I say. “It didn’t.” When Firth got a role in Love, Actually, I remind him, he [Bonneville] said, “Colin got my part again, but at least Richard was kind enough to write to me and say he

Curtis was sorry he didn’t audition me. However, no one likes rejection, do they?”

“Gosh,” he says. “Wow, that’s interesting.”

There is one setback that he concedes really wounded him was that RSC rejection and, indeed, he returns to it several times. “I really adored being in the RSC, it was the happiest time ever. It had been my ambition all my life to be in the RSC.” He had, in fact, been offered another part at the National Theatre but someone at the RSC intimated “that I should turn down this other part at the National in order to stay, but then I wasn’t rehired.” Didn’t he take it up with that someone? “What’s the point when you’re a lowly little… middle-range actor. He knows who he is! But I’m not bitter – I wasn’t sitting there weeping into my pint – although I was deeply upset at the time. I felt that something I had cherished was being removed, the company of actors that I loved, and that I’d never work again in theatre. But if I had stayed there for another two years, would I be doing the work I’m doing now? Who knows?”

One of the aspects of working in theatre that he misses is playing many different types of role. I wonder if he envies actors who are cast so against type, like David Threlfall in Shameless or Dominic West in The Wire? Would he like to be in something like Shameless, for instance?

“God, I’d love to be given that opportunity, absolutely, who wouldn’t? Every actor would love to be the complete opposite of what they are.”

Family

Bonneville says that his parents always encouraged him to pursue acting. I presume they watch Downton? He nods. Do they like it? “Yeah, I think so.” He thinks so? “I don’t know, they say they like it, so I mean, yeah, I think they must do – because they wouldn’t be fibbing.”

The actor is being hassled to go. As he walks out the door, he throws back something I’d said to him at the beginning of the interview – about how he’d come across as a bit on the vanilla side (probably on purpose) in his previous interviews. “Sorry to be bland,” he shouts – but, actually, although he’s not given to sensational revelation, I don’t think Hugh Bonneville is bland at all – and I’m definitely not “fibbing’’.

Twenty Twelve is on Friday at 10:00pm on BBC2

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This is an edited version of an article from the issue of Radio Times magazine published 20 March 2012