Brendan Coyle on period drama, Downton Abbey and playing a modern man in Sky1’s Starlings

"Starlings is the complete opposite of Downton Abbey. It isn't all buttoned up and it’s not all subtext.."

You’ll no doubt recognise charming and crinkly-eyed Brendan Coyle as loyal valet Bates in ITV’s hit period drama Downton Abbey but the 49-year-old actor has more than just one string to his bow. He’s currently starring in the second series of drama-comedy Starlings, which starts tonight on Sky1.


Tell us a little bit about Starlings…

Starlings is an extended family with Terry and Jan, played by myself and the wonderful Lesley Sharp, at the heart of it. There’s their three children, Grandad, Terry’s half brother and Jan’s nephew, who lives in a caravan in the back garden. Due to unforeseen circumstances, they’re all thrown together with not enough space… with hilarious consequences!

What can we expect from the second series?

We’ve really pushed the boat out in terms of the dramatic content. Starlings was much lighter and brighter in series one. But people really buy us as a family now so the writers have been able to invest more in the challenges people face in their lives ­— illness, potential divorce, people leaving home, going through puberty, old age.

The boys – writers and stars Matt King and Steve Edge – wanted to challenge themselves. Series two has much more impact and much more punch. It starts off very comedically though, we lure people in.

The first episode hints that there might be trouble brewing in Terry and Jan’s marriage. What can you tell us about that?

Jan has decided that as the kids are growing up and leaving home that she wants to take a course to re-educate herself. It turns out Jan is a dab hand at writing and very much encouraged by her husband, she goes to pursue this literary side of herself. But in the course of doing that, she meets a man and the marriage is very severely tested.

By mid-series, there’s a real turning of the screw. The last three episodes really put me through the mill. Leslie is such a great dramatic actor that we decided to utilize those kinds of resources. This cast, comedic as it is – a dramedy I think they call it – are all pretty strong actors, so we can afford to be a bit more dramatic.

Matt King and Steve Edge write as well as star in the series. Do you ever get a say in what happens to Terry?

I don’t really need to. You’ve got to learn to trust your writers, unless the scripts are really bad!

I’m really happy with Starlings. But if we’re on set and a gag doesn’t work or a moment isn’t working – the directors might not agree with me about this! – but it’s very valuable for us to have the writers onset to tweak something. It’s great to have them around.

In Starlings, as well as Downton, you play a character in a close, loving relationship. Do you find it easy to get into that mind set with a fellow actor?

Mostly. Acting is a great leveller. Once the camera’s rolling, it’s just you and them. All you’ve got is each other. So you’ve can either support each other within a scene or you can just be selfish or fearful and do your own thing. It’s a mad business. You don’t get a whole bunch of time to rehearse so you’ve got to leap in. I’ve been really lucky with the great actors I’ve worked with in terms of the male-female dynamic ­— Nicola Walker, Claudie Blakely, Joanne Froggatt in Downton and now Leslie Sharp. Jeeze, what a list!

Do you see similarities between yourself and Bates or Terry?

I have no idea who I am! You just draw on parts of yourself. The writing tells you how to play a part, and you find those parts in yourself in order to deliver. Sometimes I’m similar to Terry, sometimes I’m more similar to Bates. It depends on the sort of mood I’m in.

Is it nice to come out of period drama and get to be a modern man for a change?

It really is. I absolutely loved doing Downton, don’t get me wrong, but I love being able to move around and be expressive. Starling’s isn’t all buttoned up and it’s not all subtext. It’s the complete opposite. Whereas Bates is all subtext – he’s all about what he doesn’t say – Terry is about what he says, how he moves and how free he is.

Talking of Downton…. It must be amazing to be part of such a successful series.

It’s alarming at first. It’s taken us all by surprise. Nobody saw this level of success coming. It’s a phenomenon right now, and it continues to grow, especially in the States. Downton’s wonderful. If we play our cards right, this opens up opportunities for all of us.

I’m going to stick my neck out and say this is our best series. Series four is absolutely phenomenal. It’s a riot. Instead of cutting back and cutting back and saying ‘we have a success now’ the producers want to expand. Not just in terms of bringing in more characters, but the variety of characters and the situations they find themselves in. It’s not going to last forever but we’re all enjoying it very much. Like I say, this is our best series…

You say it’s not going to last forever. Do you see Downton having a sell-by date?

I have no idea. It’s such a big beast of a show. It’s a juggernaut. There’s so many characters, and we’ve lost some major ones…. But, like I say, I think this is our best series.

Has losing those cast members had an effect on the atmosphere on set?

You miss people. I miss Jessica [Brown Findlay], I miss Dan [Stevens], I’m really going to miss Siobhan [Finneran]. You miss them because it’s a tight unit and they’re all great people and great actors, but they move on. And you just have to crack on.

Bates spent a lot of time behind bars in series three. Was it fun getting to be a bit mean and moody?

Yes, it was. And there’s even more in store… We see a darker and more determined side to Bates than we’ve seen before.

I spent a long time in prison in series three. I sort of missed my mates a bit! It was a whole different thing. And Downton did their Downton thing. They could’ve just stuck me in a cell and shot it in a tiny studio space, but the producers went out to Lincoln prison to give it scale and context. We have to invest in that cinematic scope. Especially because it’s so big in America – we just can’t do it on the cheap anymore!

Here at we love predicting what’s going to happen next in Downton. Do you ever guess what plotlines Julian Fellowes is going to come up with next?

Yeah, we play that game. Usually it becomes quite filthy and scabrous! When we are the servants just all sitting around we’re quite boisterous downstairs, so the plotlines we come up with… they are not going to happen.

Have you ever got it right?

No! Almost never.

Filthy predictions aside, do you have hopes for Bates in series four?

All my hopes for my character this year have been met and exceeded.

Do you see yourself ever doing something completely different? Sci-fi maybe?

I don’t know. All my theatre stuff was all realism and a lot of new writing. That was my tradition, so sci-fi has kind of passed me by and it’s not the sort of thing I seek out. I like good stories, but I’m not a sci-fi or a horror fan. I like realism.

Sticking with period dramas then…  Do you settle down on the sofa of a Sunday to watch them like the rest of us?

Not really! It depends… Some of them are really good, some aren’t so good.

Does that mean you don’t watch Downton then?

Anything I’m in I watch once and that’s it. Only when it comes out, and never again. I love watching everybody else, but I think any actor watching themselves is a little but like a roller coaster ride. You drive yourself nuts so once is enough!

What kind of telly do you like watching?

I’m so behind, but Breaking Bad is blowing my mind right now. As is the Killing and Borgen. I’m always a year behind everyone else.


Starlings returns tonight at 9:00pm on Sky1.