Interview: Hugh Bonneville

Downton Abbey star HUGH BONNEVILLE is evidence that prioritising acting over academia at Cambridge can pay off. He talks to NATALIE GIL.

bbc Corpus Christi downton abbey hugh bonneville itv maggie smith michelle obama mr stink notting hill social class theology twenty twelve

Hugh Bonneville has become something of a legend to the loyal Sunday night TV viewers of Britain. His current role, for which he is arguably best known, is as Lord Grantham in the mind-bogglingly popular Downton Abbey. But those less enthusiastic about costume dramas and the elevated segregation of the upper classes might also have spotted him as the eponymous and irritable tramp in Mr Stink, or as Ian Fletcher, Head of Deliverance for the Olympics in the BBC mockumentary, Twenty Twelve. Oh, and don’t forget his role as the lovably ignorant Bernie in Notting Hill.

What Do You Do?: One of the most amusingly awkward moments in Notting Hill. Hell, maybe even in the history of British rom coms.

After a stint at a London drama school, Bonneville studied Theology at Corpus Christi in the eighties, where he admits he was a ‘pretty pants’ student, having done ‘far too many plays than was healthy’ for his academic career. Possibly explaining why he came away with a Desmond 2:2 in Theology. But his stellar career and (well-merited) celebrity status, re-ignited by Downton, suggest there’s hope for us all regardless of our results in Finals.

Like a butler with a tray of foie gras canapés, costume dramas come and go in Britain, so why does Bonneville think people have warmed to Downton more than the rest? “If I knew that I’d be a millionaire, having bottled the recipe”, he jokes. Then he re-thinks: “one reason why it’s appealed to a broader audience than one might expect from a traditional costume drama is that it’s about tension not violence, romance rather than sex. It’s not so in your face. And it just breathes out in way that a lot of contemporary shows, which are brilliant, don’t.”

The venerable Lord Grantham

Does he ever wonder how a show that, first and foremost, flaunts the rigidity and idiosyncrasies of the British class structure has managed to ensnare a global audience, ranging from the Chinese to America’s First Couple? (Michelle reportedly urged her staff to get her the third series in advance from ITV). How do 149 other countries understand our social nuances?

“I suppose because it’s a hermetically sealed world where the divisions and subtleties of social structure are recognised. As socially modern people, we might find the feudal structure reprehensible, but there’s something about this fictional world that works and that people seem to understand.” Bonneville is “thrilled” about the seemingly endless wave of affection for the show. “The age range and social range of people interested in it never ceases to amaze me.”

Bonneville as Mr Stink, alongside Britain’s Got Talent star Pudsey

On the subject of class, does he think it’s easier for people from privileged backgrounds to get into acting? “No, not anymore.” Having attended a private school before coming to Cambridge, Bonneville’s university experience confirmed in his own mind that he wanted to be a professional actor. “I was flirting with the idea of law but really it’s a mercy to the legal profession that I didn’t do that.” And the Cambridge dynamic enabled him to hone his craft: “I loved that there was no drama course here, because it meant people brought a variety of disciplines to rehearsals, which was wonderful, rather than it being completely driven by an academic or course structure.”

His best moment at Cambridge, however, had nothing to do with treading the boards. In an address to the Union, Bonneville revealed that it was playing cards and drinking champagne after Finals – not getting a first in his dissertation. He was truly content, realising that he’d never be in such a carefree situation again.

When asked if he thought Cambridge had given him a leg up at the start of his career, he was cautious: “I wouldn’t say it necessarily helped my career in terms of building blocks professionally, but it certainly helped me understand what I needed to do with my life.”

In his Union address, Bonneville gave some tips to budding thesps seeking to go professional: develop a thick skin off stage, a thin skin on stage and throw yourself head first into the acting world. Be it the box office or the costume department, it’s best for wannabes to fully inhabit the profession they’re seeking to enter, rather than moping at home about how fickle the industry can be.

His Downton co-star and veteran actor Maggie Smith recently said acting helps her cope with loneliness and for Bonneville, it’s similarly a part of him. “It has been ever since I was a kid, but even more since I got my first pay check 27 years ago. It’s something I love; it’s something I need. It fuels me, it makes me interested in human behaviour – the stories that one tells: whether they’re live, by camera or by radio. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, I’m doing something I love.”