With a crystal cut glass accent, a degree in theology from Cambridge and five years playing the Earl of Grantham in arguably one of the most popular period dramas ever, it’s no wonder that Hugh Bonneville is now starring as royalty on the big screen. But while the Downton Abbey actor, who lives just outside Midhurst in West Sussex, is at home portraying Lord Mountbatten in Gurinder Chadha’s historical drama Viceroy’s House set in the final months of British rule in India, he insists he’s not exactly king of his own castle.
‘The reality of my vast estate amounts to a paddock and a bit,’ he’s admitted. ‘Our home was originally the coach house for the estate up on the hill, so our kitchen/dining room can seat 10 for dinner. I used to be a useful cook, but have come to terms with the fact that the evening will go with more of a culinary swing if I stick to laying the table.’ So there’s no troublesome staff downstairs and no airs and graces upstairs. It’s just Hugh, 54, his wife Lulu, and their son Felix, 14. Hardly the stuff Robert Crawley or the former Viceroy would be used to.
‘Well if there is a Saturday morning off, it is spent taking instruction from my adored wife about the vegetable patch,’ he told The Telegraph. ‘I did some really helpful weed-clearing with the strimmer only to be informed I had shredded the sweet peas.’ If it sounds like Hugh is more Mr Bean than Lord of the Manor, it doesn’t bother him. ‘I feel extremely lucky,’ he shrugs.
Up close Hugh looks far younger than his screen characters. What’s his secret? ‘Oh well Botox, obviously,’ he jokes. ‘I don’t know. Particular because of Downton Abbey, where people assume I’m playing a character in his 60s, they think I’m that much older. But I’m not, I’m 53 and just hanging on in there. Clinging!’ He’s not one for the gym, and apart from gardening doesn’t play any sports. ‘I run a bit,’ he confesses. ‘I live in the countryside so that’s healthy.’
He’s almost a zealot when it comes to Sussex and extolling its charms. Just recently he helped make a film about Petworth for a local group, Petworth Vision, set up to promote the market town as a rural retreat to stressed-out city dwellers. Hugh told the Evening Standard: ‘Living in West Sussex, Petworth has always been a part of my landscape and so I was delighted to be involved with Petworth Vision, introducing our stunning, inspiring part of the world to visitors from further afield.’ He’s a fan of The Leconfield restaurant in the town, and says his most favourite view is from just above Harting, of a particular copse, where he used to sit with his mother, learning his lines for whatever play or film he was in. It was in spring ‘with the skylarks swooping. If I’m in a windy trailer filming somewhere godforsaken, I always think about that view and it cheers me up.’
Hugh, whose first role was in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with Robert De Niro and Kenneth Branagh, but who shot to fame five years later as the bumbling Bernie in Notting Hill, wasn’t convinced about portraying Lord Mountbatten when Viceroy’s House was first mentioned.
‘I was resistant at first because when Gurinda first came to talk to me about it we were just shooting the final season of Downton,’ he says. ‘I’d read the script and I knew the bare essentials of the history of that era, what I didn’t know was whether this script was fair, balanced, or whether it was bending history one way or the other because I didn’t know it in that detail. Hugh gave it to an Indian Muslim friend to read. ‘He said: “I think it’s trying to be fair to all sides but also not condoning and not letting anyone off the hook.’
In the end, it was the choice of his co-star Gillian Anderson to play Lady Mountbatten that sealed the deal. ‘She’s wonderful. I loved her in The X-Files… but I saw her in Great Expectations on TV in which she played Miss Havisham, I think it was, and she was absolutely astonishing.’
But Hugh still needed convincing he had the right look for the part. ‘The first thing I said to Gurinda was: “Look even if you stuck me in an elevator and slammed the lift doors I am never going to look like Lord Mountbatten. I’m a little, round-faced guy and he was very tall and slender.” And she said: “Well I’m not bothered about that. Colin Firth didn’t look much like George VI but you totally buy the performance”.’ Released to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the Independence of India, and the founding of Pakistan, Gurinda, best known for Bend It Like Beckham, wanted to tell the story as her family were caught up in the events that unfolded as the 300 years of the Raj came to an end. Viceroy’s House, in Delhi, was the home of the British rulers of India, which in 1947 became the home of Lord Mountbatten, the great grandson of Queen Victoria, in charge of handing India back to its people. It’s an Upstairs, Downstairs story – with the Mountbattens, and their daughter in the house and 500 Hindu, Muslim and Sikh servants living below stairs.
The film explores what happened when the decision was taken to divide the country and create Pakistan as a new Muslim homeland. How much did Hugh know about the history of that time before he took on the role? ‘It was certainly in our general education about what the British Empire had been – and there was a hint in my education that it was now something to be, not ashamed of, but it was more of a liberal education, I suppose, and sort of “it’s not good to colonise” and “let’s face it this is what we did, it’s what the Germans did, it’s what the French did, it’s what the Spanish did…” you know, “colonisation around the world in the last 500 years has been pretty brutal and you are part of that and you did that in India”.’
So he was surprised when he received an incredibly warm welcome when he went backpacking at 18 to India. ‘I was slightly stunned by the affection the Indian culture had, well, Indians generally, have for Britain and I couldn’t quite reconcile that. I thought they’d all hate us because we’d been in their country for two or three hundred years. But we had left them, as we had with Africa and other parts of the world, with this extraordinary infrastructure and the basis of a legal system, the basis of a parliamentary system, and extraordinary bureaucracy.’ He loved the time he spent then travelling across North India but was worried about returning to film Viceroy’s House. ‘I was slightly nervous all those wonderful experiences might have been romanticised in my mind, and it’s actually not like that at all. But no, it was as vivid and all those experiences I’d had came flooding back but with a greater intensity because I was 30 years older. I love India. It is extraordinary. It is so full of contradictions. The image that really stayed with me this time is you go into any town in India and it appears to be chaotic. There are cows in the street, there are motorbikes with four people and a goat on them with bags and everyone is beeping and moving around, but in my three months there I saw one accident.
‘Everyone is somehow getting where they want to go, quite calmly, zooming in and out of each other, but getting where they want to go. They are being tolerant of each other, getting on with it. You know, you drive down a street in England with traffic lights and cameras everywhere and someone’s got a knife out, well, there’s road rage and we’re intolerant of the tiniest thing. So I rather admire the Indian culture. By necessity they just have to get by.’
It’s a far cry from the son of a surgeon and former nurse who caught the acting bug after they took him to see a play – and ended up in a James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. ‘Let’s face it, I had one line but it was very exciting to be in a James Bond film. I wear that badge with pride.’ The roles kept coming – playing opposite Kate Winslet, Julia Roberts, and Hugh Grant, who he also recently worked with again on Paddington 2. ‘When we were rehearsing there was a moment where we said: “You know it’s nearly 20 years since we worked together on Notting Hill and we shared a few jokes. Hugh is very dry. He always just moans about how much he hates acting and he’s a really good actor. When we were doing Paddington he was like: “This is so hard isn’t it? And I’d be like, “Yeah you’re good at it. Shut up”.’
The actor laughs and gets ready to return home to his Sussex vegetable patch. He’d been toying with getting some sheep, but been warned off by a farmer. ‘The best decision in my life was made at the age of 40,’ he smiles. ‘When I decided that I was no longer going to drink cheap wine.’ ■
He first travelled to northern India as a teenage backpacker but Midhurst-based actor Hugh Bonneville fell in love with the country 30 years later playing Lord Mountbatten in historic drama Viceroy’s House