‘Downton Abbey’ star Hugh Bonneville on working with Paddington

Tara Brady talks to the English actor about going from lord of the manor to friend of the bear

Paddington Bear and Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) in a scene from ‘Paddington’

Paddington Bear and Mr Brown (Hugh Bonneville) in a scene from ‘Paddington’

 

As Lord Downton, Hugh Bonneville has dominated Christmas telly since 2011. Now, as lovable, sure-fire hit Paddington makes its way into the multiplexes, the actor appears to have conquered the holiday season quite completely and across most available platforms.

“I can only apologise,” Bonneville says. “Normal service will be resumed soon.”

An alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company who has appeared in projects as varied as Notting Hill, EastEnders, Doctor Zhivago (2002) and Iris, Bonneville has, nonetheless, extended his already impressive range for Paddington. As the uptight Mr Brown, he dons a housecoat and lipstick as a tea-lady and gets leathered up as a biker.

In common with the bear’s 88-year-old creator Michael Bond, the actor was surprised when his cross-dressing escapades earned the film a PG rating in the UK.

“We’re not unduly worried,” he says. “The words ‘storm’ and ‘teacup’ spring to mind. We were going for something that would appeal to all ages, like Elf or Toy Story. And apparently they have downgraded the phrase ‘sexual references’ to ‘innuendo’.

“Judging by the screening I was at the other day, I’d be far more worried that some kid might wet themselves laughing during that bit.”

Despite the ritzy coterie of Paddington co-stars – notably Sally Hawkins, Nicole Kidman, Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters – fans of marmalade sandwiches have nothing to fear.

Bonneville and his colleagues, including writer-director Paul King (lately of The Mighty Boosh and Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace) are Paddington aficionados. Nothing untoward was going to happen to our favourite Peruvian import under their watch. Tellingly, Bond appears in the film raising a glass to his best-loved creation.

“Mum and dad used to read me the stories until I could read them myself, at which point they became mine,” recalls the 51-year-old Bonneville.

“I loved Peggy Fortnum’s illustrations and later I loved Michael Hordern’s narration. So I was very cautious when I opened the script first. But within seconds, I could see it was the same old bear but on new adventures. So I was very pleased to join him on his marmalade-fuelled capers.”

‘Terrible plays’ Hugh Richard Bonneville Williams was born to a urological surgeon and a nurse in Blackheath, London. His parents were passionate about theatre, a trait their son and his siblings

inherited. He can still picture Bernard Miles playing Long John Silver at London’s Mermaid Theatre, a spectacle “ that frightened the life out of me” and that inspired him to put on his own plays.

“I wrote, directed, starred in, did the costume design and made the tickets for my plays,” he recalls. “Terrible plays. And I couldn’t understand why my classmates weren’t as enthusiastic as I was.”

Having read theology at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, he gave himself three years to get an Equity card and break into acting.

“To my amazement and gratitude my parents were very supportive,” Bonneville says. “I’m not sure I would have had the courage to run off and join the circus otherwise.

“It was me who worried that I would let them down by being some prancing actor. I thought I should get a sensible job like law. But I feel that law has been spared.”

He has seldom been out of work since joining the National Theatre in 1987. But being Lord Downton has had its advantages. In the past 12 months, he’s appeared opposite Paddington and George Clooney (in Monuments Men) and has appeared as a crooked Irish Times reviewer in Muppets Most Wanted. “It was an honour,” he says.

Downton has given all its various residents “wonderful opportunities” but Bonneville knows better than to expect lavish praise from his fellow countrymen.

“Rob James-Collier who plays my under-butler, puts it very well. Fans in America cross the street to tell you how much they love the show. In England, they cross the street to tell you they don’t watch it.”

nPaddington is out now on general release and is reviewed on page 11

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