Downton Abbey: Hugh Bonneville discusses the future of Series four, and working with Shirley MacLaine!

by Anna Howell

Star of Downton Abbey, Hugh Bonneville, has opened up about his experiences on the hit ITV period drama, as well as his hopes and thoughts about series four.

Fans of the epic series watched in horror during the Christmas special as one of the shows favourites, Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens) was killed off in a car crash moments after meeting his first born son and heir.

This, coupled with the death of Lady Sybil (Jessica Brown-Findlay) during series 3 sent shock waves through its UK audience, with many wondering about where the show would go from there.

Both the show’s creator and writer, Julian Fellowes, and its director, Gareth Neame have revealed that the show will be taking in a different direction when it comes back to our screens in the autumn for series four, with Matthew’s widow, lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) having to piece back together her life following the tragic death of her husband whilst raising a new born child.

Now Bonneville, who recently starred in the TV adaptation of David Walliams children’s novel, Mr Stink as the title role, has revealed what we might expect from the fourth series, as well as some of his experiences working on the iconic show.

Speaking to Keepsake magazine Bonneville discussed working with Shirley MacLaine, who joined the cast of Downton last series as Martha Levinson, the American mother of his on-screen wife Lady Cora (Elizabeth McGovern), and even hinted that she may return for the much anticipated fourth series this autumn:

“Shirley is a legend; I mean I’ve always been in awe of her. As soon as I heard she was cast I thought a) this is brilliant, and b) oh my god, I’m going to meet the woman who was in The Apartment, which is a movie I’m extremely fond of.

“She’s really into reincarnation and she absolutely knew about the ghosts in Highclere Castle; she could feel them around as if they were friends. She was a hoot. We got her to sing and hoof a bit which she can still do, bless her, aged 78. And she and Maggie… got on like a house on fire. It could’ve gone either way, you know: two great icons upstaging each other! But no.

“And there was some improvising in one particular scene, where Maggie’s having a doze in a chair, and Shirley is singing at the piano, which was written in. Shirley had said to Julian, ‘Why not give me a song?’ She did some wonderful improvising, drifting over to talk to Maggie – she ended up sitting on Maggie at one point. And she said to the director, “Do you think it’s too much?” and he said, ‘Er, tone it down a bit’.

“It was a real breath of fresh air to have Hollywood glamour with us for a few weeks. And who knows? She might be back.”

On the subject of the fourth series, Bonneville explained how it will be as much a surprise for him as it will be for us:

“We were just on a publicity tour in America end of last year, and my son was on a plane sitting next to [executive producer] Gareth Neame, and he was desperately trying to lean over his shoulder as he was reading the draft of episode one. All he saw was that Carson says the word “what?” at some point. [laughs] So I genuinely don’t know. This is part of, again, my naivety and all of the thrill, and can’t wait to see what happens next.”

On the subject of the shows future, Bonneville continued:

“We’re doing four. Whether there’s a fifth series…? I’m sure the money men would love it to go on forever and ever – because it does sell extremely well around the world, but I think unless we all start doing wobbly-stick acting… some of us are doing it already… The next series is nudging forward, about 6 months, and I think we’ll start bumping into other period dramas time-wise soon if we’re not careful. I just hope Julian quits while he’s ahead. He’s a wise soul, he’ll know when he’s ready.”

Musing over why the show has been such a global success, Bonneville explained:

“It’s the million dollar question. These things go in waves. I think Downton came along at a time when there was a resistance to such things. I know Gareth [Neame] didn’t even take it to the BBC.

“As brilliant as the BBC costume dramas are, he thought there was a certain way that it would be made – where as he instinctively felt there was something slightly different about this script. I think it always comes down to script, characters, the setting, the sense of the serial.

“You don’t know what’s happening. And I think on the whole – bar one obvious exception – very good acting. There’s an appetite for period stuff, there always has been and always will be. I think it’s that page turning sense. Those of you who follow the show want to know what happens next.

“It’s like a Jane Austen adaptation or whatever, but of course none of us, apart from one man, know the ending. And that’s why we’re hooked, and why we want to keep coming back for more.”

Lady Sybil's death in series 3

Lady Sybil’s death in series 3

Matthew Crawley’s death in the 2012 Christmas Special

With regards to the major deaths that occurred in the last series, which both remained tight-lipped secrets, Bonneville explained:

“We had to keep very quiet about both losses. We’d known for a year, and it was quite weird seeing all this speculation in the press about what was happening. And it was really sad because we are a close family on the set. Both actors were wanting to leave for their own reasons – which is completely understandable, they’re not contracted to stay [but] I think as Julian said, the problem was that they were both upstairs characters.

“It was hard to send them off somewhere easily. If they’d been downstairs characters they could have got a job in another house, but when you’ve got central characters like those two, I’m afraid it was the death knell.”

“Spoilers really disappoint everyone. I think the time is coming – it has to come – where we have same-day transmission. One completely understands that all around the world each country has different schedules, and literally, different seasons. So every region has their reasons for scheduling, and time lengths of slots and that sort of thing.

“But I think the time is coming. The fact that we are a linked globe now, and in terms of dramas holding the excitement back, it’s very hard. I think audiences will tolerate a window of up to a month of delay [but] New Zealand started showing 3 weeks after the UK, Australia isn’t showing series 3 until next month, America is part way through.

“Even if you don’t look at the internet, [spoilers] leak into the paper, they leak into the market. I suppose some people will say, look at the Olympics: NBC were showing the Olympics after everyone knew Usain Bolt had won, but everyone still tuned in to watch it. But I think there’s a degree of enjoyment missed because of the excitement and the anticipation.”

Hugh starring as Bernie alongside Hugh Grant in Notting Hill

Hugh starring as Bernie alongside Hugh Grant in Notting Hill

Bonneville, who before Downton was best known for his role in the 1999 Richard Curtis rom-com, Notting Hill, escribed how the industry, and auditioning for roles, has changed since he starred in the hit film starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts:

“I do go to auditions. Things changed after Notting Hill. And I was… not angry, but I was awoken to certain truths about the industry, particularly the film industry.

“I spent the first ten, twelve years of my career just doing theatre, I never ever thought I’d do TV and film. My raison d’etre, if you will, was theatre… Then I got cast in Notting Hill and suddenly I was able to audition for things I wasn’t allowed to audition for before. And it made me realise that ultimately, you’re a commodity.

“There was a film I did where I read the script and there was a lovely part, a supporting part, and I rang a great friend of mine and I said you must audition for this because you’d be great in it. He rang back half an hour later and said ‘my agent said I can’t audition because the film producers say that my films don’t gross enough’.

“The number-crunchers at these various film companies, this is the way they do it – I’m learning it more and more. That was a real eye-opener. And it was simply because I had been in something that was “hot”. I spent a lot of my early telly career, nearly 20 years ago now, being mystified by it all.

“You have to treat every audition as if you’re the only person in the world to play that part, walk out of the room and pretend it never happened. Because 9 times out of 10 you won’t get the part. And it’s just one of those things.”

Watch an interview with Hugh Bonneville and some of the rest of the Downton Abbey cast on the Today show in the clip below: