Most Americans know Hugh Bonneville for playing Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham in the historical drama series Downton Abbey, along with two feature films in 2019 and 2022. Before he took on the role of an earl, Bonneville had amassed an impressive resume for his work on stage and TV. And, during those years, he worked with a who’s who list of British actors at the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Throughout it all, Bonneville has remained humble, grateful, and, as several anecdotes included in his memoir show, not caught up in the celebrity culture into which he could rightfully claim membership. Playing Under the Piano – From Downton to Darkest Peru, will delight and increase his fan base.
While he includes amusing happenings with the actors during the filming of Downton Abbey, this memoir goes beyond Bonneville’s role in that popular series. He does note, however, that the Julian Fellowes’ production was a risk, since period dramas had fallen out of fashion and, during bidding, only PBS Masterpiece “put its hand up.” Unlike others, Bonneville knew Downton would be “a global phenomenon.”
What it took Bonneville to go from growing up in Kidbrooke Grove, Blackheath, in South East London, to Downton Abbey and beyond, makes for a fascinating read. Born Hugh Richard Bonniwell Williams, once he began to audition for roles, he was told he needed to change his name so he wouldn’t be confused with Hugo Williams, a writer, and his brother, Simon, who, coincidentally, starred in Upstairs, Downstairs, an earlier historical drama which ran from 1971 to 1975 on PBS.
Bonneville’s father was a surgeon, his mother, a nurse, and, as Hugh explains, they had more than a passing interest in all things cultural, including the theater. But it was Hugh’s older brother, Nigel, who first sparked his interest in acting. Nigel’s career took a different turn, but Hugh remained determined to appear on stage. He dutifully notes some of the plays he appeared in as a young boy, with varying degrees of success.
In 1980, he joined London’s National Youth Theatre which was regarded as “the pre-emminent youth arts organization in the country.” For Hugh, it meant exposure to young people from all over the country, “the bank clerk’s daughter from Belfast, the miner’s son from Newcastle, Fiona from Dumfries who had never been south of Carlyle.” This diverse group, however, was united in one purpose: “making a play come to life.” Their leader, Bill Buffery, a NYT alumnus, drilled into the ten newbies the basic rules of the theater, including to show up on time. “Bill’s whole approach was to treat us like grown-ups,” Hugh writes. “We needed to raise our game and take the project and the material seriously.”
These were lessons that Hugh learned well. Yet, he was still not sure about becoming a professional actor. “Through my teens I was convinced I would become a lawyer,” he says. He shadowed a well-known barrister who advised him to attend university and spend three years discovering what he really wanted to do, advice that would prove invaluable.
He received a break when he was offered “Play as Cast,” essentially an understudy at the Regent’s Park Theatre, during a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Ralph Fiennes was cast as Lysander, but because he was also playing Romeo in the season’s opener, Hugh was able to play Lysander in several matinees and three evening performances. He was then able to invite agents to come and view him in the role.
Fiennes is the first of many iconic British actors that Hugh would work with as his career progressed. He soon became part of the National Theatre Company and was able to hone his acting skills, working alongside luminaries like Celia Imrie, Neil Dudgeon, Anthony Hopkins, Juliet Stevenson, Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, and many others. Whether he was onstage or watching from the wings, Hugh essentially was attending a master class given by these theater icons and he soaked up everything he could.
In 1991, Hugh realized his dream when he joined the Royal Shakespeare Company, being cast in four plays. The following year, he was playing Laertes in Hamlet, with Kenneth Branagh in the title role. Branagh was certainly a multi-tasker. He had just completed a radio version of Romeo and Juliet, was editing the film version of Much Ado About Nothing, which he directed and starred in, and was in the early stages of producing the film Frankenstein, which he was also directing and starring in.
Hugh, still enamored of performing on stage, asked Branagh why he was leaving the theater for films. Branagh pointed out that although during each performance hundreds, maybe a thousand people would see Hamlet in the theater, on film, not thousands but millions of people would see his work. Branagh would go on to film Hamlet. Hugh was impressed by Branagh’s reasoning. “I would never stop performing in theatre but new opportunities began to appear on the horizon,” he writes.
One of the films Bonneville would appear in was a huge hit. In Notting Hill, Julia Roberts truly played herself, a mega star who comes to England to promote a film, bumps into an ordinary guy (played by Hugh Grant), and falls in love. Bonneville plays Bernie, a trader who is losing money for his company. He shows up at dinner given by a friend and doesn’t recognize Anna Scott, played by Roberts. When he asks her what she does, she says that she’s an actor. He tells her he has friends who are actors and are barely scraping by. He asks her: “Last film, what did you get paid?” Here is where it gets interesting. With each rehearsal, Julia raised her paycheck, starting with ten million, then twelve million, then fifteen million. “A few weeks later I read in the newspaper she was to be paid $20 million for her next movie, Erin Brockovich,” he says.
Julia won over the cast during the London premiere. She asked when they were coming to New York to promote the film. After the cast said they hadn’t been invited, Julia wasted no time bringing over the producer and telling him if the cast didn’t come to New York, she wouldn’t be there either. Hugh and the others were dumbfounded, but quickly learned, what Julia wanted, Julia got. They were grateful.
During the screening in New York, Hugh reveals his naïveté about Hollywood. While waiting for a cab in front of their hotel, they encountered Martin Scorsese. Hugh was annoyed by the way Scorsese’s companion, a young man with blond floppy hair, treated the iconic director. “These young people,” he fumed to his companions. “Hugh,” he was told, “I don’t think you need to worry about Martin being offended by Leonardo DiCaprio.”
Bonneville’s memoir should be required reading for anyone thinking about embarking on an acting career. Rejection is part of the process and developing a tough skin the only way to survive. Bonneville is refreshingly candid revealing the many roles he’s missed. On one occasion, he was forced to stay in Los Angeles while a sitcom he was cast in was put on hold again and again. It ran for a short time and then was cancelled. (When he tried to rent his Hollywood home so that he and his family could return to London, a blond woman showed up to tour and he was annoyed at her dismissive attitude. Later he learned she was Melanie Griffin.)
Of course there are stories about Maggie Smith, including when she and Shirley MacLaine were in Downton Abbey. But I won’t spoil it for you. These tales alone are worth the price of the book.
Playing Under the Piano: From Downton to Darkest Peru
Top photo Bigstock: Hugh Bonneville attends the ‘Viceroy’s House’ photo call during the 67th Berlinale International Film Festival Berlin at Grand Hyatt Hotel on February 12, 2017 in Berlin, Germany.