“We were lucky to reassemble our cast,” he said of the second film, Downton Abbey: A New Era. “I think for them it’s become a sort of club. They say goodbye, everyone cries and two years later, we’re back at it … I think each time it’s goodbye, but whether it is or not, who knows?”
The second film wasn’t even out yet and already the fans were demanding a third. So, could Downton long continue?
According to Hugh Bonneville, star of the series and films as Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, it’s entirely possible. “Whether there’s a third [film] in Julian, whether there is a third film in the cast, I don’t know. I think it could go on like Star Trek, just dragging on and on and on,” he laughs.
Even if A New Era really is the end of an era, Bonneville says it’s lovely to know there’s still an enormous appetite for Downton. “I had a message just the other day saying how Downton during lockdown has been such a solace for this person’s family, just revisiting it. So to know that we have a loyal audience out there is very special to all of us, it really is. And they’ve made the show last as long as it has, because obviously if the appetite hadn’t been there, it would never have gone on.”
Bonneville himself had a sense that Downton could be successfully turned into a film – he recalls coming to that realisation during a screening for a publicity tour of season six in Washington DC. “A bit of episode one was shown to an audience of about 200 in a cinema, a big screening. And it was the first time I’d seen it with such a large number of people because normally, obviously, it’s screened individually in people’s homes. So there were about 200 people watching it and to hear them react en masse, I was with Allen Leech who plays Mr Branson and I remember saying, I think this could work as a movie, or this world could translate to the movies and it proved to be right.”
He says seeing the film at the cinema is a special experience for Downton fans, knowing they are in the company of others who are lovers of the show. “I think it’ll be even more profound this time around because of the other layers that we’ve all experienced these last couple of years. For some people it’ll be their first time back in a cinema, and to be back in the cinema with friends, with people who you know on screen and care about, amongst an audience that you know are there because they too enjoy being with these people, I think that’ll make it even more special this time. I really do.”
With delays due to Covid, we are finally being treated to A New Era – cast and crew bubbles were something that had to be implemented to ensure the success of the shoot, but it wasn’t all bad, particularly when it came to filming in the South of France. “We quarantined for a week before we started shooting in various hotels on the Côte d’Azur, which sounds like a real tough gig,” Bonneville jokes. “And indeed, it was pretty damn nice, because the weather was amazing, and in Britain they were having storms and floods and all sorts. So if we complained about the hotel food, we had to keep pretty quiet about it to our loved ones back home, because they were going through misery and we were having this beautiful idyllic time sitting by a pool. Then we finally got to work and we worked hard and we had a great time down there.”
More than a decade after Downton began, being reunited with the cast and crew still makes Bonneville happy, but equally he is thankful to be involved in a phenomenon that gives its audience so much joy. “When we got together last summer, finally, during the middle of one of the easings of lockdown, I think we all felt profoundly grateful that we were able to A, work and B, without being smug, know that we had an audience that would welcome a bit of light relief. And I think in the context in which the film is now coming out, when we’ve lurched from one crisis to another crisis across the world, to have something that actually is just pure and simple, a piece of escapism from the pressures of our contemporary society, I think can be no bad thing. Entertainment in its most simple sense of taking us out of ourselves for 90 minutes or so, and embracing just a breath of fresh air. So we feel very proud that we’re part of something that over the last 10 years has provided many people with a bit of an escape.”